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Phasing out #Coal in Europe: Easier said than done




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By this December, Germany’s last two hard coal mines – Prosper-Haniel and Ibbenbüren – will shut down for good. On the surface, this seems like an encouraging sign for Germany’s much-touted transition to a lower-carbon economy (the Energiewende) especially when combined with the news that German renewable energy outweighed coal for the first time this year.

Early progress on the Energiewende, however, has given way to backsliding as a variety of snowballing issues undermine German efforts to cut emissions. Germany has yet to develop a concrete plan to deal with the inevitable economic effects of a coal phase-out, while its power grid is desperately insufficient to handle the added influx of renewable power it’s committed to. Throwing another wrench in the works, a report this week indicated that if Germany pulls away from coal, its neighbours in Europe won’t be able to help make up for power supply shortages.

The challenges of quitting coal and nuclear at the same time

The German energy sector’s fundamental problem is the sheer difficulty of going cold turkey on both coal and nuclear energy at the same time. While Germany has set itself ambitious targets, such as cutting emissions 55% by 2030 compared to 1990 levels, recent statistics have put the lie to the real progress of Energiewende.

Carbon emissions in the country actually rose between 2015 and 2016, despite the German government pouring  $800 billion into renewable subsidies. Six of the top 10 most polluting power plants in the EU are found in Germany. All run on the lignite the country has been using to replace other parts of its hard coal and nuclear capacity. Despite contributing only a quarter of Germany’s power supply last year, lignite produced over 80% of German emissions in the power sector.

Despite tightening European emissions rules and international environmentalist pressure, any notion of phasing lignite out is at least a decade away. There is no coherent Plan B for the industry’s thousands of workers. The extreme heat waves that ravaged Europe this summer have actually strengthened lignite’s position, as lignite operators have been able to argue their plants are unaffected by cooling water issues which shuttered many power stations across the continent.


Similar problems throughout Europe

 If the EU’s largest economy has trouble phasing out coal, how can other countries in Europe be expected to handle this tumultuous transition? Poland is a perfect case in point. It is even more reliant on coal than its neighbour, meeting fully 80% of its electricity needs from coal. The Polish government predicts it will still rely on coal for half of its energy requirements in 2050.

It’s not hard to see why coal has such sticking power in Poland. One of Poland’s top priorities is achieving and maintaining energy independence from Russia – and this is doubly important following the gas disputes Moscow and Kiev have had in recent years. As such, homegrown coal is considered a question of national security. While the Polish economy has made great strides over the past couple of decades, bankrolling expensive renewable projects would strain its finances.

Trump’s global fossil alliance: the way forward?

With limited ability to bring renewable capacity on board, and without a single nuclear plant (even if Poles are in favour of nuclear energy), Poland has been left struggling to handle unmitigated emissions that are taking a toll on its citizens’ health.  As in Germany, Poland’s more heavily polluting coal facilities were built in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s. These out-dated plants raise the risk of blackouts, but they also produce substantially more pollution than modern counterparts. Much of Polish society uses equally out-dated coal furnaces and boilers at home.

The EU has shown little sympathy to Poland’s plight. Brussels slapped down the country’s request to use EU funds to modernize its ageing coal plants and demanded Poland instead conform to its Paris climate agreement commitments, without giving clear guidance on how the Poles are supposed to radically overhaul their energy sector.

This lack of understanding has prompted the nation to look elsewhere to meet its energy and emissions reduction needs. Given the Trump administration’s current focus on reviving the American coal industry, Poland’s American allies have only been too happy to oblige – Poland received its first shipment of American coal late last year.

The partnership makes sound economic sense for both countries, but may also help clean Polish skies.  One of the U.S. Energy Department’s new initiatives is a “Clean and Advanced Fossil Fuel Alliance”, which would see developed nations like the U.S. and Japan share access to the latest innovations in the coal sector. This includes high-efficiency, low-emissions (HELE) and carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology, which could theoretically cut emissions by as much as 90%.

The latter could be particularly important in achieving the goals outlined at the Paris summit in 2015. The International Energy Agency (IEA) claims CCS is essential to making meaningful cuts in CO2 emissions and that it could save up to $2 trillion in carbon mitigation costs by 2050. The most recent U.S. budget, announced in February, devoted significant funding towards supporting the technology.

Without convincing alternatives, coal is here to stay

Critics argue funding these initiatives will only delay the uptake of renewable energy sources. Even the most ardent renewable energy advocates, however, accept that integrating more renewable sources will require significant grid improvements. It will also be dependent on major advancements in storage capacity.

In the meantime, in the absence of practical alternatives offered by the EU or environmentalists, countries like Poland have little option but to keep relying on “black gold.” When even Germany’s world-famous Energiewende is faltering, the case for boosting efficiency and capturing emissions – at least in the short term – becomes all the more attractive for Europe’s maligned coal burners.

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