Austria and Sweden have each unplugged their last coal-fired power station from the grid. This is a major step forward in the low-carbon energy transition. Encouragingly, at least a dozen more European nations plan to abandon coal power by the end of the decade. Now let’s see if that can happen more quickly. Oliver Moody discusses latest developments in an article on The Times website.
Coal consigned to history in Europe’s green revolution
Austria and Sweden have each unplugged their last coal-fired power station from the grid as Vienna said it would generate all of its electricity from renewable sources by 2030.
The closures of Vartaverket in Stockholm and the Mellach plant near the Austrian city of Graz came a day apart and mean that three European countries have abandoned coal. The first was Belgium in 2016.
At least a dozen more European nations plan to abandon coal power by the end of the decade. Norway also has effectively no coal-fired capacity except for a small Russian-operated plant in the Arctic Circle.
“With Sweden going coal-free in the same week as Austria, the downward trajectory of coal in Europe is clear,” Kathrin Gutmann, campaign director for Europe Beyond Coal, an organisation based in Berlin, said.
Mellach, which had also supplied about 80 per cent of the heating for Austria’s second biggest city through a ten-mile pipe, was disconnected after decades of lobbying by green activists.
The country’s fledgling green-conservative coalition government aims to wean the nation off fossil fuel power by the end of the decade and to achieve net zero carbon emissions by 2040.
The state already derives about two thirds of its power from hydroelectric plants. Most of the rest comes from gas, wind farms and imports from neighbouring countries.
Leonore Gewessler, the Austrian environment minister, described the end of Mellach as a “historic day” for her country. “Austria is finally abandoning the conversion of coal into electricity and taking another step towards the end of fossil energy,” the Green party minister said.
The Vartaverket plant in Sweden was closed two years early after a mild winter left it scarcely needed.
Over the next few years other countries are expected to follow the examples of Austria and Sweden: first France in 2022, then Portugal in 2023, Britain in 2024 and Italy in 2025.
Germany still generates more electricity from coal than any other source and has set out a graduated plan to close its last lignite mines and coal-fired plants by 2038.
Poland, which alone accounts for just under a third of the EU’s annual coal consumption, has up to now declined to commit itself to any exit strategy.
Green organisations heaped praise on Austria for its approach, with one campaign group calling the country a “true role model”.
In the middle of the last decade it burnt 1.3 million tonnes of coal a year, roughly the same as Ireland and ten times as much as Switzerland, which has a similarly sized population. A 2014 study by Global 2000, an Austrian environmental charity, blamed the resulting pollution for 120 premature deaths and thousands of cases of respiratory disease each year.
Since 2015, however, the last remaining plants, including Voitsberg, Dürnrohr and Riedersbach, have been closed or converted to burn natural gas.
About 6,000 households are still thought to heat themselves with coal, and a coal-fired blast furnace steelworks in Linz, the third biggest city, remains one of the biggest single sources of carbon emissions in the EU.
The power station at Mellach was built in the mid-1980s and operated only from September to May when demand for heating was at its highest.
The plant will be adapted to gas and kept in readiness for electricity shortages. It will also be developed into a research centre for hydrogen fuel and battery technology by its owner, Verbund, which supplies about 40 per cent of Austria’s power.
“Coal-fired electricity generation in Austria is history,” Wolfgang Anzengruber, its chief executive, said. “The future belongs to renewable energy . . . On the path from the old economy to the new, Mellach will continue to be an important place for us.”