Greece and Hungary pledge to phase out coal

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The UN Climate Action Summit in New York has produced at least some concrete results, with Greece’s prime minister and the Hungarian president announcing their countries will phase out coal-powered electricity by 2028 and 2030, respectively, and will focus instead on renewables and nuclear.

Hungary

“Hungary will increase its solar power capacity ten times by 2030,” said János Áder, the country’s president. “It will stop producing energy from coal while expanding production of nuclear power plants.” Áder added: “Thanks to the combined effect of these three measures, 90% of Hungary’s electricity production will be carbon-free by 2030, and not by 2050.”

Europe Beyond Coal, an alliance of civil society groups working to make Europe coal free, said: “Discussions around a coal phase-out have been under way for some time in Hungary. While this news is welcome, Hungary can and should target a more ambitious 2025 phase-out date.”

According to OECD data published last year, only 8% of Hungary’s electricity supply comes from coal generation, although around two-thirds is sourced from fossil fuels. The same report stated: “The share of renewables in gross final energy consumption stood at 14.5% in 2015, a threefold increase since 2000, and is likely to exceed the national 2020 target.”

Greece

If a coal phase-out has been on the cards in Hungary for a while, the Greek announcement appears to have come as a surprise in a country with a vociferous coal lobby.

Prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis’ pledge to phase out the country’s lignite-fired power fleet by 2028 has come as an energy policy earthquake and constituted “a decision of historic importance”, according to Athens-based policy group The Green Tank.

Greek energy policy has in recent decades appeared to be in thrall to the whims of the GENOP union of employees at state-owned power company the Public Power Corporation (PPC).

The union’s attachment to coal was demonstrated in 2017 when President Trump’s decision to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris Agreement to curb carbon emissions prompted GENOP to say it was one of the steps that would occur “proving the initial concerns that climate change is a propaganda engine aiming to fool the weakest part of our societies.” In the same press statement the union argued aiming to limit global heating to less than 2 degrees Celsius was “a Chinese conspiracy” fueled by “the climate change myth” to promote renewable energy business plans.

The Greek policy u-turn

In that context, the about-turn signaled by the new PM came as a surprise but there are several reasons why Greece may be ready to again embrace renewable energy.

Greece has been slow to follow the example set by Spain and Portugal, which set legal mandates to decarbonize their economies as renewables tenders were setting new records for low cost solar electricity.

With utility the PPC struggling under a debt mountain, in part thanks to its refusal to deploy clean energy, new CEO George Stassis has turned to renewables to help stave off bankruptcy for the state-owned energy company.

A report published this month by The Green Tank outlined net losses of around €700 million from the PPC’s coal generation plants in the last three-and-a-half years and pinpointed thermal plants to be shuttered to stem losses for the utility.

Solar PV implications

Greece’s mainland lignite power fleet runs to 14 plants with around 4 GW of generation capacity, enough to supply more than a third of the country’s electricity needs.

Under the terms of Greece’s National Renewable Energy Action Plan (NREAP), clean energy should provide 40% of the country’s electricity, 20% of its heating and cooling and 10% of transport fuel next year.

Nikos Mantzaris, senior policy analyst at The Green Tank, told pv magazine Greece hasn’t achieved the NREAP targets. “In 2016, renewable energies provided only 23.8% of Greece’s electricity generation while the country isn’t even near the transport share goal. Greece has only achieved the heating target, but this is mainly due to many consumers turning to burning biomass,” Mantzaris said.

The Greek energy ministry said on Tuesday, renewable energy should provide 35% of Greece’s final energy consumption in 2030, up from a 20% target next year. That ambition would require renewables to generate more than 65% of Greece’s electricity in 2030, Mantzaris added.

A more modest plan published by the energy ministry in January, which required renewables to supply 31% of final energy consumption in 2030, stated 6.76 GW of solar capacity would be required by that point, up from around 2.7 GW of installed capacity today.

“Renewables constitute a comparative advantage for Greece so I find it realistic for Greece to reach” such high targets by 2030, said policy analyst Mantzaris, “provided that a, the licensing process is simplified and significantly shortened – without, however, sacrificing the protection of the environment; b, constant changes in the institutional framework supporting renewables are avoided; c, net metering is promoted and enhanced via the generalized application of virtual net metering; and d, a functional institutional framework for the support of energy storage is designed and implemented.”

Greece has tendered 682.4 MW of solar generation capacity and 576.72 MW of wind projects in the past year.