NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


April 28, 2008

At a time when the world's top climate experts agree that carbon emissions must be rapidly reduced to hold down global warming, a leading Italian electricity producer, Enel, is converting its massive power plant from oil to coal, says writer Elisabeth Rosenthal.  Over the next five years, Italy will increase its reliance on coal to 33 percent from 14 percent.

Italy is not alone in its return to coal.  Driven by rising demand, record high oil and natural gas prices, concerns over energy security and an aversion to nuclear energy, European countries are slated to build about 50 coal-fired plants over the next five years, plants that will be in use for the next five decades.

Many electricity companies have little choice but to build coal plants to replace aging infrastructure, particularly in countries like Italy, which prohibit nuclear power.  Fuel costs have risen 151 percent since 1996, and Italians pay the highest electricity costs in Europe.

In terms of cost and energy security, coal has all the advantages, its proponents argue:

  • Coal reserves will last for 200 years, rather than 50 like natural gas and oil.
  • It is relatively cheap compared to oil and natural gas, although coal prices have tripled in the past few years.
  • More important, many countries export coal - there is not a coal cartel - so there is more room to negotiate prices.

Ironically, on many fronts, the new Enel plant in Italy is a model of efficiency and recycling:

  • The nitrous oxide is chemically altered to generate ammonia, which is then sold.
  • The resulting coal ash and gypsum is sold to the cement industry.
  • An on-site desalination facility means that the plant generates its own water for cooling.
  • Even the heated water that comes out of the plant is not wasted: it heats a fish farm, one of Italy's largest.

Source: Elisabeth Rosenthal, "Europeans Switching Back To Coal," International Herald Tribune, April 22, 2008.

For text: 


Browse more articles on Environment Issues