A return to coal as Europe tries to avoid an energy crisis

In Europe, the rise in the price of natural gas has contributed to boosting demand for an alternative hitherto neglected: coal.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which led to the European sanction, and the Kremlin’s decision to cut gas flows to the continent led to a return to coal-fired power plants, despite the environmental impacts.

“European countries are desperately looking for alternatives to ensure they can provide affordable energy,” said Sanya Carley, a professor at Indiana University’s O’Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs.

Before the winter, some countries removed production caps in coal-fired power plants.

“And in fact, they’re operating several coal-fired plants that they had previously planned to dismantle or retire altogether,” Carley said.

Finland and France are among the countries that have brought mothballed coal-fired power plants back into service.

At the same time, Europe is importing more coal, driving up prices even though coal was supposed to be the cheapest alternative to gas.

Earlier this year, it looked like a window of opportunity might be opening for coal producers in the United States, but that hasn’t quite materialized.

“There hasn’t been as much effort to export coal, even though it has become more expensive overseas,” said Daniel Cohan, associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at Rice University and author. from the book “Confronting Climate Gridlock”.

For most of the past decade, coal prices languished, Cohan said.

“There have been many bans on building new coal export terminals,” he said.

In addition, there is a lack of investment in infrastructure to send coal from the United States to Europe at a lower cost.

“There hasn’t been much slack in US markets to be able to export more of it to markets that need it,” Cohan said.

Exports have long been touted by the coal industry as a way to stay viable, said Seth Feaster, an analyst at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis.

“Exports were never the panacea the coal industry wanted to be,” Feaster said. “And I think that really shows here in the current conditions.”

Data from the US Energy Information Administration shows that coal exports remain flat this year compared to 2021, although US coal production is up slightly.

“What this really shows is that the long-term structural decline of coal is continuing,” as U.S. utilities continue to phase out coal, Feaster said.

There’s a lot going on in the world. Through it all, Marketplace is there for you.

You rely on Marketplace to break down world events and tell you how it affects you in a factual and accessible way. We count on your financial support to continue to make this possible.

Your donation today fuels the independent journalism you rely on. For just $5/month, you can help maintain Marketplace so we can keep reporting on the things that matter to you.