There are discussions in Ukraine about equipping coal-fired power plants with carbon capture and storage (CCS) to make them conform to EU climate rules. But according to Oleg Savitsky, climate and energy campaigner at the National Ecological Center of Ukraine, this is not a good idea. Ukraine has a vast overcapacity of obsolete coal power plants that should be closed down, not kept alive. That would also help the country get rid of the massive corruption in the coal sector.
While in the past two decades energy systems in the EU have evolved to high efficiency and growing use of renewables, Ukraine’s electric energy sector is still stuck in the Soviet era with an extensive fleet of obsolete coal power plants, which have minor pollution control, and a dozen ageing nuclear reactors. The country is currently engaged in a growing debate about the future of the energy sector. One of the measures being proposed to curb CO2 emissions is to equip coal power plants with CCS. The Norwegian NGO Bellona, which supports CCS, is currently “advising” Kiev’s Energy Ministry about this.
But could this technology really help in Ukraine’s case? Is it relevant in the context of this troubled country?
The structure of the energy sector in Ukraine has seen no changes for the last 25 years. There was little to no effort made to modernize the energy sector, as the economy was in deep decline and there was no political motive to strategically develop alternative sources of energy. In 2013, just a year before the current conflict, Ukraine’s coal power plants provided more than 45% of electricity generation. Its other major sources of energy, gas and nucleaf fuel, Ukraine obtains mostly from its militant neighbor. Now, after a rapid and significant decline in domestic mining, caused by the conflict in Donbas region, the country even imports some coal from Russia. This creates a critical threat to the national security of Ukraine and strong leverage for political and economic pressure from Russia.
As a result of the conflict with Russia and the economic crisis, Ukraine is now facing an energy crisis. Currently a number of thermal power plants are facing serious problems with anthracite supplies because Ukraine lost a significant part of the coal mining sector, mostly anthracite mines, due to the military conflict in the Donbas region. After the rapid breakup of part of the mining industry, utilities were forced to import coal from Russia and South Africa. During the last month, both sources proved to be unreliable. Coal deliveries from South Africa were cancelled by Ukraine due to corruption concerns and soon after Russia stopped coal supplies with no explanation. So at the moment coal is no longer a reliable energy source for Ukraine.
In fact, Ukraine has a large surplus of obsolete and hazardous coal power plants. In 2013 out of a total 27 GW of installed thermal power capacity (with 21.6 GW coal powered and 5.4 GW gas powered, currently not operational due to gas shortages) no more than 6 GW worked in baseload mode and about 5 GW were used to cover peak loads. As figure 1 shows, for its stable operation the Joint Energy System of Ukraine in 2013 needed to run not more than 11 GW of coal power. This leaves 16 GW of surplus.
According to industry experts from the Coal Energy Technology Institute, the 50 turbines which currently provide most of the electricity output of the thermal energy sector already have seen more than 280,000 hours of operation, while some others have operated for over 300,000 hours. These experts say that nowhere else in the world has TPP equipment been overused to such an extent. (See this study by the Coal Energy Technology Institute, “Prospects for the implementation of clean coal technologies in the energy sector of Ukraine”, in Ukrainian.)
Levels of hazardous emissions at Ukrainian coal-fired plants exceed the EU standards up to 40 times. Most of them have levels of emissions of particulate matter (in terms of PM2.5 and PM10) which are 20-34 times higher than EU standards. Coal-fired power plants are responsible for 80% of the total emissions of sulfur dioxide in Ukraine and 25% of nitrogen oxides, while purification of flue gases from sulfur and nitrogen oxides is practically absent at all Ukrainian coal plants.
With the partial entry into force of the Association Agreement with the EU on 1 November 2014, Ukraine is required to implement the provisions of Directive 2010/75/EC on industrial emissions which imposes direct environmental restrictions and requirements on thermal power plants. In order to meet these requirements for all existing thermal power generation capacity (including surplus/reserve), Ukrainian coal fired TPPs need a total investment of around 200 billion UAH (EUR 11 bn) by 2020.
This is hardly realistic. In the next 10-15 years the energy sector of Ukraine will have to face the decommissioning of 12 GW of coal capacities because of EU Directives IED 2010/75/EC and LCPD 2001/80/EC, which Ukraine is now obliged to follow under the Energy Community Treaty and which call for the closure of unmodernized polluting units. The operators of these plants are hardly planning investments in desulphurization and denitrification equipment – the only way these plants might conceivably be allowed to continue functioning. It simply does not make economic sense to invest in such equipment at most of Ukraine’s obsolete coal plants. So they will have to shut down in a few years.
Considering the capacity surplus (compared to consumption levels) of the existing TPP fleet, scaling down of our coal industry would not necessarily damage Ukraine as some imagine. In fact, it might lift a heavy burden from the national economy and at the same time help Ukraine get rid of some of the massive corruption in the coal sector.
This is the reality of our coal sector. Yet we are now discussing fitting our coal plants with CCS. Dreams about CCS are counter-productive in the Ukrainian context. Most of our coal fleet is outdated and unnecessary and fitting it with CCS will not change this reality. It will only benefit industry which is interested squeezing out the last bits of profit from these coal units. Focusing on CCS drives our attention away from the really important energy issues: the monopolization of the energy sector, illegal mining and widespread corruption in the coal supply chains.
Given the current dire economic situation of Ukraine, there is only one economically feasible way to meet the EU requirements: by stopping exports of fossil-fuel based electricity to Europe and reducing coal-based generation on the whole, starting with the decommissioning of the most polluting and outdated plants. Right now, the Ukrainian state is still subsidizing a coal industry from which Europe, importing coal-based electricity from Ukraine at prices 25-50 percent below domestic ones, benefits. Meanwhile, all the financial, health and environmental costs are imposed on the Ukrainian people, including the potential costs of implementing modernization measures needed to make our plants meet EU targets. It does not make sense to add to these costs by installing CCS. It makes much more sense for Ukraine to wean itself off outdated coal.
Ukraine has vast underutilized energy resources, above all efficiency and energy savings. To utilize these we need energy innovations, the modernization of infrastructure and the deployment of alternative energy technologies. These are the fields where international aid is most needed. CCS will only prolong the currently dysfunctional system.
Oleg Savitsky is Climate and energy campaigner at the National Ecological Center of Ukraine.