Thursday, July 23, 2009

Meet Belcha – Europe's biggest carbon polluter (and it's about to get even bigger)

• Polish facility pumps out 30m tonnes of CO2 a year 

• Activists say giant plants undermine climate fight

The biggest single producer of carbon emissions in the European Union has been named – and it is about to get even bigger. The appropriately titled Elektrownia Belchatow – a massive coal-fired power station – belched out 30,862,792 tonnes of CO2 last year and by 2010 the whole generating facility will have grown by 20%.

The Polish energy giant was named as climate change enemy number one in a report by the London-based Sandbag Climate Campaign and its greenhouse gas output dwarfed the 22m tonnes of annual carbon produced by the Drax power station in North Yorkshire and a host of equally dirty German plants.

Sandbag said the expansion of Belchatow and the planned construction of 50 coal-fired plants across the European mainland demonstrated that policies such as the EU's European Trading Scheme (ETS) were not working.

Bryony Worthington, founder of Sandbag, said the price of pollution allowances in the ETS was too low to deter companies from choosing coal over clean energy, noting that six of the 10 most polluting plants are in Germany despite generous government subsidies for solar and other clean technologies.

"They have to buy emission allowances yet they are still planning a massive expansion. If the scheme was having the desired effect they would be pursuing cleaner options now, not at some distant point in the future," she added.

While British ministers have taken a stand against constructing new coal stations at Kingsnorth in Kent and elsewhere without "clean" technology to capture the emissions, the deluge of projects in Europe is undermining EU credibility ahead of the forthcoming UN negotiations in Copenhagen on tackling global warming, according to Mark Johnson, a Brussels-based campaigner at the WWF.

"Dozens of new unabated projects across Germany, Italy, the Netherlands and Poland and elsewhere are either under construction or could soon be approved. Going ahead with these could wreck Europe's climate strategy," he said.

Elektrownia Belchatow is raising coal-fired capacity from 4,400 megawatts to 5,258 from next year. The facility, which burns the most polluting lignite "brown" coal from its own mine next door, is earmarked for a full carbon capture and storage prototype, but only by 2015 at the earliest.

A spokesman for French engineering company Alstom said they were working on a range of initiatives to improve the wider efficiency of the plant and reduce its carbon output. It is one of an estimated 11 new coal schemes planned in Poland, while 28 more are on the drawing board in Germany, according to the WWF.

While Poland has long been dependent on its home-mined lignite, Germany is expanding its coal-fired stations to produce electricity in anticipation of a rundown in its nuclear facilities.

This strategy, being pioneered by RWE and E.ON, could yet be changed as the two main political parties vying for power in the September elections have opposing views on how energy security should be achieved.

E.ON said that coal is being pursued because it answers some of the problems posed in the energy sector.

"It is a cheap form of power but it also gives security of supply and flexibility. The final element is obviously to find a way of not damaging the environment and we hope CCS will be the answer to that," explained a UK spokesman for the German company.

Protests by environmentalists over E.ON's plans to build a coal-fired power station at Kingsnorth have encouraged Ed Miliband, the secretary of state for energy and climate change, to rule that there should be no plants in the UK without some degree of CCS, with the remainder of any plant having CCS fitted within five years of it being judged "technically and economically proven".

The WWF believes the 50 coal schemes in total around Europe represent about 50 gigawatts of power. That compares with the 70GW of total power produced in Britain from all existing sources, including gas, nuclear and a small but growing contribution from wind.

New coal stations are being planned in big numbers in the US and China but the EU has been arguing that all countries should proceed only if they use CCS to turn them into "clean" coal projects.

The EU is committed to cutting carbon emissions by at least 20% by the year 2020 and 80% by 2050 and wants all nations to agree tough new targets at Copenhagen.

The concept of CCS is considered vital to the fight against global warming.

But question marks remain about whether the feasibility of doing it at large scale and at a cost that makes it work, leaving Belchatow and others belching on.

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