LIGNITE WATCH

© Andrea Bonetti / WWF Greece

Lignite has been the dominant fuel for electricity production in Greece for decades. The international fight against climate change, the protection of public health, the recent developments in European environmental legislation and the rapid technological progress in renewables and energy storage, render the phasing out of lignite, an urgent necessity for Greece. 

Since the second half of the 20th century, electricity production in Greece has been based on lignite, with shares in the electricity mix that reached almost 80% in 1994. However, the changes in European environmental legislation, the competition with other technologies and the pressure by civil society have shrunk its share in electricity production to 35% in 2016, a year that saw renewables including large hydro surpassing lignite for the first time. This does not mean that the fight against the most polluting fuel on the planet was won. Despite its decrease, lignite continues to be responsible for more than 30% of Greece’s overall greenhouse gas emissions, the 4th largest such share in the EU

Evolution of the electricity production mix in Greece’s interconnected system (2004-2017)

The negative impacts of lignite’s use for electricity production are not limited to the climate. The burning of lignite has catastrophic effects on the environment, as it transfers dangerous chemicals and heavy metals to the atmosphere, the waters and the land and demands large quantities of water, thus depleting the underground aquifers. According to the report of four environmental organizations, 22,900 premature deaths per year can be attributed to environmental pollution caused by the operation of coal and lignite plants across Europe. In addition, lignite mining and burning has driven entire local communities to despair, since it practically excludes the development of any other economic activity. Land which was considered “privileged” due to its lignite deposits, was expropriated and entire villages were forced to relocate. These significant impacts of lignite are not included in the electricity bills. They constitute lignite’s huge external cost.

Lignite is rapidly losing its competitive edge over other electricity producing technologies even in pure economic terms. After the EU rejected the request by the Public Power Corporation (PPC) and the Greek government to give free emission allowances to Greek lignite plants, and the establishment of stricter emission limit values for large combustion plants in the EU, the electricity production cost from lignite is becoming prohibitively high.      

It is partially due to such developments that one after the other, several EU countries are committing to phase out coal by 2030. Specifically, the EU28 Member States which have agreed to phase out coal until 2030 to date, are: France (2021), Sweden (2022), UK (2025), Ireland (2025), Austria (2025), Italy (2025), the Netherlands (2029), Finland (2029), Denmark (2030) and Portugal (2030). It should be noted that Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania have no coal power plants, whereas Belgium produced its last kilowathour (kWh) from coal in 2016, thus raising the total number of EU Member States that are no longer burning coal or have committed to do so by 2030, to 14.   

Despite these important shifts, Greek governments and PPC insist on the lignite-based electricity model in Greece, through requests to the European Commission for extending the lifetime of existing lignite plants (Ptolemaida III, Kardia, Amyntaio), and the construction of new lignite plants, which will operate even beyond 2050.  

In addition, the new, 660 MW lignite plant “Ptolemaida V” that is currently under construction and the second 450 MW lignite unit in Meliti, Florina will not be economically viable, a fact that even the president of PPC has recognized publically, already since 2016.   

WWF Greece has been fighting for phasing out lignite in Greece since 2013. Through collaborations with other NGOs participating in the Europe Beyond Coal campaign, we are aiming at creating thοse conditions which will lead to a coal phase out and simultaneously ensure that the energy transition towards clean energy will take place in a socially just manner. 

We constantly follow the developments and intervene through participating in the public debate regarding energy issues, frequently updating decision makers in the government, political parties and the administration, campaigning, taking legal actions and proposing well-documented, science-based alternative solutions both at the national and regional level. 


Lignite

Greece’s lignite fleet consists of 14 units, arranged in 11 stacks (plants) and 6 groups, with a total gross nominal capacity of 4.375 MW. 4 of these 6 groups are located in the region of Western Macedonia and 2 in the Peloponnese (Megalopoli III and IV). All existing units are currently operating under some derogation of the Industrial Emissions Directive, thus leading to increased emissions. 

Up until June 2010, there were 22 lignite units operating with a total gross nominal capacity of 5.288 MW. Under the pressure of EU environmental legislation and environmental NGOs, 8 lignite units with a total capacity of 913 MW have ceased their operation. Thus, today, 14 lignite units distributed in 6 lignite groups operate, with a total capacity of 4.375 MW, 4 of which are located in the region of Western Macedonia and 2 in the Peloponnese.

Since January 1st of 2016 all combustion plants need to comply with the emission limit values of the Industrial Emissions Directive (IED). However, PPC has chosen once more the path of exemptions and derogations. Thus, it is allowing the 6 lignite units of Kardia and Amyntaio, with a capacity of 1850 MW, to emit way above what the IED dictates under the condition that they will operate for a limited maximum amount of hours (17.500) until 2023 at the latest. These hours are close to being exhausted; hence, the retirement of all 6 units is expected soon. 

In addition, PPC placed its remaining 8 units (Ag. Dimitrios I-II, Ag. Dimitrios III-V, Ag. Dimitrios V, Meliti I, Megalopoli III and Megalopoli IV) with a total capacity of 2.525 MW under a Transitional National Plan (TNP), another derogation which offers a 4,5 year extension to comply with the emission limit values that came into force in 2016. This in turn implies that these plants will need to retrofit, some of them extensively. More importantly though, by August 2021 at the latest, they need to comply with the even stricter emission limit values of the new Best Reference Document for Large Combustion Plants (LCP BREF), according to the Commission’s decision 2017/1442

Official data obtained by the Ministry of Environment and Energy through access to information requests demonstrate that most Greek lignite plants do not comply with the new BREF limits. Moreover, significant delays are observed in the timetable of retrofits agreed between the Greek government and the European Commission. Applying the methodology of the European Environmental Agency, the costs for the environment and public health from the lack of compliance of Greek lignite plants with the new BREF emission limit values has been estimated to be between €92 and €583 million per year. 


Environment

Lignite mining and burning have catastrophic effects on the environment and public health. It results in the consumption of huge quantities of water, the emission of pollutants such as sulphur dioxide, nitric oxides, dust, heavy metals and carbon dioxide. The costs originating from the fact that Greek lignite plants consistently emit above the new EU emission limits are estimated to hundreds of millions of euros every year.  

Sulphur dioxide (SO2) 

Sulphur dioxide is a colourless, water-soluble gas. It is a washed out as acid rain, leading to the acidification of lakes and streams and the accelerated corrosion of buildings and monuments. Long-term acidification can alter natural ecosystems and impact the growth mechanism of plants. Major health concerns associated with exposure to high concentrations of SO2 include effects on breathing, respiratory illness, alterations in pulmonary defences and aggravation of existing cardiovascular disease. In conjunction with high concentrations of other pollutants emitted from coal plants, SO2 contributes to the formation of particulate matter, which is responsible for many premature deaths in Europe. 

  • With the exception of Meliti I, all other existing Greek lignite plants emit above the new BREF limit for SO2 emissions (130 mg/Nm3).
  • With 14,222 tn per year and a 5-year average emission concentration of 1,087 mg/Nm3, TPS Amyntaio is by far the biggest SO2 polluter in Greece, emitting 8,4 times above the new limit. 
  • The 3 stacks of Ag. Dimitrios emit 18,855 tn SO2 per year, whereas their average concentrations range between 313 and 668 mg/Nm3 (up to 5 times above the new limit)
  • Despite having a wet flue gas desulphurization system, Megalopoli B emits on average 307 mg/Nm3 (2,4 times above the new limit)

5-year average SO2 concentration in mg/Nm3 and average annual quantity in tonnes (bubble size) for each lignite plant over the period 2012-2016 

Nitrogen oxides (NOx)

Nitrogen dioxide has direct effects on human health. Short-term exposure can lead to dizziness, while long-term exposure can cause damage to the respiratory system and lead to increased risk of premature death. In addition, nitrogen oxides are an important precursor of ozone, leading to the formation of tropospheric ozone, a process accelerated by high temperatures and sunlight radiation (summer smog phenomenon). Ozone is a highly reactive gas that causes respiratory irritation and cardiopulmonary symptoms, and it has long-term effects on mortality rates. Moreover, nitrous oxides are an important contributor to ecosystem eutrophication, as well as acid deposition, negatively affecting both soils and water bodies and in turn rural production.

  • Only Meliti I and Megalopoli III comply with the new BREF limit for NOx emissions (175 mg/Nm3)
  • The 3 stacks of Ag. Dimitrios emit on average 13,047 tonnes per year, whereas their average NOx concentrations is up to 364 mg/Nm3, twice higher than the new BREF limit.

5-year average NOx concentration in mg/Nm3 and average annual quantity in tonnes (bubble size) for each lignite plant over the period 2012-2016. 

Particulate matter (PM) 

Particulate matter’ describes a mixture of liquid and solid particles dispersed in the air, which differ in size and many other properties. While the coarse particles (PM10) are mostly filtered from the inhaled air in the larger airways, PM2.5 are small enough to enter the small airways and alveoli. These fine particles have a high likelihood of passing into the blood and can thus reach different organs of the body. Physiological changes induced by PM include tissue damage from free radicals (oxidative stress) and inflammation, plaque formation in arteries (atherogenesis) as well as narrowing of blood vessels (vasoconstriction) and even permanent damage to cell DNA. These changes have strong knockon effects, eventually leading to serious chronic diseases such as cancer, heart attacks and strokes.

  • Kardia I and II with 5-year average concentrations of 200 mg/Nm3 and 228 mg/Nm3 exceed by 17 and 19 times, respectively, the new BREF limit for dust (12 mg/Nm3), emitting on average 2931 tonnes of dust per year. 
  • Only 4 out of the 11 Greek lignite plants comply with the new BREF limit for dust (Meliti Ι, Megalopoli III, Megalopoli IV and Ag.Dimitrios ΙΙΙ-ΙV). 

5-year average dust concentration in mg/Nm3 and average annual quantity in tonnes (bubble size) for each lignite plant over the period 2012-2016. 

Environmental costs 

The impact on the environment and public health from the exceedance of the legal limits in sulphur dioxide (SO2), nitrogen oxides (NOx) and particulate matter (PM) can be estimated using the methodology of the European Environmental Agency in conjunction with official emissions data for Greek lignite plants obtained from the Ministry of Environment and Energy through access to information requests. Based on that: 

  • The annual damage costs from the lack of compliance of all existing lignite plants with the new BREF limits are estimated to be € 92-583 million. 
  • Ag. Dimitrios (3 plants) has the greatest impact with € 30-240 million per year, mainly due to the large exceedance of the limits in SO2 and NOx
  • The consequences from the huge overshoot of the new limit for SO2 (mainly) are estimated to be € 23-170 million per year in environmental damage costs.
  • Kardia (4 plants) is responsible for annual environmental damage costs of €37-155 million, mainly due to the fact that Kardia Ι and ΙΙ respectively emit on average 17 and 19 times above the BREF limit for dust.

Estimates of annual environmental damage costs for each lignite plant as a result of exceeding the new BREF limits for SO2, NOx and PM.

Mercury (Hg)

Coal and lignite-fired power plants emit heavy metals such as Arsenic (As), cadmium (Cd), chromium (Cr), copper (Cu), led (Pb), mercury (Hg) and zinc (Zn). Mercury is one of the most dangerous for the environment and public health. Once mercury has been released into the environment, it contaminates water and soils. It is transformed by bacteria into an organic compound, methylmercury, which has a particularly high neurotoxicity. Methylmercury mostly affects the cognitive development of young children, especially in the case of prenatal exposure of a foetus in the womb. Even low levels of exposure to methylmercury can lead to the impairment of cognition, memory, motor and language skills and can affect school performance. 

  • With 693 Kg of annual mercury emissions on average (2007-2016), Ag. Dimitrios is by far the most polluting in Greece.
  • With annual emissions over 1000 kg every year between 2009 and 2012, Ag. Dimitrios was no1 in mercury emissions in Europe in 2011 and 2012, 3d in 2009 and 2nd in 2010.  
  • Megalopoli IV emits the largest quantity of mercury per unit of electricity produced with more than 90mg Hg/MWh. 

Average (for the period 2014-2016) mercury emissions intensity in mg /MWh and average (for the period 2007-2016) emitted quantity in Kilograms (bubble size) for each of the 6  lignite groups.

Carbon dioxide (CO2

Carbon dioxide contributes by approximately 60% to global greenhouse gas emissions. It is released in the atmosphere as a result of several human activities, such as the combustion of fossil fuels and deforestation, as well as from natural processes, such as volcanic eruptions or breathing. According to scientists, after the instantaneous pulse, 40% of the emissions still remain in the atmosphere after 100 years, 20% after 1000 years and 10% after 10,000 years. Based on the data from the Emissions Trading System (ETS) and Eurostat, CO2 emitted by the Greek lignite plants are responsible for 31% of the overall greenhouse gas emissions of the entire country, despite the recent drop in electricity production from lignite. 

  • Ag. Dimitrios is consistently the biggest CO2 emitter in Greece with average annual emissions of 12.34 Mt CO2.
  • Megalopoli IV has by far the highest CO2 emissions intensity in Greece surpassing 2 tonnes CO2/MWh during the last two years (Average 2014-2017: 1.89)
  • Meliti is the best performer in Greece with an average of 1.24 tonnes CO2/MWh.
  • The average CO2 emissions intensity of all lignite plants in Greece is deteriorating, from 1.49 tonnes CO2/MWh in 2014 to 1.63 tonnes CO2/MWh in 2017.

Average (for the period 2014-2017) CO2 emissions intensity in mg /MWh and average (for the period 2005-2017) emitted quantity in million tonnes (bubble size) for each of the 6 lignite groups.

Water

Lignite-fired plants require water from several sources and for various uses, such as cooling the towers. A lot of water as the data show.

  • According to the PPC, the total water consumption by lignite power plants was 70.8, 64 και 51.8 million cubic meters (hm3) in 2014, 2015 and 2016, respectively, which, on average, can cover the water needs of 642,000 Greek citizens (Eurostat).
  • Ag. Dimitrios consumes on average 24 hm3, Kardia 16 hm3, whereas Amynatio requires approximately 8 hm3 per year. 
  • The level of Vegoritida lake, which has been providing water to lignite power plants until 1997, has lowered by 30 meters (volume loss of 80%), while it has also been contaminated with high concentrations of heavy metals. 
  • The level of the underwater aquifer Sarigiol, close to the Ptolemaida mines, has been dramatically decreased. 

Estimation of the average annual consumption of water for each lignite plant for the period 2014-2016, based on the data in the PPC’s last available Corporate Social Responsibility report, in conjunction with electricity production data from ADMIE in the same period. 


Human cost

The one-dimensional, lignite-based development path, which has been imposed on Western Macedonia and Megalopoli for decades, is accompanied by a heavy toll on the local communities that cannot be measured by numbers alone. Whole villages, considered “privileged” because of the lignite deposits laying underneath, have been deserted; entire settlements have been displaced in order to expand the mines, while fertile land has almost ceased to exist. The jobs that PPC offers do not seem to be enough anymore, as the Region of Western Macedonia is an unemployment champion, while the accumulated costs to human health and the environment have become unbearable.


Reports

© Marianna Plomariti / WWF Greece

Ptolemaida V and Meliti II

PPC’s plans to construct and operate two new lignite units (Ptolemaida V and Meliti II) with a total capacity of 1110 MW is shown for the first time to be loss-making in pure financial terms, even if one neglects the associated huge external costs of lignite mining and burning, and even under moderate scenarios regarding the evolution of carbon prices in the ETS.  

Economic Viability Report of the new lignite units Ptolemaida-V and Meliti ΙΙ

© Global Warming Images / WWF

Clean alternatives to Ptolemaida V

The new lignite plant “Ptolemaida V” is not irreplaceable. Specific, hybrid solutions combing wind and photovoltaic units with pump-hydro energy storage systems exist. These alternatives  can cover the same electricity needs as the new and very expensive Ptolemaida V every hour of the year, and can do so with lower lifetime costs, compared to the new lignite unit.  

Clean alternatives to Ptolemaida V

© Andrea Bonetti / WWF Greece

Roadmap for the transition of W. Macedonia to the post-lignite era

As lignite production is shrinking year by year, the deeply lignite-dependent economy of Western Macedonia is collapsing. The solution to the foreseeable social and economic dead-end can be found in the development of 12 tailor-made sustainable economic activities which could lead to a socially just transition of the region to the post-lignite era, while the country’s energy model shifts towards renewables.  

Roadmap for the Transition of the Western Macedonia Region to a post-lignite era

© Christos Giannakopoulos / WWF Greece

Alternatives to the district heating systems of W. Macedonia

In addition to the urgent need to shift its economy towards a sustainable direction, Western Macedonia is facing the challenge of replacing lignite in covering the heating needs of its biggest cities. The comparative evaluation of 6 scenarios based on 4 different RES technologies for the district heating of the city of Ptolemaida show that renewables are economically competitive to lignite.    

Alternatives to the district heating systems of W. Macedonia – The case of Ptolemaida

© Marianna Plomariti / WWF Greece

Long term plan for the Greek energy system

In addition to its well documented deadly impact for the public health and the environment, lignite is neither beneficial for electricity consumers nor for the Greek economy. On the other hand, it is both technically feasible and economically favorable to phase out lignite by the early 2030s, while tripling the share of renewables and energy storage solutions.   

Long term plan for the Greek energy system

© Marianna Plomariti / WWF Greece

Fossil fuel subsidies in Greece

For decades, hidden or not mechanisms have been devised to subsidize fossil fuels, contributing to the creation of myths such as that of "cheap lignite," depriving resources and damaging the natural environment and human health. Over a period of 15 years, billions of euros from the state budget, energy bills, and EU funds have been used to financially support oil, lignite and gas.

© Marianna Plomariti / WWF Greece

BREF compliance for Greek lignite plants: A Cost Benefit Analysis

Greek lignite plants emit way above the new emission limit values. This lack of compliance with the European environmental legislation costs hundreds of millions of euros every year. And yet, the benefits to the environment and human health from complying with the new limits far exceed the costs for installing and operating modern abatement technologies in Greek lignite plants. 

Read more


Action

The struggle for phasing out lignite in Greece cannot be won in one day. WWF Greece monitors developments, intervenes, proposes solutions and builds appropriate alliances with civil society since 2013. With your support change can be achieved even faster.

© Andrea Bonetti / WWF Greece

WWF Greece is fighting for a lignite-free energy model and for a socially just transition of Greece’s lignite regions to the post-lignite era, through advocacy efforts and participation in the public debate regarding energy issues, systematic updates to decision makers in the government, political parties and the administration, campaigns, legal actions and scientifically-sound proposals both at the national and regional levels.

  • In 2013, WWF Greece began its efforts to convince the public and the government that the economic viability of the two planned lignite units, “Ptolemaida V” and “Meliti II”, is questionable at best, as the relevant report shows.
  • In 2014, WWF Greece conducted a campaign against the construction of Ptolemaida V and collected signatures that were delivered to the Executive Board of the state-owned German banking group KfW, the only donor to this absurd investment.
  • In 2015, WWF Greece presented a scientific report proving that Ptolemaida V can be substituted by cheaper, renewables-based hybrid systems combining wind, photovoltaics and pump-hydro energy storage.
  • In 2015, WWF Greece conducted an awareness-raising campaign on the historic COP21 in Paris, while trying to push the Greek government to commit to phasing out lignite.
  • From 2015 to 2017 and as part of the revision process of the Emissions Trading System (ETS) Directive, WWF Greece fought to deprive Greece’s lignite plants from free emission allowances and sought to allocate funds to Greece for the island interconnections, and to establish a European Just Transition Fund. 
  • In 2016, in collaboration with Panteion University of Athens, WWF Greece presented the first quantitative roadmap for the transition of the region of Western Macedonia to the post-lignite era and proposed specific, economically competitive, renewables-based solutions for district heating in the cities of the region.
  • In 2016 WWF Greece submitted to the Council of State a writ of annulment against the environmental permit of the lignite power plant of Ag. Dimitrios.
  • In 2017, in collaboration with other NGOs in the EU, WWF Greece contributed to the approval of the new, stricter emission limits for large combustion plants.
  • In 2017, in collaboration with the National Observatory of Athens, developed scenarios of Greece’s long term energy plan, which showed that phasing out lignite and replacing it with renewables combined with energy storage systems will lead to lower electricity costs. 
  • In 2017, in collaboration with ClientEarth, WWF Greece submitted a complaint to the Aarhus Convention and Compliance Committee against the chronic distortion of providing a single, provisional operation permit for all lignite plants via law, and a complaint against the lack of public consultation on Greece’s Transitional National Plan (TNP). 
  • In 2017, in collaboration with ClientEarth, submitted to the Council of State a writ of annulment against the environmental permits of the lignite power plants of Megalopoli A and Megalopoli B.
  • In 2018 WWF Greece brought to light the magnitude of subsidies granted to fossil fuels and estimated the cost of non-compliance of Greek lignite plants with the new EU emission limits.