A phase-out plan for coal in Europe
Photo: Roland Paschetz/ Flickr.com/CC BY
Very old and high-emitting plants are easy to replace with renewables and improvements in energy efficiency.
The worst 30 coal and lignite power plants in Europe (EU-28) emitted 353 million tons of CO2 in 2015, more than 10 per cent of EU emissions. A phase-out plan for coal in Europe could start with a mandatory age limit of 35 years, along the lines earlier presented for Germany by the Society for Environment and Nature Conservation BUND/FOE Germany.
Such an age limit would reduce CO2 emissions by almost 262 million tonnes per year just among the 30 worst.
CO2 emissions in Europe are dropping, but no way near fast enough to comply with the Paris agreement. The 2020 target, 20 per cent less than 1990, is clearly inadequate, which shows in the low carbon price on the ETS market. In practice, the EU still follows the “walk now, run later” scheme.
One of the lowest hanging fruits is the power sector, where very old and high-emitting plants are easy to replace with renewables and improvements in energy efficiency, which have no direct emissions at all.
The worst lignite plants emit 1.35 kg of CO2/kWh, more than three times more than a gas power plant, which is also fossil-fuelled.
One path to deal with the worst plants has been developed by BUND/FOE Germany, as reported earlier in Acid News 3/14. It is a ban on all plants older than 35 years, which means that plants that started operating in 1985 or before must be closed by 2020.
In 2013, German coal power increased, despite fast-growing renewables. This created a crisis for the Energiewende. It looked as if nuclear power had been replaced with more coal, both lignite and hard coal. This was not really the case. Renewables grew fast, but so did power exports. And, unexpectedly, for both economical and political reasons gas power suddenly fell, while imported coal became dirt cheap.
The sudden coal surge threatened Germany’s environmental targets and reputation. Something had to be done. BUND, the German Friends of the Earth, came up with a plan in 2014, aiming at phasing out the oldest and dirtiest coal and lignite power plants by 2020 and all such plants at age 35.
If such a 35-year age limit phase-out were to be implemented all over Europe (EU-28), it would cut emissions by about 260 Mtons (from 353 Mtons in 2015) by 2020 or very soon thereafter, just among the worst 30 plants , known as the Dirty Thirty.
About 140 Mtons of this reduction would come from lignite plants and the remainder from hard coal power plants.
This is calculated by taking the 2015 emissions from each of the Dirty 30 plants, their capacity and the share of that capacity that will have reached 35 years by 2020, or in a few cases by 2021 or 2022.
Some of these 260 Mtons will obviously be cut for other reasons.
Longannet in the UK closed in 2015 and there are plans for other plants to either close some units or to use them less, by downgrading them from baseload to peak or reserve operation. This can make a big difference; a baseload power plant is supposed to be operated for about 90 per cent of the year at full capacity, or 8,000 hours, but a peak/reserve plant may operate in the order of 100 hours per year, decreasing emissions proportionally.
Some plants may also switch from coal to biomass. Drax in the UK used more biomass than coal in the first six months of 2016. It is difficult to tell whether enough biomass will be available at justifiable cost five years from now and what the political conditions will be.
The age structure of the plants – at least among the Dirty 30 – is such that many plants are old, a few new, but not so many in between.
A 35-year limit is not a panacea, as a number of big coal power plants have been commissioned very recently, and unwisely from every perspective. Under a serious climate policy, they cannot be allowed to operate anywhere near the lifetime expected by the investors.
Big change does not, however, necessarily mean a long time scale. Japan had 54 nuclear power reactors that supplied 30 per cent of the nation’s electricity in 2010. Since the Fukushima disaster in 2011 almost all nuclear power has been shut down, with just 0-3 reactors operating between 2013 and now. This happened without any previous planning and, except for the first two summers, without any rationing or other exceptional measures. The demise of all coal mining and much coal power in the UK has also happened very fast.
The problem is not whether dirty coal can be phased out, using existing technology and without requiring big economic and administrative burdens. It can. The problem is whether it can win political acceptance by being done in an equitable way, without undue burdens on certain groups and regions.
The German Green Party has developed a Road Map for Coal Exit in Germany , a 10-point plan, which gives a picture of how stumbling blocks can be overcome.
- Start a dialogue about the coal exit (until the end of 2017).
- Resolve the coal exit (by June 2018).
- Establish an oversight commission (April to December 2018).
- Prohibit new open-cast mines (by June 2018).
- Introduce CO2 budgets for fossil fuel plants (by June 2018).
- Enforce environmental and health protection (by October 2018).
- Protect funding of subsequent cost (by December 2018).
- Shape the structural change (by December 2018).
- Get emission trading (EU) into motion (by June 2019).
- Economic and social safeguarding (starting June 2019).
The devil is indeed in the details, but so are his opponents.