28th Mar 2023

Europe turns back to coal as Russia cuts gas supplies

  • Coal is one of the biggest contributors to climate change and air pollution (Photo: Bert Kaufmann)
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With Russia reducing natural gas supplies to Europe, several EU countries are considering burning further carbon-intensive coal to secure energy supplies for next winter.

Germany and Austria this weekend announced emergency measures to cope with lower Russian gas flows, including the potential use of coal-fired power plants to produce energy.

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The move comes after weeks of gas-supply cuts and reduced flows to Europe, which has prompted EU governments to seek alternative supplies and build up reserves.

Russian state-owned energy giant Gazprom has turned off supplies to several EU countries for refusing to pay for gas in roubles — including Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Finland, and the Netherlands.

But Germany, the Czech Republic, Italy, Austria, and Slovakia have also faced reduced gas delivery volumes, raising fears over gas security supply.

Coal is still the second-largest source of electricity in Germany, and the war has opened a window to extend its lifespan — at least temporarily.

"In order to reduce gas consumption, less gas is to be used to produce electricity. Instead, coal-fired power plants will have to be used more," the German economy ministry said in a statement on Sunday (19 June).

The decision, which follows last week's official appeal to families and businesses to save energy, was described by the country's economy minister Robert Habeck as "bitter" but "essential" to lower the use of gas.

Nevertheless, the German government said on Monday (20 June) that it remains committed to the coal phaseout by 2030.

According to Lisa Badum, chair of the climate change committee in the German parliament and a former Green party spokeswoman, the decision to increase the use of coal in Germany also responds to the country's commitment to fill sufficient gas storage capacity for next winter.

Germany's current storage is at 51-percent capacity, said Badum.

But EU countries have committed to ensuring storage facilities reach a minimum of 80-percent of their capacity before November.

In a conference on Monday, Badum explained that Germany has favoured coal over nuclear power because nuclear power plants are prepared to be shut down and cannot be switched on and off constantly.

Europe's biggest economy is expected to complete its nuclear phase out by the end of the year.

Austria, for its part, announced on Sunday an agreement with the state-owned utility Verbund to use the country's last coal-fired power plant, which is currently shuttered, to generate electricity from coal in an emergency situation.

Under the REPowerEU policy, the European Commission acknowledged that shifting away from Russian fossil fuels may force countries to use coal facilities longer than expected.

The EU executive, however, has insisted that all EU member states remain committed to the 2030 emission-reduction target set in the EU climate law.

Other countries, like Poland and Bulgaria, previously said they ​​will continue to use coal to ensure the stability of the country's energy system.

'Peace plan'

Coal is one of the biggest contributors to climate change and air pollution — and extending the lifespan of coal-fired power plants in Europe is likely to increase carbon emissions in the short term.

Nevertheless, experts argued that the war in Ukraine has led to increased commitments for a swift energy transition away from fossil fuels.

"Governments are doing wherever they can to ensure that the lights stay on this winter and to secure energy supplies given the current threat. But this is being matched with increased ambition," Charles Moore, from the energy think tank Ember, told EUobserver.

Moore said that this is notable, for example, in the UK — where the government has agreed to extend the lifespan of coal-fired power plants during the winter while increasing the offshore renewable target.

Likewise, the EU's reorientation towards mainly Liquified Natural Gas (LNG) imports has been linked with an increase in the EU's renewable energy target.

But concerns over the impact of these short-term measures on climate policies and international commitments remain.

The UN said on Sunday that the only way to ensure energy security is to accelerate the rollout of renewables.

"The only true path to energy security, stable power prices, prosperity & a livable planet lies in abandoning polluting fossil fuels — especially coal," said UN chief António Guterres.

"Renewables are the peace plan of the 21st century," he added.

Meanwhile, the Netherlands also said on Monday that it will lift all restrictions on production for coal-fired power stations from 2002 to 2024 in order to cope with a drop in gas supplies from Russia.

"This means that coal-fired power stations can run at full capacity again instead of the maximum of 35 percent," Dutch climate and energy minister Rob Jetten said, adding that, at the moment, there is "no acute gas shortage" in the country.


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