Environmental activists are planning a demonstration for this weekend against proposed new coal mines to be sited on the Polish-German border.

The most carbon-intensive of the fossil fuels seems to have few friends left in these environmentally-aware times, so it may surprise some to see the extent to which operators of cogeneration plants still rely on coal in parts of Europe – led by coal-producing countries Poland and Germany.

VW Cogeneration plant 

Cogeneration trades, to an extent, on a clean and green image based largely on its highly efficient use of fuel. Natural gas is the modern fuel of choice, of course, and waste, biomass and biogases are also used. Yet solid fuels and peat made up a fifth of the fuel used by CHP schemes across Europe in 2012, according data released by Eurostat last month (2012 is the latest year for which data is presented).

Coal made up nearly 27% of fuels burned (by energy content) in German CHP plants in 2012, and three-quarters of the fuels used in Polish CHP schemes. The relative sizes of the German and Polish CHP markets (Germany’s is much larger) mean that the two countries burned roughly equivalent amounts of coal. The third-largest coal user in the CHP sector is the Czech Republic, with Denmark, perhaps surprisingly, coming fourth.

Coal use in cogeneration is drifting downwards, though. Back in 2005, solid fuels and peat comprised just more than a third of the fuels used in cogeneration plants in Europe, according to Eurostat again. The CHP sector in Poland relied very heavily on coal back then; coal comprised over 90% of total fuels burned. Poland now adds a little oil, gas and renewables to the mix. The fall in Germany has been gentler, from 31% of total fuels burned in 2005, to the 2012 figure of 27%. Unfortunately, we will have to wait a year to be sure if the downward trend continued in 2013.

Clearly, coal will continue to play a role in the energy economies of at least those countries still digging it out of the ground, and at least in existing power and CHP stations. Though it’s hard to see where capital funding for new coal-fired power stations will come from – last year the European Investment Bank pledged to cease funding new plants on environmental grounds, except where carbon emissions were very low. The inherently high efficiency of CHP is one route to lower emissions. Better, perhaps than the still unproven carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology.