Coal, no longer shunned, keeps Europe’s lights on through freezing weather | Popgen Tech


Europe passed its first winter test without Russian energy, keeping the lights on through this month’s cold blast. The secret to its success: burning more coal than it has in years.

Consuming large amounts of coal represents a difficult choice for European nations that have pledged to ditch the carbon-intensive fuel to curb climate change. Russia’s cut of natural gas supplies after the invasion of Ukraine and outages at French nuclear plants spurred the revival.

European demand is one reason the world is on track for record coal consumption in 2022, the International Energy Agency said this month. “Coal will continue to be by far the global energy system’s largest single source of carbon dioxide emissions,” the intergovernmental organization said, adding that it expected global demand to flatten before declining after 2025.

The aftermath of war saw turbocharged coal’s comeback. But a flaw in Europe’s approach to the transition to renewable energy sources also played a role.

The continent has invested in wind and solar energy while closing dozens of coal-fired power plants over the past decade. When it is cloudy or the wind is low and demand is high, Europe does not have the ability to maintain electricity supply from clean sources.

At that point, power prices rise to encourage utilities to fire up fossil fuel plants. Gas has mostly filled the gap in recent years. But coal has taken the lead lately — partly because Germany and other countries have brought plants back online, and partly because gas is so expensive that it’s more profitable for utilities to burn coal.

“When there is a greater power demand, you increase coal as much as possible and it jumps into the system ahead of the gas plants,” said Paweł Czyżak, analyst at Ember, a think tank that aims to accelerate the shift away from coal.

Coal use rose this month as icy, calm weather shut down wind farms and strained the electricity system. The European Union generated 22% of its power with coal and its sister fuel lignite, also known as lignite, in the first two weeks of December, Mr. Czyżak said. This is up from 17% in the same period last year and from the 15% average for the whole of 2021.

In Europe’s interconnected market, coal power flowed across borders.

At times, Great Britain meets more than half of its power demand with wind. On December 11, it fell to less than 4% just as demand jumped, according to National Grid ESO. The power grid operator ordered two standby coal units to warm up in case they needed to generate power the next day.

National Grid shut down the generators after high UK prices pulled in power from the mainland and Norway along undersea cables. Some came from France, which transferred power it imported from Belgium, Switzerland, Spain, Italy, and especially Germany, where coal and lignite plants were at full blast.

In the first two weeks of December, Germany generated 49% more power with coal and 6% more with lignite than in the same period a year ago, according to EnAppSys Ltd.

“It’s a question of supply in Europe and the Germans had some plants they could bring back, so that’s what they did,” said Jean-Paul Harreman, a director at the data analytics and consulting firm . “If the Germans didn’t deliver, the French would have a problem.”


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Wind speeds and temperatures have since picked up as several French nuclear reactors have come back online. But finding ways to meet demand when renewables falter is one of the biggest challenges facing governments and companies over the next decade, energy executives say.

Neither hydrogen nor batteries, which can store power to be released when wind speeds drop, are ready to be produced or deployed at scale. “I find it difficult to say at this stage who the likely winner is,” says Pieter de Pous, program leader for fossil fuel transition at think tank E3G. Building more grid connections so that renewable power can go across borders is also key, he said.

Europe was on track to consume more coal for the second straight year before the recent freeze. It imported the fuel from far-flung producers including Colombia, Indonesia and South Africa after they banned Russian coal as part of sanctions against Moscow.

The EDF Penly nuclear power plant in France. Several French nuclear reactors have recently come back online.


Vincent Isore/Zuma Press

Poland’s pro-coal government, in particular, has touted the fuel as a way to keep the economy going as war rages in neighboring Ukraine. The country accounts for more than 40% of EU demand for hard coal, and has clashed with Brussels over its desire to stay with coal plants and mines.

In April, after Russia cut gas supplies to Poland, the government dropped a ban on burning lignite and low-quality coal at home. At an election rally in September, Jarosław Kaczyński, leader of the ruling Law and Justice Party, urged voters to “do whatever it took to stay warm, except burn tires.”

It is difficult to meet the demand because Poland no longer imports Russian coal. Prices for the fuel have soared, prompting the government to cap energy bills for 2023. Analysts say pollution levels will worsen if coal prices continue to rise, encouraging people to turn to alternatives to heat their homes.

Russia’s cut in natural gas supplies to Europe has spurred a resurgence in coal use.


Yegor Aleyev/Zuma Press

“Whether Poland will have sufficient amounts of coal really depends on how bad this year’s winter is going to be,” said Robert Tomaszewski, an energy analyst at Polityka Insight.

Across Europe, industry relies on coal, as well as oil, to keep operating at a time of high gas and power prices. Evonik Industries AH

extended the life of the coal-fired power plant at its factory in Marl until March 2024 after the invasion of Ukraine. The German chemicals maker planned to close the plant, which mainly generates steam for chemical processes, in the summer of 2022.

Separate factories in Lülsdorf and Wesseling can burn oil instead of natural gas for power, spokesman Richard Weiss said.

Write to Joe Wallace at

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