Carbon capture and sequestration seems doomed in Australia, with experts condemning the expensive technology to Crikey following Queensland Premier Anna Bligh’s decision to abandon a central Queensland carbon capture plant.

Citing rising electricity prices and an unfeasible location, Bligh said funding for the $4.3 billion project — which had already received $192 million in taxpayer funds and was due for completion by 2015– would be halted indefinitely.

The project, along with the Wandowan, Collie South West Hub and CarbonNet projects, was one of four “flagship” CCS projects across Australia. But with the Bligh government’s decision, the outlook for the technology as a whole looks bleak.

According to the Australian Conservation Foundation’s climate change program manager, Tony Mohr, CCS is a matter of “too little, too late”. He says the federal government should cut its losses and redirect the money it has put aside for future CCS funding.

“There are just so many other options that are cheaper and faster than CCS now… Australia has quite large reserves for solar, geothermal and wave power,” he said.

Mohr says the coal industry has underinvested in “cleaning up its own act” and federal and state governments should divert taxpayers’ money to new, albeit fledgling, industries without existing profit bases.

Greenpeace spokesperson John Hepburn says the decision to scrap Zerogen is unsurprising given the project had become a veritable “money pit” for the Bligh government.

“It’s not surprising to see another CCS project fail, after the FutureGen project in the US essentially collapsed under the weight of its own hubris,” he said, adding the practical challenges of the technology were a problem from the start. “CCS is monumentally unpractical. It’s great idea in theory, and I’m confident that if we can put a man on the moon, we can make it work. But in reality, it’s ended up being an excuse for the coal industry to continue business as usual.”

According to Hepburn, public money should never have been invested in CCS research or projects, with future funding best directed to renewable energy options like tidal, geothermal and solar thermal power — energy options that don’t ensure a continued dependency on coal.

“CCS is dying a slow and painful death, and most people in the industry and most engineers don’t think it’s practical,” he said.

However, with the coal industry a “powerful lobby” across state and federal jurisdictions, Hepburn says it’s unlikely any Australian government will stop subsidising CCS in favour of alternative energy sources: “We have this charade of CCS, and we will probably have to go through this for another decade before they finally stop wasting taxpayers’ money.”

ANU earth and paleo-climate scientist Andrew Glikson has a similarly grim diagnosis for CCS. He says the technology, which only limits the output of emissions created by coal, will be largely ineffectual because existing carbon dioxide levels are already approaching an “emergency stage”.

And he believes there are still a number of major problems with CCS itself: “Carbon capture is an extremely expensive method. Second, when CO2 leaks form pipe systems and from underground storage this can results in serious hazards to people. Thirdly, carbon capture and storage is till at an experimental stage.”

Essentially, Glikson says the recent investment in CCS is more about saving political face than saving the planet: “I see CCS more as a political point aimed at alleviating people’s concerns and looking like you’re doing something more than anything else.”

Like Hepburn and Tohr, Glikson believes the future lies in renewable resources such as wind, solar and geothermal energy.

“In Australia, the resources for geothermal, or ‘hotrocks’, energy are open-ended. Wind power is also extremely important, but more for local purposes. Geothermal and solar power have the potential of feeding into the main power grids, and Europe is looking at ways to collect solar from collectors located in the Sahara for this purpose,” he said.

Peter Fray

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