Emissions and energy use in large combustion plants in Europe

Between 2004 and 2019, emissions from large combustion plants in the EU decreased: SO2 by 89%, nitrogen oxides by 60% and dust by 88%. Declines in emissions and improvements in environmental performance were largely driven by European policy, which sets legally binding emission limit values. The amount of fossil fuels used decreased by 23%, as energy production shifts to climate-friendly sources. Stricter emission limit values and policies aimed at increasing the use of renewable or cleaner fuels are expected to drive further declines in combustion plant emissions in coming years.

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Figure 1. Emission reductions for dust, nitrogen oxides and sulphur dioxide from large combustion plants in the EU-27
Emission reductions for dust, nitrogen oxides and sulphur dioxide from large combustion plants in the EU-27

Large combustion plants (LCPs) are responsible for around 40% of the EU’s electricity production capacity. These largely depend on fossil fuels, resulting in the emission of pollutants to air, water and land, with damaging effects on ecosystems. To mitigate the environmental impact, EU policy aims to reduce LCP emissions.

Emissions form LCPs have decreased significantly over the period 2004-2019, emissions of SO2 by 89%, NOx by 60% and PM10 by 88%. This happened throughout the period, but two main turning points are apparent. The first one, over the period 2007-2009, LCP operators had the double effect of new emission limit values from the LCP Directive and the financial crisis that started at the end of 2008. The second turning point, around 2015-2016, coincided with the moment when operators had to comply with stricter limits as provided by the Industrial Emissions Directive (IED), which entered fully into force that year.

LCPs vary significantly in size, from 50 MWt to even larger than 2000 MWt. Declines in emissions correspond to a significant improvement in environmental performance across all LCP sizes, particularly among the very large ones, which, although including only 21% of LCPs, accounts for 70% of installed capacity.

These reductions demonstrate the value of European policy in driving improvements in the environmental performance of LCPs, with LCP operators adopting pollution reduction measures, more efficient operating processes and end-of-pipe pollution abatement techniques to comply with legislation.

In 2019, 4,623 LCPs, were covered by the scope of the IED. European countries rely to different degrees on combustion plants to meet their energy demands. However, generally, the number of plants in a given country is proportional to its size and population.  

The fuel mix plays a key role in emission generation, with coal and liquid fuels substantially dirtier than other options. Shifting from fossil fuels to other energy carriers and sources is also paramount to achieving climate mitigation goals. Changes to the fuel mix have also contributed to emission reductions over the period, along with other factors, including broader economic and societal changes, changes to international fuel prices and industry initiatives. However, coal continues to be predominant and natural gas, a fossil fuel, is also very significant in the overall mix (bottom-right graph, Figure 1). Further emission reductions are expected in the coming years as a result of new, stricter IED permits, and energy and climate change mitigation policies, driving the use of renewable or cleaner fuels and aimed at achieving the EU’s ambition of becoming climate neutral by 2050.

Figure 2. Fuel consumption trends, per fuel type, in EU-27
Fuel consumption trends, per fuel type, in EU-27

Overall, LCP fuel consumption decreased by 19% between 2004 and 2019 (Figure 2). The majority of this decrease occurred after 2010 and can be largely attributed to a decrease in the consumption of fossil fuels (by 23% since 2004), particularly coal (by 31% since 2010) and liquid fuels (by 44% since 2010). This could reflect a shift in Europe’s energy system from fossil fuels to renewable sources, with natural gas still playing a bridging role in this transition. However, coal consumption remains the largest contributor to total LCP fuel consumption, followed by natural gas. Achieving the goals set by the European Green Deal will imply a much faster abandoning of fossil fuels so the trends must accelerate in the coming years.

Almost all EU countries have reduced or stabilised coal use over the period, with eight countries contributing the most to the reduction of coal consumption (Figure 2). Germany and Spain, which in turn, are those that reduced their use the most, account for half of the reduction at European scale. Another interesting phenomenon is the consistent increase in biomass as a fuel input. While this has its origin in climate mitigation goals, it can result in increases in air pollution, particularly particulate matter and volatile organic compounds (EEA, 2019b).

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