Crikey spoke to two experts with differing views about the viability, the benefits and the common sense of Australia investing in coal fired power generation with carbon capture and sequestration (CCS). Here are their views on the realities of coal with CCS and the alternatives.

Dr David Brockway, Chief of the CSIRO Division of Energy Technology.

Coal is Australia’s largest commodity export, providing an income of about $22bn in 2006/07; approximately one-half of this is from steaming coal used for power generation. Coal is also a cost-effective primary fuel for over 80% of Australia’s power supply. It is a principle fuel for power generation worldwide. However, the use of coal results is relatively high greenhouse gas emissions, and the impact of these emissions on climate change places questions on its long-term use.

To address these issues, complementary low emission technology research, development, demonstration and deployment programs are underway in a number of countries, including Australia.

These technologies generally fall into two categories. Firstly, those aimed at finding ways to make coal more efficient, so less coal is combusted to create the same amount of electricity; and, secondly, finding ways to capture the carbon dioxide created when burning coal and to permanently store or sequester it deep geological formations. Of course, the ideal is to combine them. And, yes, greater amounts of coal will be consumed to provide the energy required to enable the carbon dioxide to be captured and sequestered, but this will only occur in order to reduce the net emissions to the environment by significant amounts, potentially as high as 90%.

A number of other low emissions technologies, including renewables, are in development. Research shows that, firstly, the lowest cost route to low emissions power is a portfolio of technologies and, secondly, that all low emissions technologies will result in higher costs for power.

It is recognised worldwide that clean coal technology (CCT) will provide power, at the power station, that is about twice the current cost of coal-fired power generation. In Australia, wind power now costs at least twice as much to produce as coal-fired power, solar thermal possibly four to five times as much and photovoltaics five to ten times as much. Costs are expected to reduce as each technology goes through research, development and demonstration, but that will occur over one or two decades.

While power costs will rise in achieving low emissions, the cost of power to the consumer will not double. The cost of power to the consumer comprises the cost of generation, transmission, distribution and retail, with generation only making up about one-third of the total to domestic consumers.

Most countries have an enormous investment in long-lived coal fired power generation so it is logical to develop and implement CCTs as they become proven and cost-competitive, particularly where they have the potential to be retrofitted to existing power stations. And while most renewables remain substantially higher in cost than even clean coal technologies, it is also logical to invest in research and development for them to drive the costs down substantially. This is why institutions like CSIRO along with Government and industry are undertaking research, pilot plant and demonstration programs across a wide range of fossil fuels, renewables, distributed generation and energy management technologies.

Dr Mark Diesendorf, Senior Lecturer in Environmental Studies at the University of New South Wales.

I object to the term clean coal. It’s a marketing term that has been produced by the marketing arm of the coal industry. There’s no such thing as clean coal and there never will be, although in the future it is possible there will be coal power with reduced greenhouse emissions.

Should it be part of Australia’s energy future? If a country is prepared to spend several billion dollars to get the whole system up and running we’d be silly not to use it should it be proven to be safe. But I don’t think Australia should be spending billions of dollars. This is a huge project that can really only be effectively be developed by a superpower, either the United States or the European Union. We are seeing right now the US closing down its principle project, FutureGen, because it is now going to be three times as expensive as it was originally proposed. There are some things we can still do. We should continue with the basic geological research to identify the potential underground storages in Australia, and some of the experiments such as the one in the Otways in Victoria to sequestrate carbon dioxide underground. But to try to develop the whole system would be absurd for Australia in my view.

It should be remembered that if we put some or all of that money into developing renewable energy technologies which could generate the same amounts of electricity. What we can’t do with renewables is have endless growth doubling the demand every 20 or 30 years ad infinitum. If we had the political will, we could generate all our electricity from renewable sources. With the political will, by 2020 we could have 25% of all electricity from renewable sources, which is the greens target. I have studied electricity generation from renewable energy in some detail and it is a myth for some people to claim that renewables can’t provide baseload.

A combination of different types of renewable sources together can be just as reliable as the conventional system and it is significantly cleaner both in terms of greenhouse gases and other forms of pollution. Coal with carbon capture and storage is an unproven technology. With renewable energy technologies, we have a wide range of technologies which have been proven but they haven’t been widely disseminated.

Neither the coal scenario nor the energy efficiency/renewable energy scenario can endlessly be used to meet demand that doubles every 20 to 30 years. We have to reign that in.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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