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Phasing out coal in Europe
Elements for a plan to phase out coal by 2025 are presented.
Coal is being phased out in Europe. The EU produced 31 per cent less coal power in 2017 than in 2007. But a much faster phase-out is needed for the climate, health and the environment. Here is a sketch of how to end coal power by 2025, a target supported by AirClim.
EU coal power plants emitted 652 million tonnes of CO2 in 2016, 19 per cent of EU total CO2. The biggest coal power producer is Germany with 261 TWh in 2016 out of 694 TWh for the entire EU, followed by Poland with 133 TWh, Spain 45, Italy 33, the Netherlands 31 and the UK with 31 TWh.
In Europe, outside the EU, the biggest emitters are Russia with 149 TWh, Turkey 92 and Ukraine with 61 TWh.
Change is possible, as can be seen in the UK, which produced 108 TWh of coal power in 2011, which was reduced to around 17 TWh by 2018. That coal power was mainly replaced with renewable power (some 65 TWh), biomass, increased efficiency (17 TWh less electricity use), and more net imports (9 TWh). Nuclear, gas and oil power are not part of the picture; they all decreased between 2011 and 2018.
The EU and Europe as a whole could do the same. A phase-out of the 180 GW of coal power plants now operating could be achieved step by step. The steps could be as follows:
- Plants under construction, or planned, should immediately be stopped. A new plant is a commitment for 40 years of several million tons per year. If built, the Gubin lignite power plant in Poland, 150 kilometres from Berlin, is estimated to emit almost half a billion tons of CO2 during its lifetime. New projects total 54 GW, while those under construction total 6 GW. Many of them are in Turkey.The first tranche of the phase-out is to stop the construction and planning of new coal plants.
- The oldest first. There is some variation, but older plants are usually less efficient and dirtier. The second tranche is units commissioned in 1970 and earlier. The oldest date from 1951. They account for some 33 GW.
- Lignite is even dirtier than hard coal, so tranche 3 may be lignite units commissioned in 1971–1990. This third tranche contains some 46 GW.
- The fourth tranche includes 50 GW of hard coal units commissioned in 1971–90.
- The fifth tranche includes 21 GW of units commissioned in 1990–2000
- The sixth tranche contains the remaining 34 GW, i.e. units commissioned from 2001 on.
As in the UK, coal would be replaced by mainly wind, solar, efficiency and some biomass, and in southern Europe also some solar thermal power. Gas will be needed for balancing, but not necessarily using more gas per year.
Phasing out coal in the rest of Europe has drawbacks and advantages compared to the UK.
Drawbacks: Coal is still mined in some countries, which makes it politically more difficult to close power plants and mines. Few countries have as much offshore wind power potential as the UK. The UK plants were very old, and either illegal or uneconomic to retrofit. That is not the case everywhere. Some countries, notably Poland, are now more dependent on coal power than the UK was in 2011.
Advantages: Renewables and efficiency will be a lot cheaper from 2019 on than the average cost in 2012–2018. Many countries have more power lines for importing/exporting power; many have more hydro (for balancing wind and solar); most have more sun and biomass. In southern Europe, solar thermal is an option that is more expensive than photovoltaics, but has built-in storage. Southern Europe can also integrate solar power more easily (and import some from the Sahara), as there is a fairly good match between summer afternoon peak demand for air conditioning and PV production. The potential for onshore wind power is good everywhere, but in the UK development was effectively stopped in 2014; few other countries have such self-imposed restrictions.
The UK has wasted a lot of political attention on fruitless efforts to develop nuclear power, including fusion, so-called Generation IV and CCS, none of which will have cut emissions by a single gram by 2025. Other countries could focus their efforts better. By 2025, or even earlier, parts of the battery vehicle fleet could be used to balance wind and solar. Electric cars could charge when power is abundant and discharge to the grid when power is scarce. Much more is now known about how to integrate a large share of wind and solar into power production. Much of this could be left to the market if the price signal is allowed to be strong.
Sources: The complete database can be downloaded from https://beyond-coal.eu/data/ The latest available update for this article was 16 November 2018. Under the tab “Plant” there is data for CO2, SO2, NOx, PM, health impact and further sources. The distribution of plants by age and fuel (hard coal or lignite) is taken from the tab Units in this database and can be found here: http://airclim.org/downloads/becoaltable There is less data for units than for plants, which often consist of several units. But the “Units” list is more relevant for age, and also includes countries in the western Balkans and Turkey. Data for coal power production in TWh for various countries, and the European Union, comes from https://www.bp.com/content/dam/bp/en/corporate/excel/energy-economics/st..., tab “Electricity generation from coal”. BP also has statistics for wind, solar and other renewables, through 2017. 2018 data for the UK is taken from http://www.mygridgb.co.uk/last-12-months/, other data from https://www.gov.uk/government/statistical-data-sets/historical-electrici... This is a preliminary version of a phase-out plan for coal by 2025 in Europe. A final version covering all countries in Europe will be published by AirClim in 2019.