Europe backtracks on coal

Christopher Demetriou

6 Jan 2023

The past year witnessed a combination of factors that have caused the perfect storm for Europe’s energy crisis, denting the impetus for renewables and the drive toward net-zero carbon emissions.

The energy crisis started in the late summer of 2021 when the economic rebound from COVID-19 lockdowns fired up global energy consumption. This caused oil, natural gas, and coal markets to tighten, sending prices up as demand pushed against what became apparent—insufficient supply.

One of the main issues for Europe is the depleted supply of natural gas. Due, in part, to Europe decreasing its domestic production of natural gas. The percentage of working gas in storage is approximately 74% in Europe, compared to last year when it was at 94%, according to data from Gas Infrastructure Europe.

Combined with a phasing out of coal and a bad year for wind production, the need for natural gas has risen.

In addition, there are also several issues on the supply side, including less maintenance of oil and gas fields during the COVID-19 crisis and less investment.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine added to the supply constraints for Europe, causing countries to seek alternative supplies.

The energy crisis is set to continue and potentially worsen. Recently the International Energy Agency chief Fatih Birol and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen announced in a joint press conference earlier in December that Europe could face a natural gas shortage of 27 billion cubic meters in 2023. Thats equivalent to nearly 7% of the regions annual consumption. The IEA also found that a supply gap of 57 billion cubic meters could emerge next year assuming a complete cessation of Russian gas supplies to Europe.

One of those alternative supplies is coal. Coal fired-power has made a comeback across Europe as it becomes recognised for its energy reliability at a time when it is most needed.

Coal use rose in December 2022, when cold weather quieted wind farms and strained the electricity system. The EU generated 22% of its power with coal in the first two weeks of December. That is up from 17% in the same period last year and from the 15% average for the whole of 2021.

Across Europe, countries have passed laws to restart coal power and have ramped up coal production.

Germany: On 8 July, the German parliament passed a new energy law. The law states that extinguished and decommissioned coal-fired power plants could start again. 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).

Czech Republic: The Czech Republic have decided to increase domestic coal production and extend the life of their extinguished power plants. The ČSM mine in the Ostrava-Karviná basin, which was slated to stop operating as early as this year, is now set to run until at least 2024.

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

France: They plan to re-open the 595 MW Emile Huchet 6 coal-fired unit, which closed on 31 March.

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% to its total installed generation capacity (920 GW).

Coal should not be viewed as a temporary measure. Technologies and processes exist that can abate up to 99% of emissions from coal combustion, but more investment is needed especially in the developing world. These include high-efficiency low-emissions (HELE) power systems, carbon capture and storage (CCS), coal gasification, coal-to-hydrogen, and the production of ammonia-based products to make fertiliser or used as a hydrogen carrier.

If Europe upgraded its subcritical coal-fired power plants to ultra-supercritical plants (USC), instead of having them as stranded assets, coal would ensure reliable and secure energy 24/7 when the dunkelflaute weather fails to provide the required energy.

It will be interesting to see how European countries deal with the energy crisis in the coming months and years.

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