Phasing out fossil gas power stations in Europe by 2030

By: Fredrik Lundberg

Fossil gas has to be phased out if Europe is to comply with the Paris agreement. A phase-out strategy must include heating, industry and power. This is clearly possible, though the fossil gas lobby is strong and resourceful. As a first step in the fossil gas phase-out in the EU this analysis presents a list of the 70 largest fossil gas power station polluters, to be closed down over the next ten years.

Coal use peaked globally in 2013 and in Europe in 1985. Oil peaked in 2005 in the EU and may have peaked globally in 2018. Global gas use, on the other hand, has grown relentlessly at least through 2019, globally, and has remained roughly flat in Europe over the last 20 years.

In 2019 the EU-28 used 16.9 exajoules of natural gas, which resulted in direct emissions of some 950 million tonnes of CO₂, or about 28 percent of CO₂ emissions. Natural gas use leads to emission of other greenhouse gases. Upstream, methane and CO₂ are emitted. Combustion of gas emits N₂O from denitrification and/or NOx and ammonia, some of which later turns up as N₂O. More CO₂ emissions result from energy use for compressors in gas pipelines and for liquefication to LNG and propulsion of LNG ships.

Europe cannot get anywhere near its climate targets without a steep reduction in natural gas use.

The crucial point is not the year in which net zero is achieved, but minimising emissions on the way. Gas use in Europe emits at least a billion tons of CO₂-eq/year, of which some 20–25 per cent is power, so left unchanged by 2050 that would amount to 30 billion tonnes, which cannot be shoehorned into any kind of compliance with Paris goals.

Continued gas use with carbon capture and storage is not an option. There is not one gas power plant or gas heat plant with CCS in operation on any relevant scale anywhere in the world. There is a reason for this. It costs too much to capture, transport and store a ton of CO₂ from gas power – far beyond any conceivable price in the ETS.

Gas power plants are different both in design and how they are operated. Other things being equal, older plants with lower efficiency emit more CO₂. Plants that have been converted from coal or oil power are less efficient and emit more CO₂ per kWh of electricity. Power-only plants emit more than combined heat and power plants.

The biggest difference, though, is how much they are operated. A “base-load” plant that is used all the time, 8760 hours per year, at full capacity, emits 100 times as much as a “peaker” plant that is only used on average 87 hours per year. Most gas power plants cannot easily be put in either category. They operate opportunistically depending on gas price, electricity price and carbon price, so the emissions can differ considerably from year to year.

This makes it difficult to say which plants are the worst from a climate perspective. CO₂ data can, with a lot of work and a bit of luck, be found for any one plant for one year. But the figures vary and do not tell much how much it is supposed to emit in the coming years.

This calls for a two-thronged approach.

Higher CO₂ prices, which we have already seen, will have many beneficial effects. The least-efficient plants will be hardest hit, and coal and lignite will be hit still harder. As more coal power is killed, gas power will be on the front line. If high CO₂ prices are sustained and continue to rise this will, in theory, take care of the prioritisation.

But it would be dangerous to rely only on the emission trading system to deliver the necessary cuts. We must not forget that the ETS was next to useless between 2005 and 2017, and that the EU institutions do not exercise hands-on control over the price, nor that they watered down the 2030 emissions target from -65 to less than -55 per cent. The EU has also a large swathe of other legislation that sometimes reinforces, but sometimes contradicts climate targets.

On top of that, member states have a lot of influence over the fate of the individual power plant, which can be used to enhance or weaken EU climate policy.

The one thing we know for sure is that when a power station is decommissioned and torch-cut into pieces, it will not emit any more CO₂. As long as it is still operative, even if it is not much used, or even mothballed, there is always a risk that market conditions or policy will restore it to full operation.

An accurate and detailed analysis of which plants to shutter first should also consider the short-term consequences for each plant in each member state. It is for example not a good idea to shutter a gas power plant in order to save lignite power plants, as happens right now in Germany. It is impractical to ask for closure of a plant that is essential for grid stability, or to re-ignite debate about nuclear power in countries that have decided to shut down some or all reactors.

Grid stability issues are complex, but they cannot legitimise the operation of gas power plants until 2050; they should be solved within two to three years. The phasing out of coal has largely already happened in the UK and France, Portugal and Spain, so it is no longer a pretext for keeping gas. Nuclear will be gone from Germany by the end of 2022 and then it will be off the table. Phasing in new wind and solar does not take decades, more likely two or three years, and it is already happening. New power lines have long lead times, but a lot of construction is already going on. Some demand-side management and energy efficiency can be fast and cheap, but is often held back by legal and other barriers.

So while there is no one way to tell which plants to phase out first, a simple proxy is capacity. That is also where we have data. The first priority is to stop planning for new gas power plants, and stop building them. Then, other things equal, shut the biggest ones first, as they are either the biggest emitters or have the potential to be so.

Table fossilgas plants in Europe

Box: 10 largest gas-fired power stations in the EU and UK

Fredrik Lundberg


The extended analysis by Fredrik Lundberg about fossil gas phase-out and the 70 largest fossil gas power stations in the EU and UK is published by AirClim in a briefing:

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