Increased coal fired electricity generation increases emissions of key air pollutant

Date released: Feb 06 2014

  • EPA figures show that emissions of the air pollutant nitrogen oxide (NOx) increased in 2012 and were above the specified EU emission ceiling.
  • This increase in NOX mirrors the increase also observed in greenhouse gas emissions in 2012 and underlines the need to decouple emissions from economic activity as the economy recovers from recession.
  • Emissions of air pollutants sulphur dioxide (SO2), volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and ammonia (NH3) were well within the required EU emission limits.

The EPA today published figures for emissions of four key air pollutants. These pollutants can cause respiratory problems, contribute to the acidification of soil and surface water, and damage vegetation.

This latest information from the EPA shows that, in 2012, Ireland continued to breach its nitrogen oxide (NOx) emission ceiling and, in fact, moved further from the ceiling, which was set under the EU’s National Emissions Ceiling Directive. This Directive requires that emission ceilings are to be met by 2010 and must not be exceeded in any following year.

The road transport sector has been one of the main contributing factors behind the high NOx levels, responsible for over 47% of total national emissions in 2012. The industrial and power generation sectors are also key sources of NOx emissions. The figures published today show that NOx emissions increased between 2011 and 2012 due to an increase in emissions from coal fired electricity generation – which reflects low coal and carbon prices - and an increase in cement production. The increase in NOx emissions mirrors the increase also reported for greenhouse gas emissions in 2012.

Dr Eimear Cotter, Senior Manager, EPA said,

"An increase in NOx emissions and greenhouse gas emissions in 2012 underlines the need to decouple emissions from economic activity through, for example, promoting energy efficiency, alternative fuels and energy. Travelling less by car as well as influencing consumer choice in terms of buying cleaner vehicles with improved emission control technologies will also help to reduce NOx and greenhouse gas emissions”.

The figures published today also show that Ireland’s levels of sulphur dioxide (SO2), volatile organic compounds (VOC) and ammonia (NH3) in 2012 were below the EU emission ceilings. The reduction in these pollutants is positive for the environment, public health and the economy. The main sources of these emissions are power generation, residential and commercial sectors for SO2; solvent use and transport for VOCs; and agriculture for NH3. Effective licencing and enforcement by the EPA has resulted in reductions in these pollutants as well as stricter regulation of VOC emissions from vehicles. While cattle numbers have been decreasing since 1998, there was, however, a 4.4% increase in 2012.

Commenting on the figures Dr Cotter, said,

“Ireland has significantly cut emissions of sulphur dioxide and volatile organic compounds in recent decades, greatly reducing exposure to these pollutants. Whilst ammonia emissions have stayed reasonably constant since 1990, ambitious targets under Food Harvest 2020 could put pressure on ammonia emissions into the future.”

Notes to Editor:

Changes to transboundary air pollutant emissions are as follows:

Nitrogen Oxides (NOx):
Emissions of nitrogen oxides (NOx) decreased by 44% between 1990 and 2012. Between 2011 and 2012 there was a 3% increase, due to an increase in emissions from the Moneypoint coal fired power station and an increase in cement production. Ireland is currently exceeding its 2010 NOx ceiling of 65 kilotonnes by 11.7 kilotonnes in 2010, 4.0 kilotonnes in 2011 and 6.2 kilotonnes in 2012.
The road transport sector represents the largest source of NOx emissions, accounting for 51 % of total NOx emissions in 2012. Stricter EU standards for emissions from cars and heavy duty vehicles have delivered significant reductions in emissions from road transport in combination with the economic downturn in recent years. However, while the benefits achieved by these more stringent standards achieved substantial decreases in NOx emissions, they did not deliver in full the anticipated emission reductions particularly in relation to diesel cars and goods vehicles. This failure and the large increase in traffic volumes and associated fuel use during a time of economic growth largely offset the emissions reductions. In the power generation sector, reductions have occurred since 1990 as a result of measures such as extensive NOx emission control technology, supported by the EPA’s licensing and enforcement regime, and fuel-switching from oil to gas and renewable energy. Notwithstanding this downward trend in emissions since 1990, there was a 28% increase in NOx emissions from power generation in 2012 due to an increase in emissions from the Moneypoint coal fired power station.

Sulphur Dioxide (SO2):
Between 1990 and 2012, SO2 emissions decreased by 87%. Between 2011 and 2012 the decrease was 6%, mainly due to reductions in the industry and residential sectors reflecting  a continued switch from the use of fuel oil and solid fuels to natural gas.
Ireland’s 2010 national emission ceiling for SO2 is 42 kilotonnes. Emissions in 2009 were already below this 2010 ceiling. These data for 2012 show Ireland is 18.8 ktonnes below the 2010 limit.
The reduction in emissions since 1990 has been achieved as a result of a combination of measures, including switching fuel in energy-related sectors from high to low sulphur fuels such as natural gas, the fitting of SO2 abatement technology in power generation plant, the ban on bituminous coal in urban centres and a voluntary agreement to reduce the sulphur content of solid fuels which was further strengthened and given a statutory footing in 2011.

Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC):
Emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOC) decreased by 47% between 1990 and 2012. Between 2011 and 2012 the decrease was 3%, mainly due to reductions in the transport sector. The main sources of VOC emissions in Ireland are solvent use and transport.
Ireland’s 2010 national emission ceiling for VOC is 55 kilotonnes. Emissions in 2006 were already below the 2010 ceiling. These data for 2012 show Ireland to be 11.3 ktonnes below the 2010 limit.
VOC emission levels in the solvent use sector have remained relatively constant since 1990 even though drivers such as population, paint use, dry cleaning and industrial activity have increased. This reflects a reduction in the VOC content of products such as paints and the impact of EPA’s licencing and enforcement regime on relevant activities. VOC emissions from transport have reduced due to improved EU standards in cars and the more widespread use of vehicle exhaust catalytic converters.

Ammonia (NH3):
The primary sources of NH3 are the application of animal manures and nitrogenous fertilisers to soils. NH3 emissions from agricultural sources have decreased by 3.5% between 1990 and 2012 reflecting a decrease in animal numbers. Total NH3 emissions decreased by 2% between 1990 and 2012, corresponding to a decrease in dairy cows and a reduction in the application of synthetic fertiliser to soils.
Ireland’s national emission ceiling for NH3 is 116 kilotonnes to be achieved by 2010. Emissions in 2000 were already below the 2010 ceiling. These data for 2012 show Ireland to be 11.4 ktonnes below the 2010 limit. However, given the strong performance of the agriculture sector in line with the ambitious targets of Food Harvest 2020, limiting NH3 emissions to below the 2010 ceiling in the future could become an issue. Continued research on low emission landspreading techniques and other manure management strategies is required.