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Breakthrough Institute

Breakthrough Institute

The Breakthrough Institute is a paradigm-shifting think tank committed to modernizing liberal thought for the 21st Century. Our core values are integrity, imagination and audacity.…

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Europe Betrays its Renewable Energy Intentions and Invests in Coal

A glut of emissions allowances in Europe has made coal the continent's most profitable electric power fuel.

Despite highly touted climate policies, European utilities are rushing to capitalize on the cheapest and dirtiest source of electric power in the continent: coal. A combination of low carbon permit prices under the EU Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS) and increased coal imports from the United States has made coal the most profitable fuel for power generation. Meanwhile, the on-going American shale gas boom -- powered in part by decades of federal investments in shale drilling technologies -- is accelerating the closure of US coal-fired power plants.

According to Bloomberg, demand for coal grew 3.3 percent last year, the fastest pace since 2006. Coal's resurgence is as big a surprise to European environmentalists as the shale revolution is to their US counterparts -- natural gas remains relatively expensive in Europe, and the emissions penalty levied by the ETS has dropped so low in recent months that coal has become much more competitive than gas for European utilities.

Gas is so expensive in Europe that utilities are actually shutting down cleaner gas-fired power plants in favour of more profitable coal. Deutsche Bank AG predicts that as much as 6,400 megawatts (MW) of Germany's natural gas power will be closed by 2015 -- that's a quarter of the country's natural gas-fired capacity.

As we documented in a January 2012 analysis, federal regulations of conventional pollutants like mercury has prompted the closing of up to 25,000 MW of coal-fired power in the United States. The trend has been accelerated by the shale gas boom, to the point where coal and natural gas are now generating equal amounts of US electricity for the first time ever.

The continent-wide cap-and-trade regime in operation in Europe continues to disappoint, as nations switch back to dirty coal-fired electricity generation. Yet even amidst years of economic growth, the United States has reduced absolute domestic carbon emissions more than any other industrialized economy since 2006, and may see emissions drop to 1990 levels this year.

A number of factors are powering this decarbonization, including a mild winter and increased fuel economy in the US transportation sector. But by far the largest driver of emissions reductions is the shift to natural gas enabled by vast new stores of domestic shale gas. These new commercial resources, unlocked by decades of public-private investments in hydraulic fracturing in shale, are a testament to the role of public investment and technological innovation in opening up new energy resources with the potential to diversify and decarbonized advanced economies.

The differing experiences in Europe and the United States illustrate the relative efficacy of direct technology push versus carbon pricing in emissions reduction and advanced technological deployment. As we wrote in a February 2012 article in Yale e360, "the existence of a better and cheaper substitute has made the transition away from coal much more viable economically, and it has put wind at the back of political efforts to oppose new coal plants, close existing ones, and put in place stronger EPA air pollution regulations."

The on-going debate between carbon pricing and a technology-led strategy led to a direct challenge from Gernot Wagner, chief economist at the Environmental Defense Fund. Wagner has persistently pointed to the primacy of carbon pricing in reducing global warming emissions, and touted Europe's ETS as a rounding success that other countries should quickly replicate. We published our full-length interview with Dr. Wagner at the Breakthrough Journal.

Now, as then, America's investments in technological innovation contrast strongly with the European Union's preference for pricing signals. As Europe follows through on plans to build new coal plants that will burn for decades and America leads recent global decarbonization trends, we continue to find little evidence of success from the ETS or any other major carbon pricing schemes around the world.

By. Alex Trembath

This article was published with permission from The Breakthrough Institute


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  • Tom J on July 10 2012 said:
    Wow, could this article any more clearly betray the bias of the author/editor? I mean, I realize that the "Breakthrough Institute" is a liberal organization, but 3 times in the same short article? Please!

    Every time the development of fracking in the US was mentioned, the author bent over backwards to mention that fracking was only made possible through public investment. Can you cite any references on this public/federal investment in fracking? Everything that I have read on the amazing fracking technology points to this being a private sector 'breakthrough:)'
  • Steve Leary on July 10 2012 said:
    Alex,

    Citing what is happening in Germany as representing what is happening elsewhere in Europe is distorting the picture of what is happening elsewhere in Europe, especially the UK as explained below.

    What you say about the use of coal in Europe is true, but to suggest that it due just too cheap carbon permit prices hides a more complex tale, especially for the UK.

    It is true that coal is cheaper to burn for power generation than other fuels at present, but it not the only issue. I think I'm right is saying that Germany's response to Fukushima disaster was to turn off its nuclear power stations, hence a switch to coal power. I also expect the use of coal for power generation purposes to drop between now and 2015 because of European Union anti pollution measures passed in 2007, the Large Combustion Plants Directive, finally taking effect. I know more about their effect in the UK, which I explain below, but it would also affect German (and other) power stations in the EU not fitted with the technology to remove Nitrous Oxide and Sulphuric Acid from power station emissions. All such coal fired power stations in the EU must be decommissioned by the end of 2015.

    This also affects the UK. Here 6 power stations producing a total of 8,681 MW in 2010 are to close by 2015. In addition specifically in the UK , new taxes to be introduced in 2013 and 2015 will mean that the market price will no longer be the only factor Generating Companies have to take account of when choosing their feed stock.The intention of the 2013 tax is to make the price of coal and gas equal as I understand it. The intention of the second initiative in 2015, is to make the price of fossil fuels equal to the price of using low carbon means of generation electricity (renewables + nuclear power).

    The consequence of these future changes in the price mechanism plus the prospect of decommissioning soon, means that Generating Companies in the UK are 'flogging the plant' now whilst it is profitable to do so since the opportunity to make such profits in the future will disappear. This then means that coal has increased its market share in the UK for power generation purposes (and possibly elsewhere in the E.U.), but this is only temporary. By 2020, The UK Government expects the use of coal for power generation purposes to have halved.

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