The surprise announcement was made at a press conference in Brussels on Wednesday.
National energy companies from every EU nation – except Poland and Greece – have signed up to the initiative, which will overhaul the bloc’s energy-generating future.
A press release from Eurelectric, which represents 3,500 utilities with a combined value of over €200bn, reaffirmed a pledge to deliver on the Paris climate agreement, and vowed a moratorium on new investments in coal plants after 2020.
“26 of 28 member states have stated that they will not invest in new coal plants after 2020” said Kristian Ruby, Eurelectric’s secretary-general. “History will judge this message we are bringing here today. It is a clear message that speaks for itself, and should be seen in close relation to the Paris agreement and our commitment to provide 100% carbon-neutral electricity by 2050.”
The coal industry though was sceptical about the utilities’ announcement. Brian Ricketts, the secretary-general of the Euracoal trade group said: “Steam engines were replaced by something better,cheaper and more productive – electric motors and diesel engines. When we see a new energy system – with lots of energy storage – that works at an affordable price, then coal, oil and gas will not be needed. In the meantime, we still rely on conventional sources.”
Renewable industry sources welcomed the news, albeit with the caveat that it would allow continued new investments in the industry for another three years.
“The debate about coal is over,” one industry insider told the Guardian. “This is the only way that we can go forward with decarbonisation. But it would be good to see a phase out of existing coal plants.”
The energy utilities’ initiative faced initial resistance in Germany which is relying on coal to bridge a move away from nuclear energy to renewables under the “energiewende” transition.
In the end though, only Poland which depends on coal for around 90% of its electricity and Greece, which still plans new coal plants, bucked what is becoming a global trend.
New coal plant constructions fell by almost two thirds across the world in 2016, with the EU and US leading the way in retiring in existing coal capacity.