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Nov 4, 2014

No DICE: Greg Hunt deceives the public about 'clean' coal project

Greg Hunt's plan to reduce carbon emissions through cleaner coal is too little, too late.


Environment Minister Greg Hunt should be investigated for misleading and deceptive conduct. He talks repeatedly about the potential to clean up our coal-fired power stations, reducing their emissions by 30-50%, by installing you-beaut Direct Injection Carbon Engines, when the technology is drastically underfunded, unavailable at scale, and has a colourful history of unsuccessful research sponsored for very many years by one of ICAC’s favourite miners, Travers Duncan.

The Direct Injection Carbon Engine, or DICE, is a big diesel of the kind used in ships, fuelled by a slurry of water and very fine coal with most of the ash taken out. Hunt was at it again yesterday, crowing about the passage through the Senate of legislation enabling him to set up a $2.55 billion emissions reduction fund, the centrepiece of the Direct Action plan, wording up reporters about the potential of DICE.

The key sentence is this: “DICE, the subject of a major research project at the CSIRO, can cut emissions from a coal station by up to half but is still at least five years from being ready to roll out.”

DICE is not a “major CSIRO research project”. There is a small team of two to four well-intentioned scientists and engineers working out of the CSIRO’s energy labs in Newcastle, running a 4-litre, single-cylinder diesel engine on coal, on a shoestring budget, struggling to find industry partners. “Ready to roll out” means a commercial-scale unit with a capacity of about 50MW — a tenth the size of a smallish power station — might exist by 2019-20, if trials on a prototype engine prove promising. Any roll-out worthy of the term is decades away.

As readers are aware from Crikey’s investigations here and here and here and here, culminating in this Background Briefing for ABC Radio National in July (to be re-broadcast this Sunday), DICE is the latest iteration of a long series of attempts to get the ash out of coal (by chemical leaching, or crushing the coal down to a fine powder and physically separating it), mix it with water and burn it as a liquid fuel.

The key sponsor of the research over more than 25 years was coal baron Travers Duncan, one of Australia’s richest men and chairman of listed White Energy, who was found to have behaved corruptly by ICAC after an investigation into its proposed acquisition of Cascade Coal, holder of a coal tenement at Mount Penny, which would have generated windfall gains for Cascade shareholders including Duncan and former New South Wales politician Eddie Obeid.

Back in 1987, when chaired by the late Neville Wran, the CSIRO partnered with Duncan and White Industries to develop an Ultra Clean Coal (UCC) that could be used as a liquid fuel — even injected into gas turbines or jet engines. Years of fruitless research followed, centered on trials at a UCC plant in Cessnock, later flogged off to Chinese miner Yancoal in 2009 and finally closed last year.

UCC had a forerunner too, a program called Supercoal, also supported by Wran when he was NSW premier, until it was exposed as a fraud in Parliament in 1980 by then-opposition spokesman on energy, and qualified coal engineer Ted Pickering, a key source for the Background Briefing program. UCC chewed up tens of millions of dollars in public and private funds, forever holding out the promise of public benefits like lower greenhouse gas emissions from coal and increased energy security, which never eventuated. My Background Briefing revealed the main commercial outcome of UCC was to give White an edge when tendering for the Moolarben coal mine.

Duncan is not involved in DICE, but the long back-story shows it would be unwise to put too much faith in the promise of clean coal as a liquid fuel, let alone shovel more public money into it as the federal government appears determined to do, with DICE featuring in the Energy Green Paper and affiliated companies sharing in $20 million of the grants made earlier this year. The most bizarre aspect of DICE is that, even if it succeeds in every respect, energy market experts reckon it isn’t competitive with technologies already available off the shelf. Wind energy, for example, is cheaper to build and run than a DICE engine and cuts greenhouse gas emissions by 100%. DICE is a glaring example of too little, too late.

Which seems to suit Greg Hunt just fine. If we had all century to tackle climate change, that might be OK. As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has again warned, we don’t. DICE is simply not plausible at the front and centre of a national strategy to combat climate change in 2014.


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37 thoughts on “No DICE: Greg Hunt deceives the public about ‘clean’ coal project

  1. Trog Sorrenson

    Why our society votes liars like this into positions of power is beyond me.

  2. Roger Clifton

    DICE is somewhat-cleaner-coal, a token reduction when we should be eliminating, carbon emissions. But let’s remember that wind-backed-by-gas is also a token reduction. We need to get rid of the gas, too.

  3. MJPC

    The Germans in 1944 had a similar program for powdered coal to be used in aircraft engines. Didn’t work then, not working now but it appears that it is still OK for the snake oil salesman to use it to get public money.

  4. JohnB

    When a researcher says that his technology will be ready to roll out in 5 years, he is using a phrase that has a specific meaning in research everywhere.

    It means that he doesn’t have any idea when the technology will roll out, so he has put a number on it, a number which indicates that the current research team will not see it and nothing is guaranteed.

    It is code for “I don’t know”.

  5. klewso

    “Half-bake” fits Right in with his present company – what a waste of a university education? ….Who paid for that….. – because we are now.

  6. Coaltopia

    Roll the DICE, which of your favourite clean coal pot-boilers comes-up? The fig-leaf-under-swept rug of the Boundary (Dental) Dam EoR pipe-dream, the HRL clean-as-black lignite turd polisher, the Kingaroy UCG Cattle Prod, a DCFC (not the band or the football club but a “fool cell”), the Linc Energy bait and switch, the Kogan Creek microwave or another boondoggled gravy train shipping pork barrels to Japan?


  7. Mark Duffett

    A good yarn, but the pudding is overegged just a little with “Wind energy, for example, is cheaper to build and run than a DICE engine and cuts greenhouse gas emissions by 100%”. Energy embodied in the materials means wind electricity emissions, while low, are not zero. And at least you know DICE will produce x MW when you turn it on, pointing to the need for gas backup to wind as indicated by Roger.

  8. Mark Duffett

    But I hasted to furious agreement with the main point: DICE is simply not plausible at the front and centre of a national strategy to combat climate change in 2014.

  9. graybul

    “Those who forget the past . . . are doomed to . . . “! Lies are the currency of this Federal Government, so . . . “Those who . . . .”

  10. Scott

    What about Shell Cansolv technology? Can be retrofitted to existing power plants and has just started operating in Canada.

    The answer to CCS will not be found in a government lab like CSIRO. It will be found through R&D by the coal and oil companies (which have a vested interest in keeping their product moving)

    Self Interest. The only thing that works.

  11. JohnB

    Mark, I can’t put my finger on a reference right now, but doesn’t it take 5 or 7 years for wind generation just to repay the embodied energy used to construct it?

    Add to that the carbon footprint of all that steel, plastic and concrete, that they don’t catch up with for a similar or longer period.

    A wind turbine constructed in Year 1 will not achieve break-even till Year 8 or some such by either measure and this is before considering the greenhouse impacts of the gas turbines that “support” them during the half of the time that they are not available due to low or high wind speeds.

    DICE would not alter that picture but since it won’t be available for at least 5 years, no positive net benefit is possible from a Wind + DICE electricity technology until at least 2030. Indeed, I have read that Wind + Gas and hence, Wind + DICE will not break even at any point in the turbine’s 25-year life.

    Even optimists can’t wait that long for greenhouse action.

    France solved this conundrum 40 years back.

  12. Electric Lardyland

    Is there anything more truly tedious and irksome these days, than watching a shameless hack mouthing the wonders of so-called ‘clean coal’? Which are a range of technologies so wondrous, that if we continue the endless waste of public money propping them up, we might someday in the distant future, end up installing something that is both more expensive and more polluting, than the renewable energy technologies that we already have.
    I mean, since people have first started uttering the words, ‘clean coal’, it has been blindingly obvious to many, that the purpose of the concept is not to spin turbines, but to spin political debates. That is, the concept offers a seemingly permanent alibi to the coal industry, who are allowed to continue along their merry, pillaging ways, as long as they brazenly utter something about shifting to ‘clean coal’ sometime in the future. It also seems to offer a heavy duty figleaf, to politicians who believe that “climate change is absolute crap”, but who don’t have the honesty, courage or integrity, to present denialist policies to the electorate. Instead, after they’ve looked straight down the lens of the camera and lied, “Yes we believe in the science of climate change”, we’re supposed to forgive them for the relentless dishonesty, because they are now gibbering the magic words, ‘clean coal’.

  13. JohnB

    Scott, your post contains a few half-truths and outright misconceptions.

    The trial Cansolve operation is only a trial of a small plant, which needs to be sitting on top of an old oil field. Name a single oil field in Australia that has a coal fired power station above it.

    Cansolve is very much in the early days and has much to prove. It could not possibly meet more than 1% of the greenhouse challenge. What about the other 99%, including industrial and transport energy, which globally accounts for about 2/3rds of the total CO2 emissions?

    As for your slur regarding government laboratories and researchers, you clearly do not understand very much at all about how CSIRO, universities and others form partnerships with industry, despite just such collaborations being used as an example in the lead article. Forget your impressions of boffins sitting around laboratories in white coats, sipping tea and watching the cricket on TV, or whatever other outdated notion you based your comment on.

    Better still, arrange for a tour of CSIRO’s energy labs in Newcastle.

  14. Scott


    I believe they are piping the gas around 60 odd kms to the storage site. So a power plant doesn’t have to be sitting on top of an oil field for it to work. And for everything that has ever worked, there has been a pilot stage before mass production. Still, good progress.

    As for your comment that I am “slurring” the government science agency, I don’t believe I am. They do good work, but are subject to political trends (climate change was the focus under the previous government, but not such a focus now). Hardly a way to run a research program. So in my opinion, the CSIRO is a product of the past when Government’s needed to be into research due to the lack of this capability in industry.

    However, these days, Universities and Industrial applied research facilities are really the only models for R&D; and the most likely to generate the breakthroughs to get CCS working.

    As for your comment on transport, one of the biggest issues affecting the electric car is that it just transfers emissions from the internal combustion engine to power plants. I would have thought that if CCS was working, this issue might be mitigated.

  15. Aidan Stanger

    JohnB, no it doesn’t. it’s more like seven months though of course it depends on how windy it is and the size and design of the turbine.

    Mark is right — output of wind and solar PV is the new baseload, whereas DICE will, if the technology matures, be suitable for peakload generation.

  16. old greybeard

    This seems to be a rerun of an old fraud. we also hear a lot about Carbon Capture ans Storage. Yes, an oil or gas field, then it takes 20-30 percent of the power stations efficiency. No government money should be spent on this The industry has more money than they can count.

  17. Mark Duffett

    output of wind and solar PV is the new baseload

    Minitrue called, Aidan, they have a job for you.

  18. graybul

    Truly! Electric. An excellent summation. There is nothing to add!

  19. JohnB

    Aidan, the old saw “Extraordinary claims must be supported by extraordinary evidence” applies to your 7 month claim, which I have seen before and seen refuted.

    Reference, please.

    Here’s one from a NZ university a couple of years back. It calculates that the energy return over the lifetime is 7.96 times the embodied energy and lifetime energy consumption, ie about 3 years’ worth. So, I was wrong by a factor of 8. You are also wrong, by a factor of 5.

    My point remains: wind turbines have to work for years before they have paid back the energy (and therefore CO2 emissions) that went into their construction and operation.


  20. Roger Clifton

    Sixty km is “on top of”. At the Greenhouse Conference 2005, the coal industry estimated that CCS of the eastern generators would require 10,000 km of chemically resistant pipelines. That’s at least ~1M$/km. Since then, the Commonwealth has decreed that all CO2 burial should be done under the seabed. It ensures that the eventual leakage will not suffocate humans or livestock, but it increases the cost estimates of CCS even higher.

    If we are to eliminate carbon, we must go nuclear. Now that one-millionth mass of waste we can bury.

  21. Dogs breakfast

    Carbon capture and clean coal are a myth that we the taxpayer pour hundreds of millions of dollars into so that multi-nationals can make huge profits which they shift to low-tax countries. Great for Australia.

    I don’t know how much embedded carbon is in a wind turbine, but there certainly is an embedded cost. I am also aware that this argument is why nuclear power stations can never pay back their embedded carbon footprint.

    So nuclear isn’t the answer either, unless they are already up and running.

  22. JohnB

    @Dog’s breakfast,
    Lifetime carbon intensity of NEW energy sources, as reported for Australia by Uni of Sydney is below. See W’s isaDOTorgDOTusydDOTeduDOTau/publications/documents/ISA_Nuclear_ReportDOTpdf.

    See page 172 for a tabulation, too extensive to repeat here, of comparative figures for various electrical energy technologies. You will probably be surprised.

  23. Mark Duffett

    While (as we’ve seen with wind) the exact quantum is contested, it’s absolutely not true that nuclear power stations can never pay back their embedded carbon footprint. The median lifetime, all-system analysis (for example at parliament.uk/briefing-papers/POST-PN-383.pdf) puts nuclear roughly on par with wind, and considerably less than solar photovoltaics.

  24. Aidan Stanger

    Although the abstract of that thesis has the figure of 7.96, that appears to be an error as that figure never appears in the body of the thesis. Instead it has the figure of 21.1, and nearly 30% of the energy invested figure is the assumed energy cost of shipping it from Denmark to New Zealand. For a locally made wind turbine this part of the energy cost would not be applicable, so the energy payback time would appear to be below a year.

  25. JohnB

    Fair cop. So, not 7.96 but 5.5.

    Still way more than 7 months payback period.

    I had assumed that the supporting data would be in the appendices, not the main body of the report. I didn’t check them.

    And it is only a Master’s thesis, so not peer reviewed in the usual sense of the term. There would be more authoritative and fresher stuff out there, but I didn’t want to send you off to, say, Brave New Climate for a second-hand discussion.

    Thanks for following the link. Many would not do so.

  26. Aidan Stanger

    Think not 1884 but 1999: the fashion industry weren’t claiming that brown is black, but rather that brown had subsumed the function of black.

    Fast forward to the present, and many of those in power are still obsessed with baseload, but it’s not what we need at all. We’re constantly generating a variable amount of electricity from renewables, so there’s no longer the requirement for something else to generate a constant amount of electricity. Instead we need more demand responsive electricity generation. DICE would be technically better suited to this than the existing coal fired generators, but I doubt it would ever be able to recoup its own infrastructure costs, let alone the research cost.

  27. Roger Clifton

    DICE, designed for internal combustion engines, would be an eligible replacement for diesel, which currently backs up intermittent sources all over the country.

    Big loads need the efficiency of big thermal plants, preferably non-carbon.

  28. Mark Duffett

    Aidan, I think I understand the principle of what you’re saying, but the extreme range of wind and solar generation is so great, and minimum demand levels so high, as not to sustain it.


  29. JohnB

    Aidan, now you are trying to pull yourself up by your bootstraps.

    Start with a system that works (2014), then push it in the direction of instability (falling down, say 2020). Then claim that the instability problem can be solved by use of GT or DICE or other carbon intensive means (the bootstraps, coming in 5 years – we are assured).

    End result: Marginally adequate system stability, double the cost (1 x wind+solar, plus the same again in GT+DICE). Plus risks that come with unproven new technology, plus a CO2 emissions problem).

    Better by far, methinks, is to use whatever works best and avoid the use of the term “Baseload”, which has become emotionally linked to an incorrect definition/assumption, which is that so-called baseload power cannot be ramped up and down to follow demand. In your words, “the requirement for something else to generate a constant amount of electricity”. That is poppycock – there is no such requirement. Every nuclear, lignite and black coal fired power plant in the world can load follow. The French nuclear power plant do this every day with 40 year old plant. Coal does it every day with up to 100 year old plant.

    So, casting aside the meaningless term, baseload, we need a system which is responsive to load. NOT NECESSARILY THE OTHER WAY AROUND, which many wind+solar proponents assume is the natural order of things.

    Wind and solar, therefore, are not of themselves adequate sources of energy to meet civilization’s demands/needs. Add the cost and footprint of whatever you propose to provide the “demand responsive” generation (your term).

    Then re-do the maths of CO2, energy return and cost. For mine, nuclear appears to be a very good replacement for most of that which coal provides in Australia today and the sooner, the better. Our friends with wind or solar + DICE might even be able to rely on the load following ability of properly implemented nuclear power to manage demand.

    System stability, including load following, can and should be achieved without resorting to the unproven dream called DICE.

  30. Aidan Stanger

    JohnB, where did you get the 5.5 figure?
    You’d probably get more people following your links if you inserted them straight rather than writing DOT when you encounter one.

    I don’t support pushing the system in the direction of instability. Indeed the reason SA has invested so heavily in renewables (compared with other states) is to solve the problem of instability that stemmed from the lack of generating capacity at the turn of the millennium.

    We should be aiming for cheaper electricity, and renewables can provide this and are doing so to some extent. But without government intervention to provide cheap finance for renewables (which would make economic sense) more renewable electricity generation isn’t profitable without higher prices.

    With the greater fluctuation of prices, it makes sense to have both supply and demand based responses.

    I’m not sure you’re right about every nuclear power plant in the world being able to load follow — ISTR Britain’s gas cooled reactors aren’t responsive enough. But really my point was that we should install so much solar and wind that we won’t need to keep the fossil fuel generators running all the time.

    I concur with your concluding sentence.

  31. JohnB

    Re “baseload”.

    This term once meant that the generating plant in question was capable of running at high loads, reliably, day after day for months on end. I have a coffee mug in front of me which bears the words “Liddell Power Station Unit No. 4 Record Run 330 Days 1999”.

    That is what baseload means.

    It doesn’t mean 500MW continuously for 330 days. It could well mean that, though it was capable of 500MW, it operated in a band between 120MW and 500MW for 330 days, with loads to suit the market and as directed by system controllers.

    When operated below 500MW, the unused portion is known as “rolling reserve”, meaning that it hot and ready to go if needed.

    Indeed, every steam powered turbine, whether fuelled by oil, gas, lignite, coal or nuclear fission, is able to be ramped up and down. This is essential in order that they can be started.

    Show me a solar unit, even a solar thermal one with molten salt reserve, that can do that… there is none.

    However, every single steam powered generator can do this.

    That is what steam valves, fuel feeders and other controls and governors are for. Nuclear plant regulate the heat generated by use of “control rods”.

    I really don’t mean to be offensive, but relying on a basic misunderstanding of terms such as “baseload” demonstrates either a lack of understanding of the subject or an intention to mislead. Rolling reserve, as mentioned above, is the single strongest factor that keeps the NEM stable and safe. Hydro comes second, especially regarding frequency control. Neither of these services, as far as I know, can be provided by wind or solar PV. These are basic concepts, understanding of which is absolutely essential for any rational discussion of power generation.

    They are not optional extras. Rolling reserve, baseload capacity and frequency control are essential prerequisites for any distributed electrical power system.

  32. JohnB

    Aidan, 5.5 is the figure I provided minus 30%, the factor you provided. Nothing more.

    Regarding DOT, the moderation system on this site catches links unless they are distorted in some way. More delay.

  33. JohnB

    “…we should install so much solar and wind that we won’t need to keep the fossil fuel generators running…”

    Two corollaries are inescapable if that philosophy is followed.

    1. Massive overbuild on a huge geographical scale, far larger than even Australia.

    2. Massive, truly gargantuan transmission systems to provide the interconnectedness. Much of it DC, due to the distances involved.

    That proposal was put to bed years back. Has it returned as the zombie undead plan for the electricity industry?

    Has Mark Diesendorf answered the questions about the zero energy 2020 plan yet? I have been waiting for years.

    What’s so wrong about peer review, when the future of the world’s climate, energy systems and financial systems are at stake?

  34. Brian Melbourne

    Wind turbine payback: A 5mw turbine, eg, will probably average about 1.5mw,so over a year, it will generate about 13gwh. I find it very difficult to believe that the power used in manufacturing is greater than that. 8 times that is just crazy.

  35. JohnB

    Brian, have you considered that your opinions should be supported by facts, in order to become persuasive arguments?

    You might think that 8600 hrs x 5MW x a bugger factor = a large number, but rational debate is founded on much more than this.

    Besides which, “the power used in manufacturing” is probably not very much. Google or check out Wikipedia or something. The embodied energy includes every little thing from mining to eventual dismantling, demolition and site rehabilitation.

    Speaking of which, site rehab doesn’t seem to be the long suit of solar PV, solar thermal, or wind. While you are checking Google, check out “abandoned solar farms” or similar.

    I speak as one who has arranged for demolition and site restoration of a failed solar thermal array.

  36. Aidan Stanger

    JohnB, the 30% should be subtracted from the inverse — so rather than taking 30% off the energy return, you should’ve added at least 40%. And, as I said before, the 7.96 figure was dodgy, as the body of the report used a figure of 21.1 in its place. So I stand by my claim that the energy payback time is months not years.

    Regarding baseload, although most (if not all) power plants can be ramped up and down, that often takes time and many are very inefficient at low output. There are very important safety reasons why nuclear is slow to ramp up. The control rods control not the temperature itself bu tthe neutron flux, which controls the rate of increase (or decrease) in the rate of heat production.

    While I’m skeptical of the value of DICE, it would at least be very quick to ramp up. And its efficiency shouldn’t suffer too much at low output — particularly if it’s installed in the form of many smaller units which can be switched on or off when needed (which AIUI is what’s envisaged).

    I’m a bit puzzed as to what you mean by Massive overbuild on a huge geographical scale, far larger than even Australia. Do you mean w eshould trade electrici with Indonesia?

  37. Aidan Stanger

    A couple of minor corrections to the above:
    When I said the inverse, I meant the reciprocal.
    And the last sentence should have said “Do you mean we should trade electricity with Indonesia?”

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