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Jan 10, 2017

The Australian's clean coal magic trick

With some slippery words and some clever sleight-of-hand, The Australian almost makes it look like coal is good for humanity, writes economist John Quiggin

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The most plausible argument put forward by opponents of immediate action to mitigate global warming is that some technology will emerge to obviate any need for costly changes in our current way of doing things. The leading candidate has been “carbon capture and storage” (CCS), in which the carbon dioxide produced by coal-fired power stations would be captured before being emitted into the atmosphere, then pumped into underground storage, or captured through “biosequestration” into products such as biochar.

But the only version of CCS that is remotely commercial arises when CO2 is pumped into exhausted oil wells to enhance secondary recovery. However, this works best with a pure source of CO2 such as a natural gas project rather than the messy mixes of gases that emerges from a coal-fired boiler.

CCS was an appealing idea for a coal-producing country like Australia. There a was a serious attempt to develop CCS with the ZeroGen project in Queensland. Sadly, this project collapsed in 2011, and funding for CCS projects in Australia is now limited to research projects with a trickle of funding. Enthusiasm for the idea led to the establishment of the Global CCS Institute in Melbourne. However, the institute’s own website shows that CCS is not a viable option. After decades of work, there is exactly one operational power plant using CCS, the Boundary Dam project in Canada. Two more, both deeply troubled, are under construction in the United States.

Even if all the coal-fired CCS power plant projects anywhere in the world that are listed by the institute as possibly happening by 2030 are included, the total amount of CO2 captured would be less than 20 million tonnes a year. That’s about what Australia generates in two weeks.

As the promise of CCS has faded, the claim that it will save the coal industry has become more and more difficult to sustain. But within sufficient legerdemain it can be managed.

A striking example is a piece in The Australian by Nathan Vass of the Australian Power Project (which appears to be a solo effort), claiming that CCS finally on the way. The key paragraph is an exercise in misdirection worthy of a professional conjurer, managing to give an entirely false impression without saying anything that’s actually untrue. Here it is:

“In China, India, Canada, South Korea, the US and Australia, commercially successful coal-fired plants using either CCS or high efficiency low emission technologies to reduce CO2 emissions by up to 90 per cent are already operating.” (emphasis added)

Look carefully at the text in bold, and the magic is revealed. Magicians never reveal their secrets, but I’m not bound by that code, and I’m happy to explain the legerdemain involved. The crucial piece of misdirection is the reference to “high efficiency low emission technologies”, a code phrase for “supercritical” and “ultra-supercritical” coal-fired power stations. Despite these impressive-sounding descriptions, such plants provide only a modest reduction in emissions.

Supercritical technology dates back to the 1950s and has been in wide use since the 1990s. According to the American Coalition for Clean Coal Electricity, supercritical power stations reduce emissions by 10% to 20% compared to the older subcritical types.

Ultrasupercritical technology is newer and used only in handful of countries, most notably China. The US has only one ultrasupercritical plant, and it is unlikely to build any more. And despite the superlatives, it yields a 30 to 40% reduction in emissions relative to subcritical plants.

And now we see the escape clause at work. Australia has no operational coal-fired power plants using CCS, and none is in prospect. Instead we have four supercritical plants, all a decade or more old, and collectively emitting millions of tonnes of CO2 every year. The same escape clause is used for all the countries mentioned by Vass except Canada with Boundary Dam.

And here we see the magic of the second bolded escape clause “up to”. When the Boundary Dam CCS system is working (it’s often offline), it captures around 90% of the emissions from a single 110MW boiler unit of the power station (total capacity around 600 MW), although some of this is subsequently lost to the atmosphere. Using the magic of “up to”, this best-case outcome is used to describe dozens of “supercritical” power stations for which the true figure is more like 10%.

Finally, there’s the problem that, in financial terms, Boundary Dam is a disaster, as might be expected for a “First of A Kind” project. At this point, having directed the reader’s attention to CCS, Vass has quietly switched back to ordinary coal-fired power stations. There’s no reason to think that CCS will ever be commercial except under the most favorable conditions (at a minimum, proximity to an oil field with oil prices above US$100/barrel).

It’s true, of course, that until relatively recently, coal-fired electricity generation has been commercially successful. That’s changing fast around the world, with the combination of carbon prices, competition from renewables and restrictions on particulate emissions. Taken together, these factors make it uneconomic to build a new coal-fired power station anywhere in the world. In sunny locations, solar PV can often beat coal even without taking health and climate effects into account.

But, from the viewpoint of Nathan Vass and the conjurors at the Oz, none of this matters. As long as the illusion can be kept alive a little longer, legacy generators can burn a bit more coal and the right can go a few more rounds in the culture war. Magical thinking can work for a fair while, even if the ultimate collision with reality proves painful.

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