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.