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Will coal become the new normal for Europe?

November 14, 2022
topics: Divestment
by: Robert Bociaga
located in: Poland, Germany, Italy, Romania, Czech Republic, Netherlands
tags: climate change, coal, Germany, Poland, renewable energy

The war in Ukraine compelled many European governments to decrease their dependency on Russian gas. To achieve this, several EU governments announced the resuscitation or extension coal-fired plants. How long will these pro-coal policies last? Will they derail Europe’s ambitious green plans?

Poland has been benefitting from the ongoing energy market crisis. Since August, its energy sector has been acting as a net exporter of energy, which saw domestic companies rake in enormous profits.

At the same time, energy consumers in Poland suffer from high prices, and many find themselves on the brink of bankruptcy as a result. 

The country generates ca. 70 percent of its energy from either lignite or hard coal, and Polish governments have been slow in abandoning it. The country’s policy permits the use of coal until 2049, while by 2030 the share of coal in energy production should not exceed 56 percent. 

For Marek Putiszewski, a climate activist from Warsaw, these green commitments seem tenuous, particularly under the current conditions. "Poland currently mines 96 percent of EU coal, a sector that is polluting people’s health like no other," he told FairPlanet. 

"The steps taken by the [Polish] government are never sufficient," he added, "It is the EC that can push some countries to pledge in renewable increase and reduction in coal."

Against this backdrop, and with the 'come-back' of coal, some Polish politicians even started claiming that Europe is returning to this resource for good. 

However, Ursula von der Leyen, the chief of the European Commission, reiterated that coal can help the European Union replace gas from Russia only temporarily. "We have to make sure that we use this crisis to move forward and not turn back to dirty fossil fuels," she said.

COAL’S COMEBACK

Amid the swelling energy crisis, formulating a cohesive strategy at home and achieving unity on climate and energy policies have become increasingly difficult.

The big change in the European energy sector is its pivot away from natural gas, which is suddenly creating problems: as Russia has largely cut off supplies in retaliation against sanctions, Europeans now want to reduce its consumption. In this case, coal is the lesser of two evils - although only in geopolitical terms, not climate terms. 

Referred to by some as black gold, coal is, at least temporarily, making a comeback, which appears to torpedo the ambitious plans of the European Commision to increase reliance on renewables. The recent changes in energy sourcing made by some EU member states reduce the 45 percent aim to 40 percent, contrary to discussions held in June. 

The amendments also hinder the European Commission's effort to regard the development of renewable energy as a matter "overriding public interest." The approach, if adopted, would aid in defending new renewable projects against legal challenges, which have slowed the development of wind farms in countries like France.

The European Commission's RepowerEU plan envisages the diversification of gas purchase sources, production of biomethane, use of hydrogen, filling of LNG storage facilities and, above all, the development of renewable energy sources.

The EC also wants 600 GW of RES power installed across the EU by 2030, which would increase its present share of renewable energy to at least 50 percent of total energy consumption.

The plan will also make it mandatory to install solar panels on new public and commercial buildings and new residential buildings in the EU. However, this move, predicted to cost hundreds of billions of euros, might soon face opposition by certain member states. 

GERMANY’S BET

EU nations heavily dependent on Russian gas are finding themselves in the biggest trap.

Among these countries is Germany, to which Russian gas flowed through Nord Stream I and was soon to flow through Nord Stream II. Germany ranks no. 1 among all European countries in consumption of natural gas - not only for energy production but also for home heating or industry - and no. 8 globally.

Currently, Germany is unable to meet its energy needs with domestic production, as its domestic gas covers only 5 percent of its annual demand. The rest must be purchased from abroad.

On 8 July, the German parliament passed a new energy law, stating that extinguished and decommissioned coal-fired power plants could be used again. Ember Climate, an independent energy think tank, reports that the new legislation will allow 8.2 GW of coal-fired power plants to be placed in reserve supply - both hard coal (6.3 GW) and lignite (1.9 GW).

Germany, though, is still dedicated to eliminating coal. The temporary increase in coal output will primarily replace gas-fired power plants, freeing up gas supplies for heating in homes, public buildings and industry, where it is more challenging to replace it in the short term than in power generation.

The law restricts the use of coal until March 31, 2024, and also provides interim insurance in the event that there is a major gas shortage this winter for industry and heating - the main uses of gas (although its usage in the power industry is rather small).

Furthermore, as a result of renewable energy generation, Germany's energy independence and supply security is projected to improve.

Ecology on the back-burner

Italy also imports more than 40 percent of the gas it consumes domestically from Russia. It is forced now to look around for alternatives, and has reportedly begun talks with Algeria, Azerbaijan and Tunisia, among others, from which it considers being the resource as a temporary solution.

Similarly, Barna Tánczos, Romania's Minister of Environment, Water and Forests said that his country will temporarily restart idle coal-fired power plants, citing force majeure and plans to reduce dependence on gas and oil imports from Russia. He added that all power plants (primarily RES) that are nearing completion must be up and running by the end of the year.

In nearby Czechia, Boris Tomčiak, an energy analyst, commented on public television that now "ecology must step aside, because there is a real danger that there will be nothing to heat in the winter."

The Czechs have also decided to increase domestic coal production and extend the life of their extinguished power plants. The ČSM mine in the Ostrava-Karviná basin, for instance, which was slated to stop operating as early as this year, is now considered to be running until at least 2024. 

An emergency return to coal has also been initiated in the Netherlands, where earlier regulations stipulated that their functioning would be limited to 35 percent of capacity.

France, on its part, will re-open the 595 MW Emile Huchet 6 coal-fired unit, which it closed on 31 March. The government in Paris maintains, however, that this is only a solution for the coming winter. 

Similarly, Austrians and Greeks are also reconciling with coal.

In total, 13.5 GW of coal-fired standby will be used by power plants throughout the European Union. This will add 12 percent to the EU's existing coal fleet (109 GW) and only 1.5 percent to its total installed generation capacity (920 GW).

Nevertheless, analysts caution against making longterm plans for the development of the power industry based on the current situation. When normal coal prices return, mining will be permanently unprofitable, they say.

Image by Dominik Vanyi.

Article written by:
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Robert Bociaga
Author
Poland Germany Italy Romania Czech Republic Netherlands
Poland's current policy allows the use of coal through 2049.
"We have to make sure that we use this crisis to move forward and not turn back to dirty fossil fuels." Ursula von der Leyen.
Along with several other EU member states, Austrians and Greeks are reconciling with coal.
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