Turkey, Ukraine and Western Balkan countries compete for top spot in coal power air pollution in Europe

Coal power air pollution statistics highlight contributions from a small number of countries in Europe. Ukraine, Turkey and Western Balkan countries ranked highly across all pollutant types, while EU countries like Germany and Poland are also among the worst for NOx pollution. When coal is burned for generating electricity, pollutants are released into the air which pose a threat to human health, and are responsible for high numbers of premature deaths. With pollutants sometimes travelling thousands of kilometres, air pollution from coal power is a problem for the whole of Europe no matter the source.

 

Key Findings

 

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The energy sector is a large contributor to air pollution

Air pollution is a mixture of gaseous and particulate components that pose a threat to human health and are responsible for high numbers of premature deaths. Pollutants are released into the atmosphere from a wide range of sources; including energy, manufacturing, transportation and agriculture sectors. Pollutants include particulate matter (PM), sulphur dioxide (SO2), and nitrogen oxides (NOx). 

The energy sector is among the main contributors to air pollution. According to OECD Air Emissions Data, 44% of total SO2 and 14% of total NOx emissions originated from the energy sector for the year of 2018. Among member countries of the European Environment Agency (EEA), this is even slightly higher: electricity and heat production is responsible for 54% of SO2 and 16% of NOx emissions, according to data from the EEA

Across Europe, these pollutants have a huge impact on health and wellbeing. Particulate matter alone caused about 417,000 premature deaths in 41 European countries in 2018, according to the European Environment Agency (EEA). In order to alleviate  negative impacts, most countries apply emission limits with varying degrees. The limits are mostly based on emission concentrations of the pollutants in the air, or in the flue gas in case of combustion.

Higher coal generation in a country translates into higher air pollutant emission share for its energy sector, according to EEA data. The EEA dataset contains national emissions reported to the Convention on Long-Range Transboundary Air Pollution (LRTAP) by 33 member countries. When EEA data is aligned with country level coal generation statistics, the correlation is clear. It is therefore necessary to delve deeper into the coal generation side of air pollution matter for each country to better explore this connection.

 

Who is behind Europe’s coal power air pollution?

How does air pollution from coal-fired plants damage health?

When coal is burned for generating electricity, three main pollutants (SO2, NOx and PM10) are released into the air which can travel thousands of kilometers. Every year, air pollution from the coal plants in Western Balkans causes 3000 premature deaths, and 4818 premature deaths from the coal plants in Turkey.

When the plant level air pollution data is aggregated by countries, Ukraine and Turkey emerge as the leaders, followed by Western Balkan countries, in all three pollutant categories (SO2, NOx and PM10) [2]. However, it is worth mentioning that Ukraine was unable to report plant emissions in the conflict zone. 

For PM10 emissions from coal plants, Ukraine is the frontrunner by a large margin. Main contributors of SO2 pollution from coal power in Europe are Ukraine (27%), Turkey (24%), Serbia (15%) and Bosnia & Herzegovina (11%). Turkey also takes the lead with a 20% share in NOx pollution from coal power, followed by Germany (16%), Ukraine (16%) and Poland (14%).

Top SO2 polluters

How does SO2 affect health?

Sulphur dioxide (SO2) in high concentrations can cause a life-threatening accumulation of fluid in the lungs. Even a single exposure to a high concentration can cause a long-lasting condition like asthma.

Plant-level rankings show that Ukraine, Turkey and Western Balkan countries are competing with each other for the top spot. A top ten ranking for SO2 consists of three coal plants each from Turkey and Serbia, two from Bosnia, and one each Ukraine and North Macedonia. 

Aging plants are significant contributors to SO2 pollution: the youngest power plant among these is 32 years old. This is particularly clear in the case of Turkey and Bosnia’s  relatively smaller plants on the top of the ranking, implying higher levels of pollution for each unit of electricity generated. Emissions of the plants in the top ten account for 44% of total SO2 emissions in Europe from coal power.

Among the thirty most SO2 polluting coal power plants, there are 12 from Ukraine, followed by Turkey with six plants. Four power plants belong to Serbia, and likewise Bosnia. Both Montenegro and North Macedonia also earn one spot. The EU also features in the top 30, with the Polish Bełchatów and Bulgarian Maritsa East 2 power plants. 

 

Top PM10 polluters

How does PM10 affect health?

Particulate matter (PM) indicates small particles in the air. The number next to PM indicates the size of the particle, i.e. PM10 is 10 micrometers or less. Inhaled particles can travel into the bloodstream, harm lungs and heart, cause stroke and lead to premature death. Around 80% of premature deaths associated with the emissions from coal-fired power plants in Europe were caused by exposure to PM2.5. Coal plants contribute substantially to the formation of PM2.5 via their emissions of sulphur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen oxides (NOx).

In terms of PM10 emissions from coal power plants, Ukraine is almost unrivaled. In the top ten positions, Seyitömer (600 MW) and Tunçbilek (365 MW) from Turkish side compete alongside plants with at least twice the capacity from Ukraine. The top 10 list for PM10 hosts even older power plants than SO2 with the plant ages varying between 48 and 61.

Among the top thirty PM10 polluters in Europe, 18 plants are in Ukraine; while Turkey and Serbia have six and three plants respectively. Bosnia, Kosovo and North Macedonia are also among these with one plant from each. No EU coal power plant ranks in the top 30, the highest PM10 polluter is Mintia (Romania), which would come in at 31st. İÇDAŞ Bekirli from Turkey which was opened in 2011 is by far the youngest plant among the top 30, the nearest in age was commissioned in 1987.

 

Top NOx polluters

 

How does NOx affect health?

Nitrogen oxides (NOx) are gases that cause inflammation of the airways and disrupt normal cell mechanisms, damaging tissues, reducing the immune abilities of the body.

A breakdown of NOx pollution highlights Poland and Germany from the EU. Polish Bełchatów is on the top of the list, accompanied by four German plants in the top ten. Ukraine earns the second spot with Zaporizka. Serbia has two plants in the top ten, while the plants from Turkey and Kosovo find themselves in the higher positions despite their smaller capacities in comparison to the others.

Ukraine has nine plants in the top thirty ranking for NOx. Among the top thirty, Turkey and Germany have six plants from each, three from Poland, and two each Serbia and Kosovo. Turkey is also represented by its young imported hard coal power plants together with its notorious lignite in the top positions. ZETES III (28th) and ZETES III (32nd) were commissioned in 2016 and 2010 respectively.

Eight power plants from Ukraine exist in all of the top thirty rankings: Kurakhivska, Burshtynska, Trypilska, Luhanska, Vuhlehirska, Slovyanska, Ladyzhynska and Zaporizka. Soma B and Çayırhan from Turkey find a place in all top 30 plant-based pollution rankings, likewise Nikola Tesla A and Nikola Tesla B from Serbia.

 

Country comparisons

Turkey’s current status on air pollution from coal power

Turkey was responsible for 33% of annual SO2 emissions originating from the energy sector among OECD countries in 2018, placing Turkey on the top of the list. It is likely this is due to many coal power plants in Turkey still lacking proper flue gas desulphurization (FGD) systems. The old lignite plants commissioned without any desulphurization continued to run until the end of 2019 without any challenge. 

In Turkey it is difficult to determine which coal power plants comply with the emission standards. Turkish government does not provide plant-level emissions data, as they are deemed to be commercially sensitive information. It is also unknown if emissions are monitored at all. From old studies by the state-owned energy company, it is known that unfiltered SO2 emission concentrations of old Turkish coal plants are between 25-60 times higher than the current limits; even the ones with desulphurization do not comply with the new emission concentration limits. This gap between regulation and practice is reflected in total SO2 emission statistics of the country.

Turkey closed down some of its coal power plants at the beginning of 2020 due to being noncompliant with the emission limits. However, just a couple of months after this decision, these power plants received temporary permission to operate following the Ministry of Environment and Urbanization announcement. Currently they are all operational and included in the official installed capacity statistics.

Recently in Turkey only the Çan 18 Mart lignite power plant was upgraded with a proper FGD. The 300-MW lignite power plant paid 45.9 million USD for desulphurization.


How are countries adhering to Energy Community guidelines on coal power air pollution?
What is the Energy Community?

The Energy Community extends the European Union (EU) internal energy market to its neighbouring countries. By signing the Energy Community Treaty, the Contracting Parties committed to implementing key EU energy legislation within a fixed timeframe. The Parties to the Treaty are the European Union, and nine Contracting Parties, namely Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Georgia, Kosovo, North Macedonia, Moldova, Montenegro, Serbia and Ukraine. Armenia, Norway and Turkey are observers.

The Large Combustion Plants Directive (LCPD) entered into effect on 1 January 2018 in the Energy Community. This regulates the emission levels of SO2, NOx and PM10 from existing thermal power plants. As a part of this scheme, National Emission Reduction Plans (NERP) are introduced and national ceilings have been calculated for SO2, NOx and PM10 for the years between 2018 and 2027. The sum of emissions of each pollutant needs to be lower than its respective national ceiling. 

Bosnia, Kosovo, North Macedonia and Serbia did not comply with the ceilings both in 2018 and 2019. The Secretariat launched a dispute settlement procedure in March. Ukraine, as being on the top of all polluter lists, interestingly met all emission ceilings for all three pollutants by a large margin.

Another implementation alternative under the LCPD, known as “opt-out”, provides an exemption to national NERCP ceiling calculations if plants commit to operate less than 20,000 operational hours between 2018-2023.

Ukraine produces 34% of its electricity consumption from 20 coal power plants built before 1976, none of which have desulphurization equipment other than the second unit of Trypilska (300 MW of 1800-MW power plant) which was installed with FGD as a pilot project in the country.

In Serbia, Nikola Tesla A invested in air pollution filters for all major three pollutants recently. But the largest investment is made in desulphurization, 167 million EUR. The system will be completed in 2022 according to the contract. With this rehabilitation, Serbia expects to extend the plant’s lifetime by another 20 years. The 50-year old plant was in 5th place for SO2, 6th in NOx and 18th in PM10 emissions in 2019.

210 million EUR will be invested in Nikola Tesla B to curb SO2 and PM10 emissions. The asset is in 10th place in SO2, 9th in NOx and 27th place in PM10 ranking. But the installment is expected to be finished in early 2024. Similar plans also exist for Kostolac A, the 15th in SO2 emissions, with initiating feasibility studies in October 2020. The plan is to extend its lifetime to 2038.

That being said, the only completed FGD installment on Kostolac B seemed not to have worked well. Despite the massive 130-million USD investment in 2017, the plant found itself in the 9th position for SO2 pollution in 2019. 

Bosnian Ugljevik, which is placed at the 8th in 2019 SO2 ranking above, installed a desulphurization system for 83 million EUR and started the test period at the end of 2019, 11 years after the project was initiated. Problems with the dust filter disabled proper desulphurization in its test period. 

In Montenegro, Pljevlja signed a contract to make the pollution-related improvements for 54 million EUR at the end of 2019. It is among the “opt-out” plants which already reached its 20,000 hours exemption limit. Therefore it is not allowed to run unless it complies with emission standards. 2023 is the earliest date the FGD installation could be completed, but it has kept running despite that, causing the Energy Community to launch a dispute settlement procedure. The plant holds the 16th place in SO2 pollution. 

North Macedonia is the first country in this group to announce a gradual decommissioning of its thermal power plants in its draft National Energy and Climate Plan (NECP), starting with Oslomej in 2021 and Bitola in 2027. For this reason rehabilitation plans are shelved. In other words, the 2nd most SO2 polluter in Europe will continue polluting for at least six more years.

Kosovo has no plans to improve emissions of its coal plants and no certain plans for coal phase out.

 

 

Phasing out air pollution

Air pollutants can travel thousands of kilometers. Hence this is not a national, but a Europe-wide issue. However, there are significant roadblocks to addressing the issue: retrofitting old coal power plants requires costly investments. A study by Energy Community in 2013 estimated the required investments for the existing coal power plants in Energy Community countries to be €7.85 billion in order to comply with the Industrial Emissions Directive (IED). Further to the necessary investments, costs of €473 million for annual operation and maintenance cost and 1-2% electricity consumption of FGD from total power generation should also be taken into account. 

Alternatives to polluting coal power are within sight, however. According to IRENA’s study in the region, Western Balkan countries have 13 GW solar and 45 GW wind cost-competitive potential. Ukraine has enormous solar (55 GW) and wind (319 GW) power potential which could allow for coal phase-out by 2030. Turkey could replace coal power generation just by covering its existing reservoir hydro power plants with floating solar plants. And all of these countries could generate their total energy demand from solar by using less than 5% of their land. 

Continuing to use dirty coal power is proving costly. Energy Community countries spent2 billion between 2015-2019 to subsidize coal power, Turkey guarantees power purchase between 50-55 USD/MWh to support domestic coal power. Instead of wasting money in coal subsidies and costly rehabilitation investments required to comply with emission standards; Ukraine, Turkey and Western Balkan Countries should accelerate the transition to their abundant clean energy alternatives.

 

Footnotes

1. The analysis covers the EU, the UK, Western Balkan Countries, Turkey and Ukraine.
2. Annual SO2, NOx and PM10 emissions are reported under the European Pollutant Release and Transfer Register (E-PRTR) and Large Combustion Plants Directive (LCPD) by European countries at plant level. Turkey is not covered by these directives, but a recent study by HEAL (2021) predicted Turkish coal power plants’ air pollution for 2019.

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