Europe: Energy shift is 'on' to renewables

Wednesday 20 Jun 2018

Various schemes are underway in Europe as nations use existing coal-fired power plants to generate electricity without coal as the feedstock. With rising carbon prices, some big utilities are repowering with sustainable biomass.

The European Union (EU) is preparing to fully generate 20% of its electricity by 2020 using only renewable sources. As such, fuel switching from coal to biomass or natural gas is enabling some power plants in the EU to stay open and profitably generate power despite ever-tightening emissions limits. One of the other major pressures driving fuel switching is Europe’s $38 billion-a-year carbon market. Now a decade after the policy was enacted, it’s finally having an effect on regional generation as more plants turn to biomass. Under EU rules, biomass is considered carbon neutral—and a growing number of large coal burners are finding it a viable option.

Coupled with rapidly falling installation costs for renewables, industry is aggressively finding ways to phase out the worst pollution sources—although unevenly across the continent. While to the east, coal is still the biggest fuel source, western Europe is moving quickly away from it—with Germany, not surprisingly, straddling the fence, essentially building a second renewable system on top of a carbon-intensive one.

Timelines Vary, but Coal’s Time May Be Up - Taking it further, several western European nations have formally announced a deadline to end all coal burning. The UK was the first large user to set a drawdown, scheduling the last fires to go out by 2025, propelled even faster by an increased carbon tax. France, a small coal burner, will phase it out altogether by 2022. The Netherlands and Italy have also proposed plans to close their coal-fired power plants by 2030 and 2025, respectively.

Germany, the EU’s largest economy and a perceived champion of clean energy through its Energiewende program, remains Europe’s largest coal burner. The country’s new coalition government is hotly debating the question of a “coal exit”, and most experts don’t expect a phase-out to fully take place until 2030 at the earliest. Just the same, recent figures show that hard coal-fired generation in Germany fell by 53.2% in the year ending in January, while lignite coal generation dropped by 6.6%.

Making up the gap were both gas and renewables with wind turbines increasing generation by 89.7% in January compared to the same month last year. But the nation’s actual coal burn only fell five percentage points, from 42% in 2010 to 37% in 2017, leaving it still with the fourth-most-coal-intensive electricity production worldwide.

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