Energy Institute

Why do we burn coal at Moneypoint?

There are two pressing economic reasons why we still burn coal at Moneypoint, Ireland’s largest power station, despite the high level of emissions produced by this fuel. The price of coal has declined in recent years and this, combined with the low cost of emission permits, means that it is now a very competitive fuel for power generation 1.

Other reasons relate to the business impact of the early redevelopment of the assets, the impact on electricity prices of any policy measures required to drive a conversion and the sustainability of the alternative fuelling options available at this time.

The price of coal has fallen in response to weaker demand and because cheap and abundant shale gas has displaced coal in power generation in the US. This prompted  the US to increase its exports of coal, ultimately contributing to a reduction of the price of that fuel on world markets 2. In addition, the price of natural gas (though declining) is still relatively high.

At the same time, the price of emission permits in the EU emissions trading scheme (EU-ETS) is low while power sector emissions appear to be on track to meet their 2020 emissions target.  As a result, despite the fact that coal-fired plants are large CO2   emitters, there has been a resurgence of coal use in 2009 to 2013, particularly in Germany, while we continue to use substantial quantities at Moneypoint (Fig. 8).

Whether the rise of coal continues into the future will depend on global coal and gas price developments and the success of new measures to correct the supply and demand imbalance (of emission permits) in the EU-ETS 3.

Figure 8. Gross inland consumption of hard coal in the EU-28 (1990-2014)

Eurostat (2016). Coal consumption statistics. Available Online

  • Annual data
  • Monthly cumulated data

The other reason for the continued burning of coal at Moneypoint is the lack of viable options to convert it to other fuel sources.  Although the station could convert to natural gas firing, to make it competitive would require much greater investment than simply a change of fuel.  To justify the conversion it would have to be capable of competing with the readily available modern gas fired CCGT plants, the efficiency of which is 50% or higher.

Even if it was economically feasible to convert Moneypoint to gas, Ireland’s power system would become too dependent on imported gas, thereby undermining previous Government commitments to limit natural gas for power generation to 50% 4,5,6.

The ESB, the owner of Moneypoint, does acknowledge that the way in which power is generated at the station will have to change: “Long term low-carbon replacement options for Moneypoint ultimately point towards re-powering the existing station as a biomass, coal or gas carbon capture and storage (CCS), or a nuclear generating station. However, none of these generation options appears viable in the short to medium term.” 7

Although conversion to biomass has been proposed as a way of dealing with Moneypoint, neither the ESRI, the Irish Academy of Engineers, an Taisce nor the ESB consider the conversion of Moneypoint to biomass firing to be a viable option at this time 8,9.

The implementation of CCS technologies in association with gas or coal firing must be examined as they form part of the EU’s strategy to reduce carbon emissions. However, this technology is still in the development phase 10,11,12.

It is expected that coal will remain a significant element of our power generation mix for the next decade. Before Moneypoint comes to the end of its operating life in its current configuration, the most suitable replacement low-carbon technology will have to be identified.