What’s that you say? Australia has “clean coal” power stations?

Well, it depends how you define “clean coal”. Most power sector observers eschew the phrase because, well, the concept is a unicorn: a lovely idea, but the stuff of fantasy.

No viable technology exists that allows coal to be burnt without adding significant carbon pollution to the atmosphere. However, the Australian coal sector and its subsidiary, the federal government, use the term “clean coal” to refer to two technologies:

  • High Efficiency, Low Emissions (HELE) coal plants — i.e. those using “supercritical”, “ultra-supercritical” and “advanced ultra-supercritical” technology.
  • Carbon Capture and Storage/Sequestration (CCS) — i.e. various technologies to capture a power plant’s CO2 emissions and store it permanently underground.

LNP backbencher George Christensen said on Wednesday that he’d rather the government rolled up its sleeves and built “clean coal” power stations instead of pursuing Finkel’s Clean Energy Target, and that his plan would reduce carbon pollution. How broken is our system when someone we pay $200,000 p.a. is betting our climate and energy future on the existence of unicorns?

[In Christensen’s Soviet Union, coal-fired power burns you!]

It’s time we took the CCS/coal unicorn ’round the back and shot it. While CCS may have an important role to play in decarbonising some industrial processes, CCS on coal-fired power stations is a non-starter.

Given the hype, take a guess of how many large-scale CCS/coal power stations there are in the world …

There are just two. Six weeks ago, Federal Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg visited the newer of the two, the US$1 billion Petra Nova project at the WA Parish power plant in Texas, where he proclaimed that the project was “helping to reduce the carbon footprint by some 40%”. Do just a little homework and you’ll find that the CCS plant is only reducing the plant’s net CO2 emissions by just 4.5%, and only comes close to making sense with a carbon price well over US$100. The economics are a little worse for Saskatchewan’s Boundary Dam power station, the only other large scale CCS/coal plant in the known universe.

The coal sector would prefer you didn’t know about the Kemper project, which may soon become the world’s third CCS/coal plant, but here’s a quick summary: it’s small (528 MW net), has similar emissions to combined cycle gas but is 16 times as expensive, is US$5.7 billion over initial budget and a decade after receiving its first tranche of taxpayer largesse, it still doesn’t work.

There are no other significant CCS/coal plants under construction elsewhere in the world. If you still think there’s a chance that anyone will build a CCS/coal power station in Australia, here’s a bit of extracurricular reading.

So what about HELE?

We actually have four HELE power stations in Australia. Let’s take a look at these ‘clean coal’ power stations. All four are in Queensland, built this century and burn black coal using “super-critical” steam technology.

Together the Australian “clean coal” fleet makes up 14.1% of all of our black coal power generation.

To put the emissions intensity numbers into context, we can compare the ‘clean coal’ fleet against our 14 non-HELE black coal power stations that use older “sub-critical” steam technology.

NB: The three brown coal power stations in Victoria — Loy Yang A, Loy Yang B and Yallourn — as there are no HELE/brown coal plants in Australia to compare against.

NB: Detailed information for the Worsley power station is not readily available, however as it only represents 1.2% (by capacity) of the black coal sub-critical fleet, it has negligible bearing on this analysis.

The average emissions intensity (weighted by electricity production) for the two technologies are:

  • super-critical, or HELE (“clean coal”) — 919 kg CO2-e/MWh
  • subcritical, or non-HELE — 1011 kg CO2-e/MWh.

Therefore Australian power stations fitted with “clean coal” technology emit just 9.95% less pollution per unit of energy than stations burning the same fuel with regular sub-critical technology.

For those lost in the numbers, let’s get graphical. The chart below shows the intensity of each Australian black-coal fired power station plotted against its year of construction. The dot area is proportional to the energy produced in the sample year (2015-16). Australia’s four HELE power stations are represented by green dots (because they’re “cleaner”, of course).

*Read the rest at Quora

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-In-Chief of Crikey