The future of the thermal power industry in Europe – and indeed whether it has a future – was debated in Brussels on Monday night.
At the Annual Technology Evening of the European Power Plant Suppliers Association (EPPSA), equipment makers deliberated the role of coal and gas plants in an energy landscape that is featuring more and more renewables.
EPPSA president Prof Dr Emmanouil Kakaras (pictured right) said that “thermal power is vilified in the current push for renewables. We are considered to be dirty – we are the bad guys.”
Yet he added that “thermal is a fundamental part of the energy mix. We deliver electricity at the most competitive prices without subsidies and we respect market conditions. But the fact is that nobody believes us. We are not taken seriously.
“So new plants are cancelled and old plants are kept in operation. Politicians do not appreciate our contribution to security of supply. Wholesale prices collapse, utilities suffer losses and new investments are frozen. We need a wake-up call.”
He said there was an industry-wide understanding that thermal power plants need to be as flexible as possible, yet he wondered where, in the current climate, the investment was going to come from to pay for this flexibility.
“Even if everybody agrees that thermal power is indispensable to the future of power generation, who is going to build new plants in the current scenario?”
EPPSA unveiled a new report called ‘Thermal Power in 2030: Added Value for EU Energy Policy’, in which it predicts the future role for coal and gas plants in the European energy mix.
Introducing the report, Dr Mike Farley, former technology director at Doosan Power Systems and an ex-vice president of EPPSA, said that under the scenarios presented in the report, thermal power would still provide between 34-44 per cent of all electricity in Europe.
He said between now and 2030, Europe will need around 200 GW of new thermal capacity.
But he stressed that “the reality is that they are not being built. At least 30 GW have been cancelled or postponed since 2010.”
“The new world of the thermal power plant is compensating for renewables.”
Klaus Dieter Borchardt (pictured below right) , Director of Internal Energy Market at the European Commission’s Energy Directorate, stressed the EC’s desire for renewables to be the cornerstone of Europe’s push for decarbonisation, adding that this was a “no-regret option”.
He also admitted that the decision to back renewables was a political one, not an economic decision: “If it was an economic decision we would never have done it.
“This is a deliberate political decision and this path comes with costs.”
He also conceded that “100 per cent renewables is not do-able” because of the unanswered problems of intermittency and the lack of any commercial-scale storage.
He said there had been “very timid attempts to store electricity” but they were not “economically viable or sufficient” and concluded that “we cannot do without non-renewables – we cannot do without thermal”.
He then outlined the challenges facing coal and gas. On coal, he said it is “abundantly available, the plants are becoming more and more flexible and efficient, but… it’s dirty and that is a major problem that will not go away. If we want to use coal we have to deliver on CSS.”
However, speaking on the day that it was announced that four major utilities have pulled out of the Zero Emissions Platform, he said: “The reality is that CCS is not a success – it’s on its way to complete failure. If we are not able to turn this around we will still have all the criticisms against coal.”
And on gas he said “the problem is that it’s too expensive. Will this change? My best guess is that gas prices will go down and gas will become more competitive.”
Borchardt said that the thermal power industry had to “develop a masterplan for yourselves”.
You have to deliver – you have to show the world that you are also doing the transition from the past to the future – from old plants to new, retrofitted plants.”
“When you do that you are a partner in this difficult path to a decarbonised economy.”