New EU emissions limits are set to put a third of Europe's coal power capacity at risk of closure or costly updates

 
Courtney Goldsmith
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Coal power plants face costly new investments or closure as emissions rules tighten (Source: Getty)

A third of Europe's large-scale, coal-fired power plants face costly air quality upgrades or closure as a result of strict EU emissions limits, new research suggests.

The bloc approved new limits on pollutants like sulphur oxides and nitrogen oxides from large combustion plants in Europe on 28 April, with a set of standards known as Bref.

The new standards, which utilities must meet by 2021, add significant financial stress for much of a coal power fleet already under pressure and struggling to remain profitable, said Gerard Wynn, energy finance consultant at the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA), which conducted the report.

More than 100 coal plants will either have to invest in new technology, restrict operating hours to under 1,500 a year or close, the IEEFA said.

Read more: We've just had our first day without coal since the Industrial Revolution

"The cost of compliance will be prohibitive for many of these installations, given the market outlook and other headwinds,” Wynn said.

"Whichever way they turn, additional cost is unavoidable."

The biggest polluters, thus those facing the costliest retrofit investments, were 108 plants with a combined 187 gigawatts of thermal capacity.

​Major markets including Poland, and leading utilities such as Italy's Enel, France's EDF, Britain's Drax and the Czech Republic's CEZ, are especially exposed to what Wynn called a “cough-up, wind-down or shut-down” compliance choice. The "low-hanging fruit", as the report calls them, were at least 40 per cent above the EU's new emissions limits.

"Cracks are starting to appear in the strategy of investing in old polluting plants to keep them alive with government-backed regulatory schemes. Driven by economic and technological trends, as well as by targeted policies such as Bref, old coal plants are increasingly performing all sorts of acrobatics to keep running," said Paolo Coghe, an Acousmatics energy consultant and co-author of the report.

Read more: Drax gets go-ahead to convert power plant from coal to biomass

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