In 2020, the EU approved the Green Deal, which is the overall strategy aiming to decarbonize the EU by the year 2050, thus endorsing the Paris Agreement objectives. The energy sector is one of the critical areas which must undergo a thorough transformation. To achieve energy transition, the phase-out of fossil fuels and the development of renewable energy sources is necessary.

But recent events such as the energy crisis or the war in Ukraine have changed the course of the European agenda as the EU adopted a new plan, the REPower EU, to reduce its dependency on Russian fossil fuels. As coal remains a primary fuel in the European energy mix, the leeway given by this new plan to Member States for its phase-out threatens the achievement of the energy transition. In parallel, the ongoing conversion of some coal power plants to bioenergy raises questions about the potential of the latter as a renewable alternative.

More than 30 years ago, coal was the primary energy commodity produced in the EU. Since then, nuclear energy and other fuels have taken its place. In 2008, the Renewable Energy Directive created financial incentives for renewable energy companies that shifted their attention from coal to renewable energy sources. Though fossil fuels still constitute the main energy source used in the EU, the primary energy production trend increased for renewables and nuclear. [1]

Despite some EU countries which have already phased-out coal energy, lots of EU Member States are committed to phase-out coal by 2032, 2038, and 2049 for Romania, Germany, and Poland respectively.[2] Recent developments such as in the Netherlands or Austria to re-open coal plants in the course of Russian gas dependency and the energy prices could be construed as a threat to the energy transition as coal is the largest source of electricity generation and the single largest single source of CO2 emissions.[3]

Many see converting coal plants to biomass as a positive way to decarbonize the economy and achieve Paris Agreement objectives. Biomass, derived from organic material such as trees, plants, and agricultural and urban waste is now used as a renewable fuel that receives financial support from the Renewable Energy Directive (RED). The assumption enshrined in the RED that biomass is carbon neutral was seen as a major tool to tackle global warming.[4] However, the investment needed in biomass could only be done thanks to the €20 billion European subsidies.[5] Some studies attribute no benefits to biomass regarding emission reduction or environmental contributions compared to coal.[6] NGOs criticisms also denounce carbon savings from biomass projects as “low or nonexistent” when compared to wind and solar.[7] The Joint Research Center itself says that burning forest wood for energy increases carbon pollution in the atmosphere for decades to over a century.[8] Damages from the exploitation of biomass have also been acknowledged by the IPCC to have adverse socio-economic and environmental impacts, including on biodiversity, food and water security, local livelihoods and the rights of Indigenous Peoples. [9]

The energy efficiency of biomass is also put into question due to the moisture in biomass. Besides, an NGO report released in 2019 calculated the prospective electricity production for coal-to-biomass projects in the EU at 64 TWh of electricity, that is less than 2% of the EU’s electricity production for new wind and solar capacity.[10]

As long as the RED considers biomass not to release carbon emissions, energy companies will use this biomass accounting loophole to convert coal energy plants to biomass and artificially reduce their CO2 emissions records. Energy transition will not be easy to achieve, especially in light of geopolitical and economic realities where the resurgence of coal seems to be a step back from the crucial energy transition in the EU.

 

Celine Grommerch

 

 

[1] https://ec.europa.eu/eurostat/statistics-explained/index.php?title=Energy_statistics_-_an_overview#:~:text=Renewable%20energies%20accounted%20for%20the,renewable%20waste%20(2.3%20%25)

[2] https://energy.ec.europa.eu/topics/oil-gas-and-coal/eu-coal-regions/coal-regions-transition_en

[3] https://www.dutchnews.nl/2022/06/dutch-to-boost-coal-fired-electricity-production-to-save-gas/ and https://www.iea.org/fuels-and-technologies/coal

[4] https://energy.ec.europa.eu/topics/renewable-energy/renewable-energy-directive-targets-and-rules/renewable-energy-directive_en

[5] https://forestdefenders.eu/wp-content/uploads/2023/02/NGO-biomass-position-statement-for-RED-Trilogue-November-2022.pdf

[6] https://iopscience.iop.org/article/10.1088/1748-9326/aaa512/meta

[7] https://ember-climate.org/insights/research/playing-with-fire/

[8] https://publications.jrc.ec.europa.eu/repository/bitstream/JRC122719/jrc-forest-bioenergy-study-2021-final_online.pdf

[9] https://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar6/syr/downloads/report/IPCC_AR6_SYR_SPM.pdf

[10] https://ember-climate.org/insights/research/playing-with-fire/