Europe’s return to coal is a ‘temporary’ measure in response to Russian gas cuts

Germany and several of its European neighbors are reverting to coal-fired power plants to conserve valuable natural gas reserves, a temporary – but some say necessary – move after Russia cut gas exports following the EU invasion. ‘Ukraine.

Coal is much dirtier than gas, and it emits far more climate-warming greenhouse gases when burned.

Although Germany’s climate-focused government is set to phase out coal from its energy sector, it needs to make sure it reserves enough gas to heat homes, said Chris Bataille, associate fellow at Columbia. Center on Global Energy Policy.

“Part of the reason the Germans are allowing these coal plants to come back on right now is that they want to shut down their gas plants so they can fill up their gas storage for the winter,” did he declare.

New legislation will allow the country to use 15 coal-fired power stations, all of which were due to be phased out this year or next.

A lignite and coal-fired power plant in Nochten, Germany. The country is accelerating coal-fired power generation to conserve natural gas reserves for heating. (Matthias Rietschel/Reuters)

Saving time for the energy transition

However, the temporary switch to coal may not be the end of Germany’s robust climate plans. The country is about to eliminate charcoal by 2038, an objective still valid. Experts say the country’s coalition government, which includes a Green party, is trying to buy time with coal so it can find a more sustainable long-term solution.

“I think in the medium to long term all of this will support climate policy,” said Johan Lilliestam, professor of energy policy at the University of Potsdam. “Because what goes with it is really a redoubling of efforts to deploy wind power, to deploy solar, to insulate houses, to build heat pumps.”

Almost half of Germany’s electricity is produced by from renewable sources, said Lilliestam, including wind, solar, biomass and hydropower. With the largest electricity grid in Europe, Germany’s shift to renewable energy is significant.

“It’s not good news, but it’s not really a disaster either because it’s going to be a temporary measure,” Lilliestam said of the return to coal. “The decision to phase out coal stands and coal will disappear from the electricity system by 2038 at the latest.”

Natural gas is used to generate electricity in German power stations, but also to produce heat in homes and buildings. Restarting coal-fired power plants will conserve gas that would otherwise be used to generate electricity, so that it can be used for heating instead.

Since only a limited amount of German electricity is generated from gas, Lilliestam says it follows that the use of coal to replace this gas will also be limited.

A tight global gas market

Still, the potential use of mothballed coal-fired power plants is alarming to some environmentalists, especially in light of the escalating climate change crisis. Anne-Sophie Corbeau, a gas markets researcher at Columbia University’s Center on Global Energy Policy, said she was “shocked” by Germany’s unexpected return to coal.

“All the CO2 that we emit now, it goes into the atmosphere, period, and then it’s going to stay there.”

germany objective must be greenhouse gas neutral by 2045, with a preliminary target of reducing emissions by 65% ​​by 2030 compared to 1990 levels.

In 2021, German broadcasts were 38.7% below 1990 levels.

As Germany, Italy, Austria and the Netherlands temporarily turn to coal, Europe is also trying to import more liquefied natural gas (LNG) by ship to shore up its gas reserves for Winter.

But Corbeau says the global LNG market is very tight. It takes years to build new LNG export terminals – and import terminals – so producers lack the ability to move quickly to meet increased demand.

Pipes of the landing facilities of the Nord Stream 1 gas pipeline in Germany. The main gas pipeline carrying gas from Russia to Germany is operating at only 40% capacity. (Hannibal Hanschke/Reuters)

This means that European LNG imports could cause shortages in other parts of the world.

“Unfortunately, we have a new additional demand that nobody expected, which is Europe. So Europe would be fighting for all these molecules and they are outbidding other countries, especially in Asia, maybe in Latin America,” Corbeau said.

“So it’s going to cost too much for those countries, which will potentially also turn to coal.”

Increase LNG exports

Canada has taken up the challenge of developing its own LNG export capacity.

According to Natural Resources Canada, 18 such facilities have been proposed across the country, but none yet exist. Only one export terminal is under construction — LNG Canada in British Columbia — and it’s not expected to be operational until 2025.

The pipeline to this terminal, Coastal GasLink, has sparked protests in British Columbia and across Canada, with criticism of the project raising concerns about the environment and Indigenous land rights.

There are also questions about where Canada would find customers for natural gas, Lilliestam said.

While Europe would absorb any additional LNG available on the world market over the next few years, it is still determined to move away from fossil fuels, and any supply that may come from Canada in the future would likely be too late, said said Lilliestam.

“If you need long-term investment to put LNG terminals in Canada, I don’t think you’ll get there in time when you’ve locked yourself into an infrastructure system that, at least, probably isn’t not going to find customers in Europe.”

Robert Habeck, Germany’s economy minister, said Russia’s cut in gas exports was an economic attack on Germany for supporting Ukraine. (Michael Kcaller/Associated Press)

Russia could further reduce its gas exports

Before the war in Ukraine, Germany got about 55% of its gas from Russia, according to Gazprom, a Russian state-controlled energy company.

Now the main pipeline from Russia to Germany is operating at 40% capacity, the company said.

Russia attributes the decline in production to Western sanctions imposed in response to the invasion, moves it says make it difficult to acquire spare parts to repair and maintain the pipeline.

But European officials believe Russia is also using gas exports as a geopolitical tool in its invasion of Ukraine – and to punish Western countries that have imposed sanctions.

German Federal Minister for Economic Affairs and Climate Robert Habeck has warned that some industries could be disrupted by the gas shortage.

“Companies would have to shut down production, lay off their workers, supply chains would collapse, people would go into debt to pay their heating bills,” Habeck told Der Spiegel on Friday, saying it was part of the strategy. of Russian President Vladimir Putin to divide the country.

The International Energy Agency Fatih Birol warns that Russian natural gas exports to Europe could fall further. (Michel Euler/Associated Press)

Fatih Birol, the head of the International Energy Agency, has warned that Europe must prepare for another drop in gas exports from Russia, possibly to zero.

“I think this is aimed at making it harder for Europe to fill its gas storage, which in turn increases Russia’s influence over European countries during the winter months,” he said. declared.

“Given this recent behavior, I would not rule out that Russia continues to find different problems here and there and continues to find excuses to further reduce gas supplies to Europe – and perhaps even cut them off completely. .”

With files from Reuters