Time to close the curtain for coal power. Photo: © Shutterstock – EshanaPhoto

Phase-out of coal in Europe during 2019 is ongoing

Coal is being phased out in Europe, but not fast enough to get totally coal-free by 2025.

Hard coal power production decreased by 33 TWh (-9%) and lignite power by 8 TWh (-3%) in 2018, making a total of 41 TWh (-7%) according to preliminary data from Sandbag and Agora Energiewende .

This was not achieved by shifting to gas (-35 TWh), other fossil fuels (-3 TWh) or nuclear (-3 TWh). The fossil loss was made up for by an increase in hydro (+39 TWh) and other renewables (+35 TWh). Hydro variations between years are random, but other renewables represent a trend.

So coal is already going down. But if the present trend is maintained, 38 per cent of coal power will still be around by the end of 2025.

A recent AirClim report  outlined a stepwise coal power phase-out to 2025 for Europe, i.e. EU-28, western Balkans and Turkey, from data in the Beyond Coal database.

Some things are moving in that direction, others not.

One way to measure progress is actual coal power production (in TWh, as above), another is looking at capacity additions or retirements, or announcements thereof, in MW.

Both are important. The TWh figures are closely related to emissions for that year, but there is a possibility that the same capacity will produce more TWhs the next year, if it is not actually shut down for good.

If we look again at EU actual energy use, there is an encouraging overall picture. In Germany, the top coal user decreased its coal power use by 13 TWh, while Italy, Spain and the UK decreased energy use by 6 TWh each, France by 4 TWh, and Poland by 1 TWh. They are the six biggest members of the EU, and five of them (excluding Poland) have policies in place for phasing out coal and increasing renewables.

As for Germany, there is more recent data. The first four months of 2019 saw a further 12 TWh decrease in coal  acompared to the same period in 2018.

Germany has a de facto policy of coal phase-out by 2038, which has been universally denounced as far too late by all NGOs (and Greta Thunberg!).

The German coal phase-out Commission plan was published in late January 2019. Within three months RWE (the top fossil power company in Europe) gave in on its 1,100 MW Niederaussem lignite power plant.

“It took a while, but now RWE has realised that new coal-fired power plants in Germany no longer have a future,” wrote Helmut Bünder in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. “With the report of the coal commission…the project was not only economically but also politically finished.”

Niederaussem had projected lifetime emissions of 178 million tons of CO2, and was one of only three future coal power projects in Germany. That is roughly the CO2 emitted in 2017 from Iraq or Ukraine or the Netherlands.

Altogether the plans for coal in Europe as a whole shrank from 78 to 59 projects from early 2018 to April 2019: from 64.7 GW to 49.7 GW. The capacity under actual construction fell from 9 GW to 7.1, and plants currently open only slightly from 183 to 181.5 GW. The numbers include plants announced to retire, often soon, which totalled 9.6 GW in 2018 and 16.7 GW in spring 2019.

Most new coal power projects in Europe are in Turkey and the western Balkans. In Turkey, both capacity and actual coal energy went up in 2018 from 98 to 113 TWh.

The already bleak outlook for coal has become still darker during the last year. The EU CO2 emission trading has been reformed and prices are up. Electricity prices are also up, but coal plants are losing the competition against everything else, especially old plants, particularly if they use extra-dirty fuels such as lignite, peat and shale.

Higher power prices favour solar and wind. They are now less vulnerable to unpredictable political changes, which have produced boom-bust cycles too many times in too many countries.

In Sweden and Norway, the renewable certificate system is a minimal subsidy at about €1/MWh in futures trading, essentially nothing. Investment in wind power is still very high, so by 2022 there will be about 25 TWh more wind power than in 2018. Subsidy-free solar is reported from Germany and the UK, and subsidy-free offshore wind power from Denmark and the Netherlands.

Investment in renewables, storage and efficiency is without political risk, carries no technical risk, gives reasonably reliable payback, and is financeable. Investment or reinvestment in coal power is politically risky, and carries large uncertainties in carbon price, coal price, environmental legislation, legal risks, and it may not be easy to find a financier. Only nuclear is worse.

Here are the biggest retirements known so far for 2019 and 2020, many of which were announced during the first 3–4 months of 2019.

Fredrik Lundberg

Link to AirClim publication with proposal for phasing-out coal in Europe until 2025: http://www.airclim.org/publications/phasing-out-coal-europe-2025

Country Plant fuel status start end announced company capacity,MW
UK Cottam 1-4 hard coal operational 1969 2019 07 Feb 19; EDF 2,184
Poland Opole B1-B2 hard coal operational 1994 2020 28 Mar 18 PGE 769
Netherlands Hemweg 8 hard coal operational 1995 2019 08 Mar 19 Vattenfall 685
Germany Werne Gersteinw K2; hard coal retired 1984 2019   RWE 666
UK Fiddler’s Ferry 1 hard coal retired 1971 2019   SSE 533
Poland Dolna Odra B1-B2 hard coal stanby 1974 2019 04 Jan 18 PGE 452
Czech Rep Prunerov I3-I6 lignite operational 1968 2020 27 Mar 19 CEZ 440
Poland Belchatow B1 lignite operational 1981 2019 28 Mar 18 PGE 370
Germany Kiel East hard coal retired 1970 2019   Uniper 354
Spain Alcudia II 1 GR I-II hard coal operational 1981 2019 12 Feb 19 Endesa 250
Finland Kymijarvi 1 hard coal retired 1982 2019   Lahti Energia 212
Poland Siersza B6 hard coal standby 1970 2019 04 Jan 18 Tauron 128
Poland Stalowa Wola B8 hard coal stanby 1965 2019 04 Jan 18 Tauron 125
Poland Siersza B3 hard coal standby 1969 2019 04 Jan 18 Tauron 123

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