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Coal power generation under pressure – Fair framework conditions are essential for a successful energy transition

The growth in global coal consumption slowed in 2016. Consumption is currently at approximately 7 bn t, the world market in coal is currently 1.1 bn t, therefore an estimated 1.5 % below the previous year. Sustainable demand in South-East Asia and India will compensate for the decreasing trend in Europe and the United States.

In Germany, coal power generation is under pressure. In 2016, the proportion of electricity generated from gas increased from 10 to 12 %, while coal dropped by one percentage point to 17 %. Although electricity generation from natural gas in 2016 was initially competitive with coal for a short time, and large amounts of gas were available on the market, the month of October saw the highest imports of natural gas since the year 2000, and was also the month with the highest gas prices of the year. The main cause for these shifting proportions is the subsidisation of natural gas by new legislation on the co-generation of heat and power issued in 2016. While the consumption from coal-fired power stations decreased by 6 % to 36.4 mtce, the imports will be reduced by 4 %, or 2.5 mt, according to the German Coal Importers Association (Verein der Kohlenimporteure e. V. (VDKi), Hamburg.

Although the consumption of coal and lignite in 2016 reduced by 4 and 2.6 % respectively, the energy-related CO2 emissions rose by 0.9 %, because the consumption of mineral oil increased by 1.8 % and of natural gas by 10.2 %. The energy transition can only be successful if the traffic and heating sectors are also incorporated in European emissions trading.

For as long as China continues to consume more than 3 bn t of coal, the coal-fired power stations in Germany do not represent a danger to humanity. The effects of a phase-out law would be practically immeasurable in a global context, while the economic damage in Germany would be enormous. Germany’s European neighbours could increase their emissions as part of emissions trading. At a European level, this would have a zero effect for the global climate.

Despite growth in the world economy, the global emissions of CO2 from fossil fuels have barely increased for the third year in a row. Increasing global methane emissions, on the other hand, are putting the global climate at risk. In the USA, methane emissions have increased enormously since shale gas has been promoted. Scientific studies estimate that American methane emissions have contributed to between 30 and 60 % of the increase in global methane concentration in the atmosphere.

If we include all greenhouse gases, open gas turbines are not an ecologically practical solution for compensating for the fluctuating electricity generation from renewable energy sources. Gas engines are less prone to wear than gas turbines, but are much more expensive. Coal power stations are ideal for partial loads.