The European Union is widely regarded as a world leader in environmental and energy policy. It aims to reduce carbon levels to 80 percent of their 1990 levels and to increase the use of renewables (including solar and wind) to 20 percent by 2020. But a recent analysis in the Economist suggests that the road to green energy can be more than a bit dirty.
The amount of electricity generated from coal (the dirtiest source of energy as it produces greenhouse gases at higher rates than other fossil fuels) has risen by as much as 50 percent in some European countries in recent years, according to the Economist. The reason has to do with the EU’s very efforts to make the switch to renewables as well as the cost of gas and the limits of its infrastructure.
Germany’s Energiewende, its plan to shift from using fossil fuels and nuclear power to renewables, is admirable. Electricity from renewable sources has been allotted priority at the most profitable times of the day. The result has been bad news for the finances of utilities providing conventional forms of energy, to the point that the credit rating agency Moody’s has said the “whole sector’s creditworthiness is under threat.”
In Europe, gas is significantly more expensive due in part to the difficulties of transporting it, so coal has become an attractive option. Indeed, 72 percent of Germany’s energy is presently generated by coal and lignite (a dirtier, lower-grade form of coal): Energiewende or not, Germany is Europe’s biggest consumer of coal and used more last year than it had in 2011, in part because it is closing down its nuclear plants. The Economist lists some seven plants, powered by coal or lignite, that are being built to meet Germany’s energy needs.
In addition, utility companies in Europe have something of a “motivation” to burn as much coal as they can prior to 2016, when an EU directive will require utilities to “either close coal-fired plants that do not meet new EU environmental standards or else install lots of expensive pollution-control devices.”
It is possible that the rise in demand for coal is a temporary “blip,” one analyst tells the Economist. While Europe’s utility companies planned to build 112 new coal plants in 2008, they have abandoned plans for 73 of them and made no movement for fourteen. But two dozen remain viable, including those that will provide energy for Germany. These plants are likely to be in use for the long-term as they will be built in accordance with the EU’s new standards.
A Golden Age of Coal in Europe and Elsewhere
In much of the rest of the world, it is certainly still an “age of coal,” as another Economist analysis points out. Power stations that depend on coal provide two-fifths of the world’s electricity. Demand for coal in China has tripled from previous levels in 2011; China’s own coal industry actually “produces more primary energy than Middle Eastern oil does.”
In the E.U. coal is not king; it and gas fuel equal amounts of power plants. In the future, it is likely that the U.S. will rely more on power stations fueled by shale-gas largely because these meet environmental regulations more readily. As President Obama puts together his energy policy and makes a push for clean energy in his second term, we need to take into account the divide between Europe’s shining energy policy and the reality of what’s involved in carrying it out. An energy policy soiled by soot and carbon emissions is “green” in name only.
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Photo of Germany's Rhine River from Thinkstock