Transforming energy supply in the EU: what can coal and clean coal technologies deliver?

The meeting was organised by Euracoal at the European Commission on 11 June, and attended by Paul Baruya.

The EU coal industry is facing a tough future, and that sentiment was aired forcefully by some of the coal representatives at the Euracoal 10th Dialogue where 70 representatives from Europe’s coal associations, power industries and EC Directorates gathered in Brussels in June. The seminar covered three key areas:

• The role of coal and security of supply

• Clean coal technologies – and strengthening coal’s contribution to sustainability;

• And determining future coal use – meeting public acceptance, financing and regulatory compliance challenges.

The 2nd session on clean coal technology was moderated by Piotr Tulej (Head of Low Carbon Technologies DG Climate) and Kazimierz Szynol (Polish Electricity Association) and Dr Hans Wolf von Koeller, Head of Energy Policy of STEAG.

Mr Tulej represents Poland and explained how the country had taken great steps to modernise its coal fleet. Achievements include a massive drive to reduce SOx, NOx, and particulates and the construction of a highly efficient power station achieving 46% (net). Compared to the typical 32-33% station it replaces, the potential savings in fuel and CO2 emissions are huge. It is no wonder Poland might struggle to afford even stricter emission standards for an even broader range of pollutants.

In Germany, Dr Hans Wolf von Koeller of STEAG presented the impressive Walsum 10 plant, a 725 MWe plant that cuts CO2 emissions by operating at a similar 46% efficiency and uses 20% less coal. Although the fuel saving is achieved by high efficiencies, the CO2 savings and massive reductions in all other emissions is equally impressive, much like that seen in Poland.

In a market increasingly influenced by renewables, some of the load following solutions are best provided by coal-fired power and open cycle gas turbines. It was suggested by speakers that operating periods of less than 2000 hours are not suited for CCGT; the efficiency penalty was presumably high.

This introduced an interesting notion that gas versus coal power is much closer in environmental terms than we might think, and often overlooked. Koeller stated that CO2 emissions from an OCGT operating at 39% was marginally less than for a state of the art coal plant operating at 46% efficiency. This type of comparison is not often seen in the wider energy community or news media. It runs contrary to much thinking on clean energy, but might be necessary to keep the lights on.  Coal fired CHP can offer even higher returns. Of course, IEA CCC reports over the years have shown that modern pollution control can make coal as clean as gas, a fact demonstrated by modern plants in Japan and China.

Interestingly, Dr Koeller cautioned the audience when comparing the economics of different technologies. Extending the analysis to see how a fleet of stations operates using a mix of renewable and thermal power may provide surprising results that include coal in the mix, especially if this can be combined with heat. Optimising systems could yield lower cost electricity and lower emissions than trying to maximising one type of low-carbon technology. Nevertheless, even though solutions exist for coal power, the sentiment in the Dialogue was one where the coal sector and coal communities were feeling increasingly disenfranchised by higher political circles in Europe. Yet with greater public awareness of the need for secure thermal power and continued support for CCS, the European coal industry might still have a role performing the task of insulating European markets from external energy supply and price shocks in a cleaner and more sustainable way.