A dash for coal

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Bloomberg recently posted a rather alarming story into the sharp increase in EU coal use in recent periods. The key and most worrying sentence was:

Burning coal has contributed to a 10 percent increase in EU carbon-dioxide output this year through September

A single year increase of 10% in EU carbon emissions would be a massive setback to the EU’s 2020 emissions, but is it actually true? Bloomberg do not give a source, so no help there. The EU, as far as I know, do not report carbon emissions any more recently than the previous year. The UK, on the other hand has fairly up to date reporting, so let’s look at that first.

Let’s begin with coal use. The UK reports monthly data on electricity by fuel type, which paints a fairly clear picture: coal is booming. The first 7 months of 2012 saw 38% higher coal use than the period in the year before, with gas use being down 34%.  In one year we have gone from a position where gas produced slightly more electricity than coal to one where coal produces double what gas produces. Bad news.

How has this impacted the UK’s emissions? Well, fortunately instead of seeing a large increase in UK emissions this year, they have been close to identical in the first half of 2012 to the first half of 2011. So, unless these figures are revised the UK is probably not contributing to Bloomberg’s 10%.

What about other countries? Other than the UK the two biggest emitters are Germany and France. France’s electricity grid is dominated by nuclear power, and any fuel switching from gas to coal is likely to be negligible, so I’ll assume France is irrelevant.  Statistics on Germany’s electricity production are available, but pretty much only on a day by day view unless you want to pay a few hundred euros. Comparing gas production in Germany in equivalent days in October 2011 and October 2012 indicates a significant drop in gas production, maybe something like 50%. The decrease in Germany’s gas, unlike in the UK, may not purely be due to fuel switching from gas to coal. Germany saw a much larger increases in renewables than the UK, in particular solar, which is probably pushing gas off the market and leaving coal alone. However, the fact that Germany’s fossil fuel market is dominated by coal, combined with the increase in renewables indicate that gas to coal switching likely did not have a big effect. The shutdown of 8 of Germany’s nuclear power stations in early 2011 will likely add a small increase in emissions, but the shutdowns were probably too early in 2011 to have a big impact in 2011-2012 changes.

So, it looks as if the switch from gas to coal is significant, but unlikely to be pushing up EU emissions by 10% as Bloomberg says.

A final point. The emissions increases due to the UK’s switch from gas to coal outweigh the emissions saved due to all of its wind farms. While it is right to make sure our new capacity is low carbon, we must make sure we don’t lose sight of the existing high carbon market.

There is a simple lever for reversing the gas to coal shift, and it is carbon pricing. It is time to raise that lever.

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7 thoughts on “A dash for coal

    Lauri Muranen said:
    November 11, 2012 at 2:56 pm

    The current economic crisis has lowered demand and thus emissions in all sectors that belong to the ETS. This has led a gap in demand for allowances and the actual cap and thus lowered the EUA price. Secondly majority of investments in the power sector are made under different subsidy systems not against the EUA price which has lowered the price even further. Thirdly, shale gas boom in the US has lowered demand for coal in there which has led to big increase in exports of coal. Maninly to Europe. Low EUA price makes coal more competitive with gas. Still I would argue yhat the ETS works. We need to get rid of parallel mechanisms and if required tighter CO2-targets. The cap does work in the end and this is how a market based mechanism is supposed to work after all. We need to have other continents in too to avoid leakage.

    One thing that I have been wondering is whether the ETS could be “divided” to different sectors with varying ambition in emission reduction levels.. E.g. Co2 reductions in power sector are fairly straightforward if all technologies are available (nuclear, renewables & ccs).

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    Dirty Coal Apologist said:
    November 11, 2012 at 7:56 pm

    Cockenzie (1.2GW), Didcot A (2GW), Ferrybridge (1GW), Ironbridge (1GW), Kingsnorth (2GW) and Tilbury (1.1GW) are all scheduled for closure by 2015. A total of 8.3GW coal-fired capacity going offline by 2015 or sooner, if they run out of allowances under the EU LPPD and successive directives, is hardly a ‘dash for coal’. A more likely explanation for the recent increased use of coal is to use up those allowances to minimise operational costs.

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      robertwilson190 said:
      November 12, 2012 at 2:48 pm

      Dirty Coal Apologist

      Thanks for the comment, but you really should respond to the contents of a blog, not its title. I am talking purely about fuel switching from gas to coal. In fact, most of the blog is aimed at downplaying what Bloomberg was saying about EU coal use.

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    Chris Vernon (@clv101) said:
    November 12, 2012 at 1:19 pm

    Bingo: “…use of coal is to use up those allowances to minimise operational costs.”

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    […] it other than fossil fuels. The real issue is how dark brown these fossil fuels happen to be. The rapid increase in coal use in Europe indicates that this lost nuclear generation is being replaced by one thing: […]

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    Why UK coal use will decrease | Carbon Counter said:
    February 28, 2013 at 1:07 pm

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