EU and national energy policies are strongly focused on promoting the use of renewable energy. However, EU policymakers should not overlook progress being made in traditional energy sources, especially in coal power plants, writes Pieter Cleppe, head of the Brussels office of think tank Open Europe. According to Cleppe, a significant expansion of ‘clean coal’ – which involves both carbon capture and storage (CCS) and supercritical power plants – may be needed to achieve the EU’s climate targets.
A lot is changing in the energy debate, and not just because President Donald Trump may rewrite the playbook, even for Europe. In fact, for both renewables and traditional fuels, there are major developments on the technological front.
While cost reductions of renewables have been making headlines, technological breakthroughs in the realm of fossil fuels have also been coming thick and fast, although they are much less reported on.
India deserves particular attention: there, despite the country’s significant renewables drive, two-thirds of power still comes from coal plants. Its government plans to double 2016-level coal production, to 1 billion tonnes by 2020, even pledging that state-owned companies would ramp up production if private production wouldn’t be sufficient.
The EU’s own reference scenario predicted last year that two-thirds of solid fuel energy generation will come from plants that use CCS technology
To resolve the discrepancy between India’s reliance on coal power and its global carbons emissions commitments, India is implementing an ambitious CCS program. For example, at a prototype 10 MW facility in Chennai, 90% of carbon dioxide released is being captured and stored. The company behind the technology claims it can be scaled “up to 1,000 MW”, indicating how important this technology could become.
While the Chennai facility promises to capture nearly all of the CO2 emitted from the burning of coal in a commercially viable way, India’s government has also announced it will invest in modern, more efficient “supercritical” coal-fired power plants that leverage new technologies to produce more power with fewer emissions. In fact, Indian Energy Minister Piyush Goyal is so optimistic about this new development that he recently argued that upgrading 40GW of such out-dated plants will generate CO2 “saving[s] [that] will be far greater than possibly the 100,000 MW of solar power that we will be generating.”
According to U.S. coal industry representatives, a favourable legal framework could spark a surge among “clean coal” plants in the United States as well. With Donald Trump in the White House and the GOP firmly behind a fossil fuel-friendly energy agenda, coal might very well get a boost.
To avoid a national blackout that month, Germany had to rely on coal power plants, 30 of which are scheduled to be shut down by 2019
Green campaigners may object to Trump’s pro-coal policy, but in view of the fact that coal will remain a dominant part of the energy mix for decades to come – at least according to the International Energy Agency – any option for making it cleaner should be given a chance.
Actually, under the Obama administration similar efforts were made. Obama increased tax credits for capture and sequestration last year. Just before he left office in January, the first large-scale government-backed “clean coal” facility was declared operational in Texas. Another is near completion in Mississippi.
If Trump double downs on carbon capture technologies, as he will according to his allies, this may have an effect on Europe as well.
Governments in the UK and France have pledged to phase out unabated coal generation completely, and more than half of Europe’s power generation is currently coming from non-fossil fuels, including renewables and nuclear energy.
Still, member states like Germany and certainly Poland generate a large percentage of their electricity from coal, more than 80% in Poland’s case. As a result, Europe will need to implement carbon capture technologies similar to the ones being developed elsewhere, if only to reach its own emission target reductions for 2050. Actually, the EU’s own reference scenario predicted last year that two-thirds of solid fuel energy generation will come from plants that use CCS technology.
The development of supercritical plants will be important too for Europe. In Germany, this technology is already being used, for example in the Trianel coal power station in Lünen. On average, Europe’s coal power plants lag behind Japan’s and even China’s in terms of efficiency, so there is a lot of room for improvement.
In almost every EU member state, electricity markets are characterised by subsidies, overregulation and preferential treatment for various energy sources. On top of that, the EU is distorting competition itself through its imposition of targets to achieve a certain share of renewables. With Open Europe, we’ve estimated that the cost of adopting the EU’s 2020 climate change targets will come to an extra £220,000 for a small-to-medium British business. At the same time, this delays technological progress which could benefit both consumers and the environment, given that technologies to improve coal aren’t as rewarding any more when the market for non-renewables is kept artificially smaller than it would have been otherwise.
It’s also a matter of energy security. Germany, which has a highly developed renewable energy sector, has to rely on traditional energy when push comes to shove. On a single day in January of this year, nuclear- and gas-fired power plants, as well as those using black- and brown coal, had to supply 90 percent of Germany’s electricity. With hardly any sun or wind, renewable energy sources failed to provide much energy.
Renewable technology holds great promise, but how responsible is it to exclusively rely on it while ignoring very real downsides
Indeed, to avoid a national blackout that month, Germany had to rely on coal power plants, 30 of which are scheduled to be shut down by 2019. Partly due to the decommissioning of nuclear power plants, coal’s share in the electricity mix has remained stable, accounting for about 40% of Germany’s electricity production. With willing customers for its relatively cheap coal-generated energy in neighbouring countries, German coal production levels are expected to only decline slowly.
Outside the EU, major energy markets are far less shy about using coal power. In Japan, South Korea, Southeast Asia, Turkey and the Balkans, it is far from extinct. The International Energy Agency (IEA) foresees that coal will remain the single biggest global source of electricity generation until 2040, while worldwide demand would increase by 5%. It’s no wonder that the IEA and the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change consider carbon capture and storage to be a necessary technology to curb greenhouse gas emissions.
While renewables continue to develop, Europe shouldn’t miss out on other technological developments which may help achieve the same goals
Renewable technology holds great promise, but how responsible is it to exclusively rely on it while ignoring very real downsides? Wind and solar energy infrastructure operates part-time and needs back-up capacity, driving up electricity prices. Furthermore, how wise is it to declare only one particular kind of energy production environmentally friendly and economically viable? Hazardous materials are needed to produce solar panels, while the environmental downsides of wind turbines have also been documented. While renewables continue to develop, Europe shouldn’t miss out on other technological developments which may help achieve the same goals.
Pieter Cleppe (twitter.com/pietercleppe) is head of the Brussels office of Open Europe, a think tank dedicated to free market reform of the European Union and safeguarding open trade between the EU and the UK after Brexit. He’s a frequent contributor to the broadcast and print media across Europe.
Helmut Frik says
About CCS : what in the words “too expensive” is too difficult to understand? Even coal power stations without CCS are not competitive any more in todays market. So Power plants with CCS are merely white elephants. This is why CCS was abandoned neaarly everywhere. The technology works this has been proven, but the costs for additional equipment and reduced netto energy production kill it, ant there is no way sfound yet to avoid this.
Supercritical pwoer plants are also too expensive, which is why all german utilitys exclude buliding any of them for the future. Even if policy would change. They have learned the lesson the hard way, having to write of billions of losses on such plants which started operation in the recent years.
The german coal power plant fleet is set on a glide path towards zero, and the owner of the plants so far do not see any possibility that this glide towards zero will stop. Only the glide angle is in discussion.
As Bill Clinton said “it’s the economy,…”
Piet Benock says
Coal power plants are not competitive? Look around the EU, these are the only competitive conventional power plants at the moment, especially these old and most polluting. There is no market force which would close them (admit exceptions). Negligible ETS price, security of supply, flexible (to some extend) production… all these elements mean that you need political decision to make them go like they did in the UK, they plan to do in DE. This article has a merit. Intermittent RES without sufficient storage and flexibility which is at the system level purely theoretical concept for next decate or two, you will need coal otherwise you can start designing CRMs to make a business case for natural gas which is the biggest looser at the moment. Gas import dependency which goes hand in hand with this decision is hardly acceptable as well as political sensitivity of the decision that you will directly financially support not only RES but also gas. There is no market economy in this equation, only a political agenda driven by ignorance that will destroy the idea of internal energy market. So called clean coal (not only CCS) is expensive but from the emissions reduction point of view would be much more contributing to EU targets than coal power fleet we have at the moment but of course, acceptability of coal almost equals nuclear in the EU.
Helmut Frik says
Coal power plants loose huge amounts of money, especiall capital costs (investments never being payed back by earnings) which results in no plans for further coal plants in germany and many other countries where plants are not payed by public.
Be aware that bigger grids, which connect areas of incorrelated wind (and solar) power smooth out variable power production of this area, massively reducing the amout of storage needed.
Whis results in the ongoing grid extensions in europe, the plans for the grid extensions can be read on entsoe, including 100% renewable scenarios. (Entsoe is the club of the european utilities, they seem to consider 100% renewables as valid alternative) . But maybe Utilites have no idea how to deal with electicity.
Nigel West says
Entsoe, being a federation of European network operators (N.B. not including generators), look at a wide range of future scenarios for transmission network development across Europe. If they have, as alleged, looked at an extreme 100% renewables scenario it would have been one of many scenarios that network operators consider, and clearly a highly unlikely scenario too.
Piet Benock says
1.) DE utilities are not willing to invest in new coal due to huge political risk. I mentioned debates on coal phase-out in DE, needless to remind you (as a german) that this will develop into more specific “kohleausstieg” plan after the elections. Utilities would be fools to invest in coal when there is plenty of opportunities to invest in subsidized RES.
2.) Technically speaking all power plants are paid by public/consumers through the price of electricity. In case you were talking about “public support” aka “state aid”, this has to be approved by the European Commission (EC) therefore explained and reasoned.
3.) DE introduced state aid for coal which is currently under review by the EC. So DE government will be paying utilities for keeping their dirty coal facilities online in order to ensure security of supply.
4.) Nigel West is correct with Entso-e, you mixed it with Eurelectric. Plans for grid extension is one thing (will not solve the storage issue on its own) but ability to build and manage such grid are completely different tasks. Scenario you are talking about is complete nightmare for TSOs. Just ask someone from TenneT, Amprion or 50hz how their bussines look like.
5.) On scenarios – EC has scenarios on clean coal and nuclear development, also very unlikely ones 😉
Helmut Frik says
The aid is accepted by EU, and it is payed for keeping the coal power plants from producing (for the market) but remain available (in theory) for a few years, (two or three, I would have to look for this detail). After theis the coal power plants in questions are forced to be closed down by this deal.
This removes some of the oldest lignite plants from the market, which might otherwise keep running due to ther extremely low fuel costs (fuel costs of german lignite plants are below fuel costs for nuclear)
Beside this the decomissioning of hard coal plants is going on, and e.g. Jähnischwalde with remaining 2.5 GW capacity will have to close down it’s production for the market due to lack of locally available coal. (bringing the coal from other mines in substantial amounts to operate the plant as baseload plant would require significant investments which have no chance to be recovered on the market by this power plant)
“Look around the EU, these are the only competitive conventional power plants at the moment, especially these old and most polluting. There is no market force which would close them.”
1) This says nothing about new coal power plants
2) It nicely illustrates that pure free markets do not care about external costs and thus need to be corrected.
Piet Benock says
You should consider my whole comment, not only first two sentences. I commented on new coal as well and also acknowledged that there is no market. Problem is that neither general regulation do the job – RES support also doesn´t include externalities which are then socialized. The only market based mechanism that would phase out coal from energy sector is ETS which we completely destroyed with exceptions, free allocations and overlaping measures.
S. Herb says
One of the disadvantages of a massive build-out of CCS for coal generation is that it would devote resources to preserving the present centralized generation structure. I would like to see cost estimates for a build-out for to achieve, say, at least a 70% reduction of CO2 emissions from the sum of all European coal generation plants (or Indian). This would also include transport chains and sequestration costs for the CO2, for which undersea sequestration is likely the only solution acceptable to the populace; CCU could cover only a tiny fraction of the output. Then we could compare these costs with the investments required for more forward looking measures. Maybe someone has references to such comparisons.
S. Herb says
Great idea. For example Germany could increase its stagnant lignite contribution to electricity generation by building a copy of the Mississippi plant mentioned by the author, which uses a modern lignite gasification system. As a pioneering effort it has experienced a minor cost overrun ($7.1 Billion instead of the planned $1.2 Billion) and it is currently in its shakedown phase (or possibly death rattles). The lignite crud seems to clog the gasifiers, and the electricity will be badly overpriced compared to local gas generation. Nothing that superior German engineering can’t solve. The resulting CO2 stream can be sold profitably to German oil producers for EOR, at least if Greenpeace will go along with that.
Robert Doyle says
Absolute nonsense article. The EU just announced that 200 utilities in Europe have committed to not building any new coal capacity in after 2020. Only Greece and Poland held out. This means that coal is dead as an industry in Europe. CCS is a fairy tale. An expensive waste of time. Invest all that money in renewable energy or you are going to be left behind.
S. Herb says
Let’s limit that to ‘CCS for coal is a fairy tale’.
Until the coal industry comes up with technology to renew coal mines so they produce coal for thousands of years from existing and abandoned mines, coal mining has no future, just two more generations or so until even coal miners will admit coal is a dead end.
Solar, wind, hydro are powered by the sun, which will run out, but long after humankind ceases to exist as we know it. But coal can’t play a role in energy for even the next 250 years which is merely the time since coal first had an impact on the economy, and that is only 5% of man’s recorded history.