Lignite has no place in Greece’s energy future

In view of the revision of the National Energy and Climate Plan that is currently underway, in an article published in Kathimerini, Nikos Mantzaris explains why the position expressed by many in favor of the postponement of de-lignitization and the perpetuation of the lignite-based electricity model is wrong.

The article mentions the economic and climate benefits resulting from the recent surge of renewables in Greece and the simultaneous limitation of lignite’s share to less than 10% of the country’s electricity demand.

In this context, the article responds to those voices calling for a postponement of de-ligninisation beyond 2028 -the legally binding target-, while seeking to extend the life of the newest lignite plant “Ptolemaida 5”. In particular, the article refutes the arguments that put forward as an alternative the combination of the operation of the plant with Carbon Capture and Storage or Utilization (CCSU)  technologies in order to eliminate carbon dioxide emissions and thus the cost of emission allowances in EU ETS.

In conclusion, Nikos Mantzaris stresses that the perpetuation of lignite use will not only increase the cost of power generation for the whole country but will also derail Western Macedonia from its much-needed transition to the post-lignite era. The interests of both the country and Western Macedonia require a decisive shift to renewables combined with energy storage and energy savings.

The article entitled “Lignite has no place in the country’s energy future” was published in Kathimerini on 6 August 2023.

The translation of the full text follows:

The progress of renewables in recent years in our country has exceeded all expectations. In the first five months of 2023, almost 60% of the electricity generated in the interconnected grid came from renewables and large hydropower plants. At the same time, the steep decline of fossil gas in electricity generation continues, while lignite covers less than 10% of demand If the country continues on this path until the end of the year, then it is very likely that the power sector will see a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions of more than 25% compared to 2022, a year in which emissions were at a record low of 19.3 million tons.

Although beneficial for the climate and the cost of electricity bills, these developments seem to have displeased the fossil fuel industry in our country. First, there are many objections to the target of the revised National Energy and Climate Plan to cut fossil gas consumption by 50% in 2030 compared to 2021, despite the fact that this target is below reduction levels that have been set at the EU level with the REPowerEU plan, and the steep reduction in gas use achieved by the country during the crisis was more than impressive.

At the same time, the voices calling for the postponement of de-lignitization, and especially the lifetime extension of the “Ptolemaida 5” lignite plant are growing louder. This plant, which is still in trial operation, is the biggest cross-party mistake in the modern history of Greek energy policy, as the investment was pushed forward at a time when the EU was rapidly moving away from lignite and there was no chance for its economic viability . However, there are still supporters of the extension of its operation beyond 2028, the end date of its lignite existence, which is also enshrined in the first National Climate Law. The main alternative put forward is the continuation of lignite operation in combination with carbon capture and storage or utilization (CCSU) technologies, in order to limit or even eliminate carbon dioxide emissions and the corresponding exorbitant costs paid by lignite plants in the EU ETS.

The main argument in favor of such a perspective consists in not depreciating an investment that cost 1.4 billion euros. Also, despite the fact that more than €1.4 billion will be made available in the period 2021-2027 through the Just Development Transition Program to shift the local economies in the lignite regions away from lignite and towards a sustainable direction, the devotees of the CCSU solution still present the perpetuation of lignite mining and burning as a one-way street that serves the interest of the local community, and about the only way to fight unemployment that has hit red in the region. The arguments often use the example of Germany, which is drawing up a carbon management policy, without however mentioning that this does not concern lignite plants – since these will be closed by 2030 –, but other industrial processes, such as cement or steel production, where the alternatives for reducing the carbon footprint are limited.

Moreover, any reference to CCSU systems installation costs or additional operating costs is systematically avoided. Such systems are known to be energy intensive, reducing overall efficiency and therefore increasing operating costs. And yet, analysis has shown that the total weighted cost of electricity generation from “Ptolemaida 5” combined with CCS is by far the highest compared to any other alternative that has been proposed from time to time for the future of the plant (conversion to a biomass plant, replacement by a natural gas unit or conversion to a thermal storage unit).

Also, no mention is made of the results of applying similar solutions to other lignite plants around the world. Perhaps the most characteristic example is the Petra Nova plant in Texas, USA, which was closed in the summer of 2020, while it managed to capture only 33% of the produced carbon dioxide emissions during its operation. Indicative of the venture’s failure is the fact that, in October 2022, a 50% stake in the facility was sold for $3.6 million, less than 0.5% of its original $1 billion installation cost.

Finally, the supporters of CCSU technologies for “Ptolemaida 5” forget the difficulty of financing the investment. EU’s new Sustainable Regulation excludes from funding all infrastructure using solid fossil fuels, as it is clear that there are already mature, cheaper and environmentally sustainable solutions for power generation in particular.

The perpetuation of the lignite operation of “Ptolemaida 5” will burden the cost of power generation and the environment in a variety of ways. The interest for both the country and the region of Western Macedonia requires a definitive paradigm shift to renewables in combination with energy storage and energy savings.