“Clean coal” doesn’t exist. It’s a marketing term. Even if we can capture 85% of the carbon emissions we still have one of the biggest producers of air pollution in Australia. What we’re really talking about is coal plus carbon capture and sequestration (CCS). Pouring funding into the development of coal with CCS takes money away from renewable energy, which is irresponsible. This technology is not going to be ready for 20 years. The price estimates on this technology now are absurdly low – 20-50% more than normal coal. The realistic prices are over double, they’re certainly higher than wind power, which is going to get a lot cheaper over the next 15 years. Further, there are huge problems with keeping the sequestered carbon under the ground. The common argument is that when you pump carbon dioxide back into an oil or gas field it will stay there millions of years, but that is simplistic nonsense. The reality is there is always going to be some leakage. When it gets into waterways it forms carbonic acid and has a similar impact on soil. The government is creating the false impression that clean coal is ready now and renewable energies are not, but the reverse is true. They are being held back by a lack of carbon pricing. That’s the first point. The second is that people have to get used to paying more for energy. Once we accept that, then probably the cheapest forms of electricity are wind power and bio energy. But don’t expect the government to tell you that. – Dr Mark Diesendorf, Senior Lecturer in the Institute of Environmental Studies, University of NSW

Clean coal technologies will have a major role to play in the final composition of Australia’s energy future. In burning coal we currently create 820 and 1250 kilograms of CO2 per megawatt hour. With clean coal technologies, we’re looking at a 85% to 90% reduction to about 150 to 200 kilograms. Sounds great, but it will take 15-20 years before those technologies are commercially viable and widely adopted. Clean coal technologies include three components. One is the energy conversion (combustion or gasification), two is the capture of the emissions and three is sequestering the carbon dioxide. A substantial amount of work is being done on all three components of the technology. The energy conversion side is reasonably well known. But the gas separation and capture still requires a lot of development. Sequestration of CO2 is well understood but the eventual costs depends on the site. The product being sequestered is a super critical liquid – it’s a fluid that’s got both liquid and gaseous properties, so it needs to be sequestered at least 800 metres down. But how do you stop it escaping? This is one of the big concerns in the community. Within the right geological structures, I personally have no concerns whatsoever, but the community needs to be convinced. People are slowly coming around to the view that greener energy will cost more, but as the Energy Supply Association of Australia pointed out last year, significant R&D expenditure is still required to ensure these technologies are commercial in Australia and to minimise the cost impact of introducing any emissions constraint. That’s a good assessment of where Australia stands in the move towards greener energy. – David Brockway, Chief of the Energy Technology Division, CSIRO

Coal with carbon with capture and sequestration (CCS) is held out as the salvation for both the national and international facets of Australia’s coal industry. But will it be? The answer comes down to cost and feasibility. Neither side of that equation has yet become a reality, which makes some of the claims by politicians about its future look more than a little overconfident. Let’s consider the two parts of the process in turn. The capture part requires separating CO2 from the other gases in power station flue gas. The technology for this on the required scale at anything like acceptable cost doesn’t yet exist but is being researched heavily. If and when it is developed, it’s unlikely to be economic as a “bolt on” to existing power stations, but will require entirely new power stations or very major changes to existing ones. While these new designs are known to work (unlike large scale carbon capture), none of them are in commercial operation anywhere in the world. So developing a working and economically feasible capture system is subject to considerable uncertainty about research outcomes, plus the investment risks associated with radically new technologies. The sequestration part involves piping the CO2 to the site where the geological conditions are suitable. In this case the required technologies are known to work and the costs are reasonably well understood. That’s reassuring for proponents, but there are operational and environmental risks that are less certain. Can the pipelines be operated safely? A leak could cause many fatalities. Will the CO2 stay sequestered for the required decades or centuries? And there are uncertainties about suitable sequestration sites. Victoria and Queensland are home to suitable geology, but not NSW, where nearly half of Australia’s current coal consumption occurs. Hence, CCS may not be feasible at the places where much of Australia’s current coal consumption occurs, and, where feasible, its introduction will involve massive changes to Australia’s current coal using infrastructure. That leads us to a simple question: Given what we know about CCS technology, will the cost and timeframes be less than those associated with a complete shift to non-coal technologies that promise almost zero carbon emission? Ask your local member. –Dr Hugh Saddler, Managing Director, Energy Strategies

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey