By opposing stiffer European pollutions limits for coal and lignite power, in an EU vote two weeks ago, Germany reinforced a contradiction between the country’s generous support for renewable power, and a failure to curb lignite, the most carbon-emitting form of power generation.

Lignite (“brown coal”) is a lower energy, more moist, peaty version of coal.

Coal and lignite are major sources of both carbon dioxide, and air pollutants such as oxides of nitrogen and sulphur (NOX and SOX). By opposing potentially costly pollution controls on coal and lignite, Germany is also effectively propping up its carbon emissions.

Germany’s annual carbon emissions are unchanged since 2009, after steady reductions the previous two decades (Figure 1 below). And the country’s lignite consumption has been flat for more than decade. Official estimates show consumption in 2015 was 1.6 million terajoules, the same as in 2005.

Meanwhile, the country spends €10-11 billion annually on solar power.

Figure 1. German annual greenhouse gas emissions, 1990-2015, mln tonnes

Germany favours its lignite industry, for reasons related to mining jobs and utility dividends for local municipalities, as well as historically cheap power generation. As a result, in a vote two weeks ago, Berlin opposed tougher NOX and SOX emissions limits for coal and lignite, joining Poland, Czech, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria and Finland.

In the end, the new limits – called the revised BREF (“best available techniques reference document”) – were still approved, by a wafer-thin EU majority (see Figures 2 & 3). The revised BREF pollution limits will be implemented from 2021.

Figure 2. The revised BREF was narrowly approved, April 28 2017

Figure 3. Germany opposed BREF, alongside East European countries reliant on coal

IEEFA analysis of European Environment Agency NOX emissions data helps illustrate why Germany opposed the revised BREF limits, in a report published last week (I was a co-author, with Paolo Coghe at Paris-based think-tank Acousmatics).

Average NOX emissions across Germany’s biggest coal, lignite and biomass power plants were 162 mg/Nm3 in 2014, according to our calculations. That already meets the new, revised BREF limit of 175 mg/Nm3 (from 2021). And it’s far below the European Union average across fossil fuel burning installations of 279 mg (see Figure 4).

But dig a little deeper, and we find that German lignite power plants are higher, on average, at 181 mg, versus 158 mg for coal (see Table 1 below).

And if we investigate lignite power plants by capacity, we find that the size bracket with the most power plants, 1050-2050 MWth, is also the most polluting, at 204 mg. The fact that is still quite close to the revised BREF limit may only have rubbed salt into the wounds: only a slightly higher limit (say 190-200mg, as Germany proposed) would have reduced or avoided the need to invest in abatement.

Going forward, it will be interesting to see whether Germany embraces BREF, or tries to obstruct it.

To obstruct BREF, Berlin could try and argue that the cost of meeting the revised limits exceeds the benefit in less air pollution, since its power plants are already quite close to the limit. It could try and use that argument to avoid implementing some of the revised BREF limits.

To embrace BREF, Germany could apply the revised limits through rigorously more ambitious pollution permits from 2021. Such a move may help create a more coherent strategy to meet stretching carbon emissions targets in 2020 and 2030, as well as reducing air pollution.

Perhaps not surprisingly, German lignite operator, LEAG, owned by Czech-based EPH, says that German politicians have the last word on BREF implementation, perhaps hoping for continued opposition. Responding to the IEEFA report last week, LEAG stated:

“The decision adopted in Brussels opens up scope for political choices. The Federal Government has not yet consented to the BREF-LCP in its entirety and has a right of objection. We are committed to ensuring that the Brussels decisions are properly and correctly implemented. The intended emission bandwidths for nitric oxide and mercury are derived from a technical base and do not correspond to the current state of the best available technology.”

IEEFA notes that both utilities and politicians will have to respond quickly to BREF. Adopting a wait and see (or wait and lobby) approach may not work: the BREF vote itself showed that the momentum is towards cleaning up power plants, by a narrow majority. And as we stated, delay also risks a cliff-edge of non-compliance, for utilities that wait too long. They also risk higher costs, if they then encounter a supply bottleneck for power plant upgrades.

Figure 4. Average NOX emissions rate across coal/ lignite/ biomass burning installations, EU member states

IEEFA calculations, based on EEA data

Table 1. NOX emissions by coal and lignite in Germany, 2014

IEEFA calculations, based on EEA data

  • Tags:
  • air pollution ,
  • Carbon ,
  • coal ,
  • fossil fuels ,
  • germany ,
  • lignite ,
  • power generation ,
  • renewables ,

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