Cabinet investigates accelerated closure of coal-fired power stations
In recent months, the cabinet has had research carried out into the accelerated closure of almost all Dutch coal-fired power stations that are still running. The Ministry of Economic Affairs and Climate (EZK) confirms this after questions from NRC. These are power stations on the Maasvlakte and in the Eemshaven.
The study was carried out because of the Urgenda judgment, which obliges the Dutch state to strongly limit greenhouse gas emissions by 2020 at the latest. Despite the corona crisis, the cabinet wants to stick to its previously promised schedule to announce new climate measures because of the verdict before April 1, according to a spokesperson for Economic Affairs and Climate. “We are working on achieving that.”
Two weeks ago, Minister Eric Wiebes (EZK, VVD) wrote in a letter to parliament that “measures regarding coal-fired power stations are […] weighed in”. Consultations on the Urgenda measures continued during the corona crisis, according to sources in The Hague.
The Urgenda judgment from 2015 became irrevocable in December after a ruling by the Supreme Court. It orders the Dutch state to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by at least 25 percent by 2020 compared to 1990. Only then will the state do enough to protect citizens against the dangers of climate change, the highest court also ruled in a worldwide groundbreaking judgment .
Only since last year did the current cabinet take a series of measures in response to the court decision. The most important of these is the recent closure of the Hemweg power station, Amsterdam’s coal-fired power station. Wiebes also brought forward a subsidy round of 4 billion euros for sustainable energy.
54 potential measures
However, these interventions are insufficient to comply with the ruling. According to an estimate by the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency (PBL) from December, emissions at the end of this year will be only 20 to 21 percent lower than in the benchmark year 1990.
Experts in the energy sector expect that the current economic crisis will reduce CO2emissions further, but not enough. Moreover, without a climate policy, emissions could bounce back after the economic crisis, while the Urgenda judgment actually aims to protect citizens against the ‘potentially disastrous consequences’ of warming.
According to climate policy sources, the cabinet has had 50 to 100 potential measures examined by research bureaus Berenschot and CE Delft. These vary from interventions in the meat sector and discouragement of driving to subsidies for sustainable buildings. The Urgenda Foundation, which itself published 54 potential measures, held several discussions with the ministries involved.
If the forecast of the PBL comes true – something that according to the planning office is uncertain – the cabinet will have to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 10 to 11 million tons this year. That is a lot: such a large annual decline has only occurred twice since 1990.
Closing coal-fired power stations is by far the most effective of the measures currently being examined. Such plants emit twice as much CO2 as natural gas power stations. Closure of three of the four Dutch coal-fired power stations saves 9 million tons of CO2, calculated research bureau CE Delft in May 2019 on behalf of three interest groups. That investigation already concluded that closure poses no danger to the supply of electricity.
Main grid operator Tennet already calculated the closure of two coal-fired power stations on behalf of EZK in March 2019. This revealed no problems with regard to security of supply. Tennet has now investigated whether the power supply is guaranteed in the event of rapid closure of almost all power stations. The study was completed in February. Neither the grid operator Tennet nor the Ministry of Economic Affairs wants to announce the conclusion.
However, similar recent calculations by Tennet show that the Netherlands and neighboring countries together have sufficient additional capacity to generate electricity. However, a spokesperson for Tennet emphasizes that if coal-fired power stations are closed, dependence on neighboring countries will increase. „It is crucial that the Netherlands [zijn] discusses and coordinates policy on available electricity production capacity with neighboring countries.”
There has been political discussion for years about the future of the three modern, large coal-fired power stations that were opened in 2015 and 2016 on the Maasvlakte and in the Eemshaven. Until now, Minister Wiebes has consistently spoken out against the rapid closure of the new power stations. Last year, he called CE Delft’s conclusion that the power supply will remain a “very optimistic assumption”. The minister also argued that if the Netherlands switches off coal-fired power stations, “a very substantial part” (50 to 70 percent) of the CO2 reached in the Netherlands2reduction is negated because power stations in neighboring countries, such as Germany, start to emit more. A recently introduced law prohibits burning coal in the three modern coal-fired power stations until 2030.
Spokespersons for energy companies RWE and Uniper, the German operators of two of the new Dutch coal-fired power stations, say their companies have had no recent contact with the ministry about accelerated closure. The third operator, the German Onyx, did not comment.
Frans Rooijers, director of CE Delft, thinks Wiebes is still waiting with far-reaching measures, such as closing the coal-fired power stations. “I think he will use the current situation not to take measures that affect parties that are already affected by the economic conditions.”
The calculations of the PBL also show that it is by no means certain whether the state will comply with the Urgenda judgment by closing three coal-fired power stations. Urgenda director Marjan Minnesma therefore proposes many more climate measures, which together would cost approximately 2 billion euros. “Compared to the government measures due to the corona virus, this is a small amount.”
Undoubtedly, shutting down coal-fired power stations would also cost the government money for financial compensation. CE Delft calculated last year that the operators would lose a total of about 2 billion euros in revenues until 2030 if they were closed early. On the other hand, the Dutch state will be able to cancel approximately 1.2 billion euros in subsidies for burning wood chips in coal-fired power stations, according to CE Delft.
The situation has changed considerably since the publication of his report in May last year. One power station (that of Onyx) is broken, and the market position of European coal-fired power stations deteriorated sharply in the second half of 2019 due to a combination of a low natural gas price and a high European CO22-price.
On the other hand, the corona crisis appears to be favorable for coal-fired power stations. The shock to the energy market plunged European CO2-price in recent weeks from 24 euros to 15 euros per ton. For almost two years, pollution for power stations and factories has not been so cheap.