Portugal ends use of coal to generate electricity 10 days early

  • Lusa
  • 22 November 2021

According to environmentalist association ZERO, the country has definitively ended the use of coal to produce electricity, with the Pego thermoelectric plant ending the practice.

Portugal has definitively ended the use of coal to produce electricity, with the Pego thermoelectric plant – which had been the last to do so – ending the practice, according to environmentalist association ZERO, which expressed the hope that its future will not include the burning of biomass.

“The future of the Pego plant should not involve burning biomass, an inefficient option that jeopardises more ambitious climate change mitigation goals,” ZERO said in a statement.

Saturday was Portugal’s first day of electricity production without the burning of coal, after the Pego plant ran out of fuel, despite being licensed to operate until 30 November.

According to the ZERO statement, “this historic date in which the most polluting fuel in terms of greenhouse gas emissions causing climate change is no longer used in Portugal, anticipating a goal that was initially set for 2030, is a warning to the need to plan ahead and ensure a fair energy transition for the country towards carbon neutrality in 2050 or desirably sooner.”

For the environmentalist group, it is essential to ensure that workers directly and indirectly affected by the closure are taken care of, and that solutions are found that do not jeopardise the environmental gains achieved.

Stopping the use of coal in electricity production is a key element of decarbonisation, an issue that gained prominence and caused controversy at the recent COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, where some countries refused to commit to ending the use of the fuel.

The Pego plant, which was responsible for 4% of Portugal’s carbon emissions, was the facility with the second-largest weight in the country’s carbon dioxide emissions in the last decade, after the plant at Sines, which was closed in January this year.

In absolute terms, the average annual greenhouse gas emissions by the Pego plant between 2008 and 2019 was 4.7 million tonnes.

Now that the two plants have stopped burning coal, “Portugal should register an enormous drop in carbon emissions, given that the use of natural gas combined-cycle power plants, a temporary path to a 100% solution based on renewable sources, translates into emissions of little more than a third for each unit of electricity produced compared to coal,” ZERO points out.

Despite the decontamination equipment installed, the Pego plant was also a significant source of emissions of other pollutants, such as nitrogen oxides, sulphur dioxide, particulates and heavy metals, the quantities of which discharged into the atmosphere in Portugal will be significantly reduced.

The end of the plant’s activity now raises the question of alternatives, with the burning of biomass among possible solutions, but with ZERO warning that this is not a “sustainable” solution.

“This is an inefficient solution and contradicts the objectives of carbon retention in the forest and in the soil, and does not represent a significant added value compared to other climate mitigation solutions,” it argues.

The association says that the concession for the Pego plant connection point should only take into consideration projects that result from the “use of truly renewable energy sources” and that “there is no way to consider the possibility of using biomass, considering that it is not, and will not be in any way renewable.”

It also warns of a scarcity of residual forest biomass in Portugal, given that within a radius of 80 kilometres there are already numerous biomass plants and forestry industries competing for such fuel.

Furthermore, the spirit of the European Commission’s proposal of July 2021, which forms part of its ‘Fit for 55’ package – its 55% greenhouse gas reduction target for 2030 – is that “as of December 31 2026 … Member States may not grant support for the production of electricity from forest biomass in purely electrical facilities.”

To this extent, ZERO questions how the EC’s Fair Transition Fund is being and will be applied to the Sines and Pego power plants and the Matosinhos refinery – which was recently closed – and calls for a plan to strengthen the economic and social vitality of the affected regions, undertaken by the companies involved in collaboration with workers, local authorities, non-governmental organisations and other competent entities.

“Without dialogue, social consultation and the creation of timely alternative solutions, we are in no way making a fair energy transition”, the association argues, warning that it is not aware, in the case of the Sines plant, of “the use of any funds from the Fair Transition Fund so far.”