Future coal related R&D within Europe?

Coal_Supercritical_Bełchatów Power Station_ Bełchatów_Poland
The IEA Clean Coal Centre is a partner in the EU Research Fund for Coal and Steel funded project, CoalTech2051, which has two aims. The first of which is to develop, with stakeholders, a strategic research agenda for the RFCS Research Programme that is aligned with the EU’s energy vision for 2050.

The second aim is to establish a European Network of Clean Coal Technologists that complements the European Commission’s targeted Coal Platform to support the energy transition in the coal regions.

As well as administrating the project, the role of the IEACCC is to provide an international dimension to the work programme, drawing on our extensive experience of all aspects of coal production and use within a global context. Both my colleague Debo Adams and myself are pleased to have been able to participate in this interesting project, which complements and provides added value for the European Commission, which is a longstanding contracting party member of our Technology Collaboration Programme. In terms of our input, we have provided a comprehensive international perspective together with numerous presentations and briefings on coal production and utilisation, including but not limited to R&D, and have drawn in other international experts for the various workshops and discussion groups.

As we near the end of the project, on 27 April 2020 the team held an open workshop to draft the final conclusions and shape the research network on coal related R&D.  In these difficult times, this was a video conference so the project team was not at all sure if this forum would attract many interested parties. As it turned out, some 45 attendees were noted from:

  • Bosnia and Herzegovina
  • Botswana
  • Bulgaria
  • Germany
  • India
  • Poland
  • Russia
  • South Africa
  • Switzerland
  • Ukraine
  • UK
  • USA

As the IEACCC has been publicising very strongly, worldwide, different regions have different energy options and are at various stages of industrial development. It is therefore entirely understandable that each have their own priorities for ensuring a sustainable energy future.

Within the European Union, there is an intention to be carbon neutral by 2050, which will require an economy with net-zero greenhouse gas emissions. This objective is at the heart of the European Green Deal and in line with the EU’s commitment to global climate action under the Paris Agreement. While an agreement has been reached, this acknowledges that Poland will proceed at a different pace to the rest of the EU bloc due to its economy being so dependent on coal. The other EU countries have strong targets to achieve this transition by 2050, which for most includes a policy driven programme to close coal power plants while introducing very significant  levels of intermittent renewable power. There will also be  a corresponding impact on other economic sectors such as industry, transport and agriculture. This approach to energy transition within the region is unique and represents a challenging, ambitious but unproven way forward, for which the likely environmental outcome and costs are not yet clear.

At the same time, no significant long-term role for coal is envisaged within the EU and so future European coal R&D will ultimately be linked to:

  • Supporting coal regions in transition through re-purposing of closed or end-of-life coal-related assets, such as coal mines, coal power plants, coal transport infrastructure, coal preparation plants and coal based industrial processes. This also encompasses sustainable solutions for the re-orienting of existing assets including recycling and upcycling of power plant residues, household or industrial wastes, or geomaterials from past mining operations
  • Improving health and safety as well as minimising the environmental impacts of active coal mines, those in the closure process and those already closed.

It remains to be seen how this ambitious initiative will move forward. From the perspective of the IEACCC, we feel that this is a unique approach which may not take full advantage of the benefits that can continue to arise from the sustainable development of coal. As our followers know, the IEACCC work programme covers all aspects of the sustainable production and use of coal, which includes assessments of the issues currently being taken forward by the European Commission. These include:

  • Beneficial uses of fly ash, which is now classed as a by-product, not a waste product, and there is, in fact, an international market in fly ash as countries that have closed many of the coal power plants still require fly ash as a major component of cement and concrete, essential for construction. Alternative uses for fly ash are also emerging – as a mineral ore source, in catalysis, water purification, new advanced materials and in agriculture
  • Integration of coal power plants with Variable Renewable Energy, vital to maintain reliable electricity supplies for the foreseeable future
  • Cofiring coal with biomass and conversion of power plants to biomass
  • Coal mine site reclamation
  • Means for reducing environmental effects of mining and coal transport
  • Methane release from operational and closed coal mines and its recovery.

Of course, we also continue with our work that actively seeks to establish modern technological solutions to utilise coal, including:

  • High Efficiency Low Emissions coal power plant technologies
  • Status, barriers and opportunities for CCUS, which will also be important beyond coal
  • Markets and the need to ensure a reliable electricity grid
  • Strategic importance of the energy trilemma

A topic that we highlighted in the meeting was the use of coal as a raw material for producing high value products such as chemicals and specialist components. The current annual market size is over 100 Mt and increasing quickly, with specialist products such as carbon fibre, graphene, nanomaterials and rare earth elements being in high demand.

In parallel, Dr Brian Ricketts, provided a fascinating  presentation that examined the implications behind some of the development work in Europe to produce certain key industrial products on a net carbon-neutral basis. Unless nuclear power sees an unlikely increase in demand and there is widespread take-up of CCUS, this EU initiative will require the power sector to switch almost completely to the use of variable renewable energy, presumably with some form of large-scale fast reaction energy storage (not yet commercially available). At the same time, EU industry will need to develop green products to be made using that renewable based electricity to achieve net zero carbon products.  There is enthusiasm for this possible new approach but a reluctance to discuss the costs and the implications of all sectors converting to net zero. For example, for the German chemical industry to decarbonise by 2050 would require 628 TWh/y of electricity sourced from renewables, which is only about 20 TWh less than the entire German electricity demand for 2018.  Similarly, to decarbonise the European steel industry by 2050 would require 585 TWh/y of electricity, similar to the current annual electricity demand of France. (For further comparison, total power generation in the EU was 3294 TWh in 2017, 37% of which came from France and Germany combined.) This is without considering the increase in electricity demand if we all switch to electric cars as well.

Nevertheless, finding an alternative way forward to produce net carbon neutral end products may be a way forward for coal-related research, as the sector in Europe faces the challenges of the transition, which will require improvement of the technologies currently available and developing of new ones. The proposed network to be defined by the CoalTech2051 project team will need to be particularly innovative and on that point at the IEACCC we may be able to work with our knowledge partners (see link for details of how to join) to provide effective advice.

Finally, I would like to note that for many regions of the world there is a need to establish development pathways that align with the broad scope of the UN Sustainable Development Goals as well as addressing climate issues. We look forward to continuing to develop our comprehensive programme to provide independent information and analysis on how coal can be a cleaner source of energy, compatible with such goals. As ever, my colleagues and I are always very happy to discuss all aspects of our work programme with interested parties.