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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Europe Considers Cleaner Coal

SCHWARZE PUMPE, Germany -- In the shadow of two hulking boilers that spew out 10 million tons of carbon dioxide per year, the Swedish owners of this coal-fired power station recently broke ground on what will be the world's first carbon-free plant fueled by coal.

"We accept the problem of climate change," said Reinhardt Hassa, a senior executive at Vattenfall, which operates the plant. "If we want a future for coal, we have to adopt new technologies."

But the new plant, which will be just a demonstration model, pales next to the eight coal-fired power stations Germany plans to build between now and 2011 -- none of them carbon-free.

"That is really a disappointing track record," said Stephan Singer, the director of climate and energy policy at the World Wide Fund for Nature in Brussels. "Replacing old coal plants with new coal plants won't enable Germany to meet stricter carbon-emission targets."

Europe likes to think of itself as a place that has moved beyond its sooty industrial past, with energy that comes from the windmills that dot the Dutch countryside or the nuclear plants that dominate France's power industry.

But with oil prices soaring and worries rising about the reliability of gas piped from Russia, Europe must depend heavily on that great industrial-age relic, coal: a cheap, plentiful fuel, but one that emits twice the carbon dioxide of natural gas. Coal-fired plants generated half the power in Germany and Britain during the chilly winter just past.

Many of Europe's energy companies are reluctant to invest in technologies that could further protect the environment, like equipment in the plant here that will trap carbon dioxide and pump it to underground storage areas. Only a few carbon-free plants are planned in here. Executives say the technology is too costly.

"I would prefer a solution that improves the situation now," said Alfred Tacke, chief executive of Steag, Germany's fifth-largest power generator.

By that, Tacke means using existing technology, like raising the temperature or pressure of the steam that turns the turbine, to make coal plants more efficient. Steag is building such a plant in the Ruhr city of Duisburg -- a $1 billion project that, he says, will be more efficient than any rival in the United States.

The debate over coal in the European Union has to be seen within the context of the Kyoto Protocol, a global climate-control agreement that commits Germany and 34 other nations to reductions in emissions of greenhouse gases.

With a legal imperative to cut emissions by up to one fifth in the next six years, power companies here face a challenge that those in non-Kyoto countries, like the United States or China, do not.

The recent spike in the price of oil has put the spotlight back on coal. Economic and geopolitical realities, British coal executive Richard Budge said, make a bigger role for coal inevitable. "Wind farms only work one day in three, and nobody knows which day," he said, with only a hint of exaggeration.

Coal, he noted, is not a hostage to politics. When Russia abruptly switched off its natural gas pipeline to Ukraine in January over a pricing dispute, gas supplies dwindled all over Europe. To Germany and other gas importers, it was a chilling reminder of their vulnerability.

"Fifty-eight percent of the world's gas is owned by Russia, Iran and Qatar," Budge said. "Coal is on every continent."