On 22 March, EURACOAL members joined Commission officials and other stakeholders at a summit meeting in Brussels to launch the first “Big-Ticket” call under the recently modernised EU Research Fund for Coal and Steel (RFCS). The RFCS was established in 2002 after the fifty-year treaty establishing the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC) expired. At the coal day, there was a broad discussion on technologies and their role in a “just transition”, but also on energy security. During the preceding steel day, emphasis was put on the green transition, with discussions on how to curb emissions in the steel sector, the need for digitalisation and the rollout of hydrogen in steel production. This 20th anniversary celebration was web-streamsed.
Rosalinde van der Vlies, Director for Clean Planet in DG RTD, welcomed participants, adding that the RFCS research programme’s “rebirth” would align it with the EU’s ambition under the European Green Deal to be the world’s first climate-neural continent by 2050. She explained the restructuring of the RFCS management, with many responsibilities now handed over to the Research Executive Agency (REA), and welcomed the new Big-Ticket calls as a “renaissance”. On Ukraine, she offered EU solidarity and spoke of the need for secure, sustainable and affordable energy throughout the world, beginning with REPowerEU and the energy transition. Paul Webb, Head of the “Green Europe” Department at REA, added encouraging words on how it will manage the €780 million budget of the RFCS over the next seven years (€40 million annual calls + €71 million Big-Ticket calls) so that the transition is just, rather than the brutal industrial change he grew up with in northern England. He said he was keen to promote the RFCS and ensure research results were put to good use in support of the European Green Deal.
Nicola de Michelis, Director Smart and Sustainable Growth at DG REGIO, spoke of a “key juncture” with many new EU programmes being launched at the same time as a war is taking place in Ukraine. Regardless of short-term tensions in the energy markets, the 2030 and 2050 climate targets remained in place, he said, and the tensions actually justified an acceleration of climate policies and reduce the use of fossil fuels via REPowerEU. “Coal is part of our past, not our future,” he continued, and the European Green Deal would see the phase-out of coal, lignite, oil shale and peat. He explained how instruments under the €100 billion cohesion policy would contribute to the transition, including the Just Transition Fund to help particular regions.
EURACOAL President Vladimír Budinský was represented by the Secretary General Brian Ricketts who began with a potted history of the ECSC and RFCS, highlighting the Treaty of Paris which sought to establish “a broader and deeper community among peoples long divided by bloody conflicts”. Seventy years later and access to energy was once again creating conflict in Europe, he said, Ukraine having lost significant coalfields in 2014 and now faced an aggressive invasion. EURACOAL wanted an end to the war in Ukraine. Given the EU’s dependency on Russia for around half of its imported coal, one quarter of its oil and 40% of its fossil gas, he also called for an end to the war on coal as Europe would need all sources of energy over the coming months and years.
Back in 1952, when coal was king, a “High Authority” was set up to collect an “equalisation levy” on coal producers with below-average costs, and limit the subsidies that could be granted to producers with above-average costs. Mr. Ricketts explained that this levy funded the European institutions and in 2002 when the ECSC Treaty expired, the remaining monies were used to create a trust fund for coal and steel research – the RFCS. He commended the European Commission for its successful modernisation of the RFCS legal basis to allow bigger investments in research and a change of direction in line with the European Green Deal. He thought it fitting that coal industry levies were now being used to help transform the industry.
On the current energy crisis, Mr. Ricketts said finding replacement suppliers for the 50 million tonnes of Russian coal that the EU imports each year was the first challenge. Poland, he said was lucky to still have many underground coal mines, while Germany, the Czech Republic and eight other member states in eastern and south-eastern Europe could rely on their lignite mines.
On future research, Mr. Ricketts mentioned the opportunities to use more coal mine methane and believed that the new RFCS Technical Guidelines covered the most important areas of the coal transition, including coal power plant repurposing, to point the industry in new directions. He hoped that the “just transition” would leave no one behind, as promised by the Commission, and wished those preparing proposals the best of luck as they build on the foundations of coal.
Dr. Oliver Then, Managing Director of VGB Energy, congratulated the Commission on its management of the RFCS over the last twenty years and looked forward to the next twenty as the EU, if not the continent, moves to climate neutrality. He showed coal’s current role in heat and power supply, noting that some EU countries are still heavily reliant on coal while others are as dependent on fossil gas. The phase-out of coal would require investment in RES and energy storage, but also a “bridge” whose type and length was uncertain given the changing perspective on fossil gas, he mulled.
Dr. Then took participants on a voyage from the 1950s to 2030s during which times the priorities for coal power research had evolved from increasing capacity and availability to meet demand, through reducing emissions and improving efficiency for sustainability, to today’s requirement of maximising flexibility to balance RES and repurposing of former power plant sites. He showcased COMTES700 – an RFCS project which built on earlier Framework Programme projects with the aim of building a coal power plant operating with high efficiency at 700°C – and RECPP which was laying the foundations for future projects involving power utilities from across Europe. Real projects that make the best, energetic use of existing assets with new technologies was a goal that the RFCS was well placed to support, he concluded.
Prof. Alicja Krzemień, chair of the EURACOAL Technical Research Committee, was one of seven who presented successful RFCS projects, RECOVERY in her case. Debo Adams of the International Centre for Sustainable Carbon explained how the CoalTech2051 project had been one stepping stone on the transformation of the IEA Clean Coal Centre towards its new remit on sustainable carbon. From PPC, Dr. Christos Roumpos explained how the SUMAD project was contributing to the sustainable use of spoil dumps. Meanwhile, Adolf Aumüller spoke enthusiastically about the GreenDEALCO2 project on behalf of VGB and participants enjoyed hearing about RAFF from Barbara Rogosz from Poltegor Institute, a project that gives guidance on the safe flooding of former open pit mines. The METHENERGY PLUS and i3upgrade (methanol from captured CO2 and renewable H2) projects were also presented, demonstrating the wide scope and ambition of recent RFCS projects.
Dr. Tomasz Rogala, Senior Vice President of EURACOAL, reflected on the background to EU climate targets and the Fit-for-55 package, including UNFCCC COP 24 in Katowice – headquarters the Polish Mining Group (PGG) where he is Chairman of Board. He summarised the Polish energy sector’s need for coal and lignite: 70% of electricity is generated from these sources. Looking ahead, demand for the steam coal and lignite used for heat and power generation would, he said, fall from 86 million tonnes in 2020 to 63.4 million tonnes in 2030. However, demand had been disrupted by the war in Ukraine and more coal – perhaps 10 million tonnes more each year – would be needed to avoid dependency on Russian fossil fuels, he added. In 2018, as President of EURACOAL, he had warned of such risks.
Dr. Rogala explained the agreement reached in 2020 by the government, trade unions and local authorities to end coal production in Poland by 2049, allowing not only time this decade for investments in environmentally friendly IGCC with CCS (e.g. a 250 MW plant at Laziska), but also time for workers to adapt and time to build a secure, new energy system comprising RES and nuclear with some fossil gas. His own company, which already uses 93 mcm of coal mine methane each year, is preparing to use more methane, including from closed mines. To reduce emissions from household, he described Karolinka, a smokeless fuel that would not be out of reach for households in Silesia where the 1 000 €/month average salary is below the EU average. Off-gas from the fuel processing would feed district heating plants, he added, as part of a €150-250 million investment.
He concluded that Poland’s nuclear programme will take time which means thinking about how coal is used in the next decade so the country does not become import dependent. He was optimistic that CCS – already developed in the US and Canada – was a technology that should be applied and governments needed to decide where.
From RWE, Tilman Bechthold, Vice President R&D, outlined his company’s past involvement with several important RFCS projects. He noted that RWE would invest €50 billion in RES by 2030 and had agreed to phase out lignite power generation by 2038. This meant replacing jobs in mines, power plants and support industries, he continued, before moving on to the potential for new energy technologies, e.g. zero-carbon hydrogen, deep geothermal heat, power-to-X and a circular-carbon economy. He very much looked forward to demonstrating these and other technologies at pilot plants funded under the new RFCS programme. Mr. Bechthold confirmed the participation of RWE in the Big-Ticket call with a project called GreenDeal INERTIA to demonstrate the feasibility of a battery-driven grid-stability service.