The fanfare of the COP24’s closing ceremony last week did little to mask the refusal of major fossil fuel producers and consumers such as the United States, Saudi Arabia, China, Germany, and host Poland to commit to speedy energy transitions. For other participants, the nature of that transition itself remains a matter of debate: countries including Poland but also the Czech Republic and Slovakia are looking to switch out some consumption of heavily-polluting coal for decarbonised nuclear energy, in spite of the sentiments expressed by their “anti-nuclear” counterparts.
These tensions have once again made it clear to Europe, and to the rest of the world, that the global use of fossil fuels in general and coal in particular is not yet on the verge of substantial decline. Coal and lignite consumption has stagnated in Germany and Poland, but is on the rise in other parts of the globe — notably in India and China.
As such, the next climate summits in New York and Chile are at risk of becoming expensive, disappointing and ineffective quagmires unless the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC)’s recommendations on developing nuclear power are finally taken into account.
With the 2020 deadline for governments to meet greenhouse gas emissions reduction targets set a decade ago fast approaching, the time crunch is translating into increased pressure on EU’s most coal-dependent states to transition to cleaner energy sources. Poland and Germany may have been the most visible European coal consumers on hand for the COP24, but they were hardly the only ones.
Thee Czech Republic, for example, also relies heavily on coal. However, in contrast to Poland, Czech lignite production is only set to last until 2024. ČEZ, the largest national energy provider, is conducting its own internal phase-out and investing actively in a low-carbon transition.
A cold reception for wind and solar
While the EU would like its more coal-dependent members — including the Czech Republic, but also Germany and Poland — to focus on developing low-carbon energy sources, the Czech Republic has neither the wind of northern Germany nor the sunshine of Spain.
There is also the matter of grid congestion in relation to Germany. In 2010, the high-voltage grid operator CEPS warned that a high number of wind and solar projects in the pipeline would threaten to overload the grid and result in blackouts. As a result, ČEZ moved to block new grid connections for intermittent renewable energy sources.
In the same year, feed-in-tariff costs for solar exploded, leading to corruption allegations and a drastic decline in public support.
By contrast, Czech expertise in the nuclear energy field has a storied history, meaning the country has already developed its own industry and supply chain. This helps explains why phasing out coal and replacing it with nuclear is part of the Czech Republic’s 2015 State Energy Policy. The Dukovany and Temelin nuclear power plants currently supply 38% of the country’s energy, and nuclear energy’s share in the national energy mix is forecast to rise by about 50% by 2040.
Meeting those targets, however, requires both life extensions for the Dukovany and Temelin reactors as well as new builds. The European Commission stands in opposition to Prague’s pro-nuclear orientation, despite the EU’s recent calls for decarbonisation and the fact that nuclear power does not emit CO2. The Czech Republic’s neighbours Germany and Austria are the loudest voices against the projects; the Temelin and Dukovany plants are 40 km and 50 km from the Austrian border, respectively.
The Czech nuclear industry also supports a wider cross-section of the economy. A cancelled 2013 Rosatom and Skoda consortium tender to replace the Temelin reactor, for example, would have engaged the local value chain and reportedly involved around 250 Czech companies in high value sectors such as energy equipment manufacturing and IT.
The Visegrád group
As a rule, the Visegrád countries do not share the anti-nuclear sentiments seen elsewhere in Europe. Poland is also looking to nuclear energy to drive its own low-carbon economic transition. At November’s World Nuclear Spotlight Poland conference in Warsaw, Poland’s Minister of Energy Krzysztof Tchórzewski affirmed the country’s commitment to nuclear; the Polish energy ministry aims for Poland to have its first nuclear power plant up and running by 2033.
Whereas the country is currently 80% reliant on coal for its energy needs, 2040 projections indicate about 32% of Poland’s energy will be generated from coal and 18% from nuclear. Successive Polish governments have looked to nuclear power as the central pillar of that shift since 2009.
In this, Warsaw could quite possibly find itself looking to Prague for help; ČEZ already has a 49% share in the construction of a new reactor in neighbouring Slovakia. Indeed, the Czech nuclear industry could find itself driving an alternative model of decarbonisation across this part of Europe.
The IPCC report that proved so controversial at the COP24 has made it perfectly clear that Europe must take the opportunities afforded by nuclear energy to sensibly reduce fossil fuel consumption. It does no good to stick one’s head in the sand or to ignore evidence. Coal power and nuclear power will both continue to see significant use in Europe and around the globe; it’s up to the international community to take a realistic view of this future and manage it accordingly.
About the author: Michel Gay is a French energy commentator, environmental advocate and the author of three books, including “Vive le Nucléaire Heureux !” (Long Live Happy Nuclear) for which he was awarded the Yves Chelet Prize by the French Society for Nuclear Energy (SFEN) in December 2016.