Production of lignite in the EU - statistics


Data extracted in July 2021

Planned article update: July 2022

Highlights


In 2019, 8 % of the total gross electricity produced in the EU was based on lignite, representing around 240 000 GWh.

In 2020, Germany accounted for 44 % of the total lignite produced in the EU.


Inland consumption of brown coal in the EU, 2015-2020. Brown coal consists of the addition of lignite and sub-bituminous coal. In 2020, lignite made up 99.5 % of the brown coal consumed in the EU, and sub-bituminous coal 0.5 %.


This article explains how production of lignite in the European Union (EU) has evolved since 1990, and highlights its use for electricity generation. The article also gives figures on the transformation efficiency of lignite compared to other fuels. As almost all lignite produced by Member States is used domestically, lignite trade in the EU is negligible. Therefore, this article focuses on inland production and consumption.

Authors: Audrey Errard, Niki Stylanidou, Michael Goll and Gaston Bricout


Full article


What is lignite and how significant is this fossil fuel in the EU?

Lignite is a type of solid fossil fuel. Together with sub-bituminous coal, lignite is part of the so-called ‘brown coal’ group. Compared to hard coals (anthracite, other bituminous coal, coking coal), lignite has a low energy content i.e. a low calorific value. In practice, lignite’s calorific value is about 10 MJ/kg, depending on the Member State and the individual mine concerned, which is well below the maximum official gross calorific value (20 MJ/kg) as described in Regulation (EU) No 2146/2019.

Despite its low energy content, lignite is one of the few primary energy resources that is available in relatively large quantities on the national territory of some EU Member States. Using lignite is often cheaper than importing other fossil fuels and limits energy dependency.

Figure 1: Evolution of indigenous lignite production in Member States since 1990 (kt)
Source: Eurostat (nrg_cb_sff)


In 1990, fourteen Member States produced in total 671 000 thousand tonnes (kt) of lignite. This production continuously decreased to reach 308 000 kt in 2019 and 244 000 kt in 2020 (see Figure 1). Today, lignite is still produced by nine Member States and Germany accounts for about 44 % of total European lignite production (see Figure 2).

The 2020 numbers in Figures 1 and 2 are estimates based on early annual data.

Figure 2: Indigenous production of lignite in the EU since 1990 (% of total EU production)
Source: Eurostat (nrg_cb_sff)


Over the period 1990-2020, around 95 % of total lignite in the EU was produced by six Member States (Germany, Poland, Czechia, Bulgaria, Romania and Greece). In 2020, the indigenous production of lignite in Germany (44 %), Poland (19 %), Czechia (12 %), Bulgaria (9 %), Romania and Greece (both 6 %) all together accounted for 96 % of total EU production (see Figure 2 and Cover Figure). Hungary, Slovenia and Slovakia produced lignite in very low quantities. Production in Croatia, Italy, France and Austria, which did not exceed 2 500 kt per year, stopped before 2004. Production in Spain continuously decreased from 1990 (16 000 kt) to 2007 which was the last year of production.

What is lignite used for and how is it different to other fuels?

The nine countries producing lignite used 92.8 % of the lignite they extracted in 2019 for electricity and heat production (see Figure 3).


Figure 3: Lignite used for electricity and heat production, EU, 2019 (%)
Source: Eurostat (nrg_cb_sff)


Lignite is used exclusively for electricity and heat production in Slovenia, and quasi-exclusively (more than 99 %) in Greece, Romania and Poland. The remaining proportion is used by the energy sector (such as mines, etc.), by the industry and by other sectors like households and agriculture in these countries. In other Member States such as Bulgaria, Czechia and Germany, lignite was also used to produce other energy products such as brown coal briquettes (in Bulgaria, Czechia and Germany), gas works gas (in Czechia) and coke oven coke (in Germany). With regard to the EU, these products represented about 7.2 % of the lignite extracted in 2019, including direct use by households and industry (in particular the chemical and petro-chemical industry).


Figure 4: Fuels in total gross electricity production, EU, 2019
Source: Eurostat (nrg_bal_peh)


In 2019, 8 % of total gross electricity produced in EU was based on lignite, representing around 241 000 GWh. In comparison to other fuels, a bit more electricity was produced from lignite than from other bituminous coal in the EU, and electricity produced from lignite was more than double the amount of electricity produced from solar photovoltaic. At EU level, nuclear heat and natural gas were the main fuels used for electricity production, representing respectively 26 % and 20 % of total gross electricity production in 2019 (see Figure 4). However, at country level, electricity generated from lignite represented a large proportion in some Member States, with the highest shares in Czechia (40 %) and Bulgaria (37 %) (see Figure 5).


Figure 5: Fuels in total electricity production in lignite producing Member States, 2019
Source: Eurostat (nrg_bal_peh)


What technology is used to transform lignite and how efficient is it?

The two types of plants which use lignite to produce electricity are electricity-only plants and combined heat and power (CHP) plants.


Figure 6: Production of electricity from lignite by different types of plants, EU, 1990-2019
Source: Eurostat (nrg_ind_pehcf)


Over the period 1990-2019, around three-quarters of lignite used for electricity production was generated by electricity-only power plants, while the remaining quarter was used by CHP plants (see Figure 6). To reduce transportation costs, the power plants are usually located next to the mines. Power stations are therefore located far from cities and therefore far from potential customers. Due to the distance from potential customers for the heat, the construction of energy efficient CHP plants exploiting both the electricity and the heat (CHP) has little economic advantage in remote areas. As a result, electricity-only plants are chosen normally to produce electricity from lignite rather than CHP plants. Therefore the heat produced in the combustion process ends up in the atmosphere.


Figure 7: Evolution of transformation efficiencies by electricity only plants of selected fuels in EU, 1990-2019
Source: Eurostat (nrg_bal_peh), (nrg_ind_pehcf)


Transformation efficiency refers to the relation between transformation input and transformation output with regards to the energy of a fuel (e.g. transformation of lignite into electricity). Transformation efficiencies of electricity-only plants increased between 1990 and 2019 for natural gas (by 12 percentage points) compared to lignite (3.5 percentage points) and other bituminous coal (remained stable). In general, the transformation efficiency of electricity-only power plants is lower for lignite (38 %) than for other fuels such as other bituminous coal (40 %) and natural gas (48 %) (see Figure 7).

What is the environmental impact of lignite?

All fossil fuels contain carbon, which is released in the form of greenhouse gases (e.g. carbon dioxide, methane) when combusted. Therefore, burning lignite contributes to greenhouse gas emissions. The carbon dioxide emission factor is calculated from the carbon within the fuel. This factor differs depending on lignite quality. The highest value was recorded for Greece with 119.4 tCO2/TJ (see Table 1). This means that burning one terajoule of lignite results in the emission of 119.4 tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere. The lowest value was reported by Romania with 96.8 tCO2/TJ. In general, the carbon emission factor is higher for lignite (101.2 tCO2/TJ) compared to other fuels such as other bituminous coal (94.6 tCO2/TJ) and natural gas (56.1 tCO2/TJ; Table 1). Therefore, one GWh of electricity produced using lignite results in almost double the amount of CO2 emissions compared to one GWh produced using natural gas.

Table 1: Carbon dioxide emission factor of most important fuels in lignite producing countries, EU, 2019 (in tCO2 TJ)
Source: UNFCCC Inventory Submission 2020, Year 2018; based on CRF Table 1.A(b) in tC/TJ

Summary

Although political and economic advantages exist for the use of lignite for electricity and heat generation, lignite is mainly extracted from open-air mines which leads to land destruction. Furthermore, this fossil fuel has a high climate change potential in comparison with other fuels, and is used by power plants with relatively low efficiency in producing electricity (electricity-only plants compared to CHP plants). Given the current discussions on climate change at European and global level, Member States continuously reduced its use since 1990. This also an effect of the EU Emissions Trading System (EU ETS) which makes the use of lignite less and less economically rewarding, as for each ton of CO2 released to the atmosphere, the CO2 emitter has to buy emission allowances.

Source data for tables and graphs

Data sources

The production and consumption data of hard coal and lignite between 1990 and 2019 are based on data from the annual solid fossil fuels questionnaire. 2020 data are based on the early annual version of this questionnaire (voluntary data collection): data for 2020 are considered provisional/estimates of the annual statistics.

The data related to electricity production, the share of lignite in it and the measured plant efficiencies are based on data from the annual electricity and heat questionnaire.

The data related to carbon emissions is based on the EU’s Inventory Submission to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

Context

The Energy statistics Regulation (EC) No 1099/2008 is the legal basis for the reporting of annual energy questionnaires.

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