May 25, 2012

Old energy: the renaissance of fossil fuels under the carbon tax

The fossil fuel sector isn't hiding from a carbon tax. In fact, it's planning a revival. Renewable energy is undermined by coal-powered operators finding ways to reduce emissions and increase efficiency, writes Philipp Rosskopf.

The fossil fuel sector isn't hiding from a carbon tax. In fact, it's planning a revival. In July 2011, when plans to introduce the carbon price were announced, Clean Energy Council director of strategy Kane Thornton congratulated the government and said the new policy would "turbo-charge the clean energy sector". Now, a month before the official implementation of the carbon tax, the City of Sydney’s announcement to install Australia’s first low-carbon energy network seems to provide evidence for this "turbo charge". In collaboration with Origin Energy the city has created a plan that supplies 70% of the local government area with electricity until 2030. The tri-generation technology has a high energy conversion efficiency, providing power, heating and cooling to buildings at the same time. "Tri-generation is a compelling, alternative energy solution that helps lower carbon emissions and network demand, while increasing energy efficiency and power security," said Jim Galvin, head of retail markets for Origin Energy. But although the technology can operate on bio-fuel, fossil gas is the main energy source at present, leaving the dream of an entirely renewable system to the future. The anticipated changing of the guard from fossil to renewable energy sources is undermined by operators of fossil energy sources finding ways to reduce CO2 emissions and increasing the efficiency factor of their plants. The state government recently allowed the size of a planned brown-coal and gas-fired power station in Victoria's Latrobe Valley to double. This station is also based on new coal gasification technology, which promises to produce cheaper, cleaner power. Green energy initiatives claim they are also at a disadvantage because of the Australian mineral industry’s attacks on the renewable energy sector. In its submission to the government’s energy white paper, the Australian Coal Association criticises the two most discussed renewable energy sources, solar and wind power, for their intermittency, scale and public acceptance issues. For the CEO of Brown Coal Innovation Australia, Dr Phil Gurney, renewable energy is not always as emission free as its advocates try to make the public believe. "Solar panels, for example, need an operation time from 17 to 20 years to become carbon-neutral and financially profitable," Gurney told Crikey. "Making existing fossil-fuelled power plants more efficient would be by far the cheaper option. The main intention behind the carbon tax is still a reduction of the carbon emission and not necessarily an increase of renewable energy." Virginia Streit, from Energy Matters, a company that has installed more solar power systems than anyone else in the country, is worried about the reinvigorated fossil energy sector. "We don’t need these polluters in Australia any more and fight them wherever we can, like in the current case of the planned coal-fired power station in Victoria," Streit told Crikey. She said most lines of argument against renewable sources were based on prejudices and not applicable any more: "The simple truth is that, when looking at the whole carbon life cycle, the footprint of renewable energy sources is tiny compared to the one of coal and gas." A 2010 study by the Cameco Corporation comes to the same assessment. Representing the uranium industry, the organisation approached the problem of inconsistent results by calculating averages on the basis of 21 different studies, undertaken by governments, universities and the energy sector from 2000 to 2009. It found that brown and black coal produce 1069 and 888 tonnes CO2 emissions per gigawatt hour, and that solar photovoltaic (with only 85 tonnes) was the main contributor among the renewable energy sources.

Lifecycle emission intensity of electricity generation methods, according to 2010 Cameco Corporation study (infographic: Philipp Rosskopf)

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14 thoughts on “Old energy: the renaissance of fossil fuels under the carbon tax

  1. Jonathan Prendergast

    While it is often doubted that wind and solar can provide base-load power, the opposite is true. The major challenge for a 100% renewable grid is the supply of electricity at peak times. Sure, we have great hydro facilities in the Snowy Mountains, and they are already used to help during peak times, but there is still the requirement for a huge capacity of gas fired peaking plants around Australia.

    To properly consider trigeneration schemes like the City of Sydney’s, you have to consider the whole picture. It is more than a gas fired electricity generation plant. The capture and use of waste heat increases the energy efficiency greatly, and reduces peak demand on the hottest days due to displacement of electric chillers.

    In the long term, once buildings are connected to district heating and cooling systems via underground pipework, they can be powered by thermal storage. Such storage can use renewable energy to charge up during low electricity demand periods in the grid, then supply heating and/or cooling to buildings when electricity demand is greater than renewable energy supply. For example, it could charge overnight, and supply in the afternoon. Such storage does not compete with renewable energy, but complements it. It enables renewable energy.

  2. Morris Nigel

    Dr Phil Gurney told Crikey: “Solar panels, for example, need an operation time from 17 to 20 years to become carbon-neutral and financially profitable.”

    This is a typical example of the coal industry being either staggeringly ignorant, lying or both.

    There are a myriad of studies that show the entire carbon cradle to grave footprint of a solar panel is about 2 years and decreasing.

    Financial profitability varies on the application but can be as low as a few years due to the rapidly declining costs and escalating price of, wait for it…….. coal fired energy.

    Their distortion of the truth and prejudice is so staggeringly obvious it’s hilarious and is helping renewable’s enormously because we can simply stick to facts and truth.

  3. Geoff Russell

    Ok, I give up. Why exactly did the graphic leave out mention of the life cycle emissions of nuclear power? Perhaps they weren’t calculated? No, I checked, the report calculated the average of 14 studies as 28 tonnes CO2eq/GWh.

  4. Clytie

    Geoff, that’s probably because we don’t want another Chernobyl or Tokyo.

    BTW, it’s a bit discouraging to reach this page and see a large ad for fossil fuel (“natural” gas). 🙁

  5. Stephen

    Never forget, the main purpose of carbon pricing is business as usual.

  6. Mark Duffett

    I’d like an answer to Geoff Russell’s question.

  7. Microseris

    If we are looking at the economics of the generation options, remediation of the mines is never factored into the costs of coal. Operators will simply walk away leaving a massive hole in the ground.

    In Feb 2011, in the Latrobe Valley (Vic) the Morwell freeway nearly slid into the Hazelwood mine when the north batter slipped causing the main drain to fail. The cause was due to a cost cutting exercise by the foreign owned mine operator, who reduced pumping of the underlying aquifer. Who paid for repairs to the road and drain – the Vic Govt. Who is going to bear the costs of maintaining this mine into the foreseeable future? Without maintenance, the entire town of Morwell will subside into the mine.

    This same story is happening/will happen in areas where coal deposits are mined in eastern Australia.

  8. Hamis Hill

    Key Words: Carbon market, Carbon Credits, Money, employment, money, employment.
    Suggestion: Try using these key words in the debate.
    Imperative: Do not be a carbon cretin.

  9. Geoff Russell

    Clytie: Japans addition of red meat to her traditional diet increased her bowel cancer incidence by about 90,000 new bowel cancers EVERY SINGLE YEAR.


    The toll from Fukushima radiation sits at zero. If everybody went back to their homes tomorrow, how many cancers would there be from radiation?

  10. mick j

    Any improvement is a good improvement. If every household in this country had 20 solar panels on its roof then we would have at least halved the coal burned domestically. Then add in wind turbines which would be tremendous near the high wind coastal regions and we are on the way to clean power.

    It is sad that the dinosaurs of industry push their own barrows and have so little care and respect for the nation they live in that they choose instead to continue what is unsustainable so that they can make their fist full of dollars. These people are not too dissimilar in their utterings from the cigarette industry which claimed “no proof” for decades as the reason to continue killing people. In like fashion the asbestos industry which knew about the effects of asbestos since the early 1950s (US studies conclusive) but continued on anyway with its business strategy at the expense of many thousands of lives in this country.

    Coal in its current form is dead but don’t expect those with their bank accounts linked to coal to stop. With the support of its business owned and operated political party (the Liberal Party) big business will continue to play the game for some time yet. Such is the nature of these Australians.

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