The clean coal carbon price conundrum

So far nowhere in the world has there been a successful trial of a technology mythically and cynically described as “clean coal” but also known by its less marketable term of Carbon Capture and Storage.

To draw a rough outline around CCS, the idea is that in some way you capture the carbon dioxide that’s released when coal is burned in electricity plants.

Once you’ve “captured” the CO2 – and there are several ways suggested –  you then find a hopefully stable geological rock formation and then pump it underground where it will stay tucked away safe, warm and out of harm’s way [fingers crossed].

Or should I say, pump it back underground, with the emphasis on the “back”.

Essentially, coal is the Earth’s very own Carbon Capture and Storage technology and so far reigns supreme alongside gas and oil as the only ones that actually work. Billions of tonnes of carbon are held in coal seams, sequestered from the atmosphere over millions of years in a process that started in the carboniferous period several hundred million years ago.

So effective in fact is this natural CCS technology, that to break it you’ve got to go to all the expense and energy of digging it out of the ground and then burning it.

Advocates for “clean coal” or CCS have been arguing for more than a decade that they will be able to find a new version of CCS that can work. On Sunday morning in the week before Christmas (nice time to bury bad news) Queensland Premier Anna Bligh confirmed the state Government was walking away from ZeroGen – a $200 million attempt to build a CCS power plant in the centre of the state.

We had hoped to have a clean coal power station up and running by 2015 but the fact is that the early research has shown us that this is not viable at this time on a commercial scale.

All in all, Premier Bligh confirmed that about $50 million of its $100 million investment had been written off. Had the project actually worked, then it would likely have been one of the first commercial scale CCS projects in the world. China’s GreenGen project, backed by world’s largest private coal company Peabody Energy, appears further down the road to knowing if it can make the technology work.

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Australia’s very own Merchants of Climate Doubt

AS a celebrated historian, Professor Naomi Oreskes is interested in the origin of things – where ideas start from, what drives them and ultimately who propagates them.

Oreskes, Professor of History and Science Studies at the University of California San Diego, has just arrived in Australia on a whistle-stop speaking tour promoting her new book, co-authored with Erik Conway, titled Merchants of Doubt – How a handful of scientists obscured the truth on issues from tobacco smoke to global warming.

The book, five years in the writing, ultimately concludes that much of the world’s scepticism on climate change – whether that be over the validity or certainty of the science of climate change, its causes or the need to act – is chiefly driven by a paranoid ideological fear of socialism and an unbending faith and belief in free-markets.

Put simply, free-market think-tanks such as the George C Marshall Institute, the Heartland Institute, The Science and Public Policy Institute and the Why-Can’t-You-Just-Leave-us-Alone-While-We-Make-Oodles-of-Cash Institute (not a real institute) don’t like industry to have to be held accountable.

Oreskes spoke to the ABC’s Lateline program on this brand of scepticism which also drove shoulder-shrugs over acid rain, tobacco smoke and ozone depletion

It’s part of this whole ideological program of challenging any science that could lead to government regulation, because it’s part of an ideological conviction that all regulation is bad, that any time the government steps in to ‘protect’ us from harm, that we’re on the slippery slope to socialism, and this the ideology that you see underlying a kind of almost paranoid anti-communism. So even after the Cold War is over, these people are seeing reds under the bed.

But before we all shake our heads at the audacity of these US think-tanks, muttering under our breath phrases like “only in America”, we should acknowledge that Australia has its own Merchants of Doubt, some of which have long-held associations with the US denialist machinery and share its habits.

In last night’s speech to the University of Queensland’s Global Change Institute, Oreskes even went as far as to list Australia’s The Institute of Public Affairs alongside other free market think tanks including the George C Marshall Institute (a focus of her book), The Heartland Institute and the Competitive Enterprise Institute.

On its website, the IPA says it “supports the free market of ideas, the free flow of capital, a limited and efficient government, evidence-based public policy, the rule of law, and representative democracy. Throughout human history, these ideas have proven themselves to be the most dynamic, liberating and exciting.”

The IPA’s researchers and fellows are prolific in their writing and are virtual ever-presents in the op-ed pages of newspapers and on popular web opinion sites such as The Drum and The Punch. But given their open support for free markets, small governments and minimal regulation, they’re “research” and “analysis” is always designed to come to the same predictable conclusion.

Let me demonstrate.

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Time to stop wasting food waste, says Ben O’Donoghue

LET’S have a little guessing game.

How much food waste do you think seven food outlets (including a handful of restaurants, cafes and juice bars) would generate in three months?

The answer, if you go by a recent food waste trial in Brisbane, is 15 tonnes.

Personally, that figure makes me shudder a bit, considering there are many people in our region of the world, and even in our own country, who face daily struggles just to put any food at all on the table. Shoving food in the bin just seems a bit immoral (at our house, the recipients of virtually all of our food waste are either the chickens, the worms or the compost bin).

Then there’s the fact that pretty much all of those 15 tonnes of waste would have ended up rotting in landfill, generating methane, a potent greenhouse gas. According to Do Something!’s Food Wise campaign, rotting food waste is responsible for at least 11 million tonnes of emissions annually.

TV chef Ben O’Donoghue isn’t happy about this either. He told me,

Even here in central Australia we have indigenous Australians who are under-nourished, yet here we don’t bat an eyelid.

O’Donoghue’s new The Surf Club restaurant on Brisbane’s South Bank took part in that food waste trial. He told me that now he’s trying to convince the city council to extend and expand the trial to include every restaurant in the city.

You can read about this in a story I’ve written for bmag. To read the full story, go here.

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Cheap oil and climate ambition both down the pan, says International Energy Agency, kinda

NORMALLY first thing in the morning, a mug of coffee is never more than an arm’s reach away and there’s never a chance of that first serving of caffeine going undrunk.

Nasty habit I know, but I’m sticking to it. In fact, so entrenched is my morning coffee habit, that it would take an earthquake, a major explosion in the kitchen or the sudden realisation that I’m missing a limb, to distract me enough from its drinking.

Today though, you can add to that list, the publication of the International Energy Agency’s World Energy Outlook 2010 which has left my double espresso unloved and un-consumed. This morning, the IEA has declared that “the age of cheap oil is over” and that current commitments by world leaders won’t be anywhere near enough to limit global warming to 2C.

The IEA, for anyone that doesn’t know, is the organisation which provides advice to the world’s major economies on the future of energy sources including oil, gas, coal and renewables. They tell the world how much there is, how much it’s going to cost and what might happen in the future to prices and availability. In recent years, they’ve also started to consider the impact that different scenarios will have on attempts to limit emissions of greenhouse gases. However, there have been some suggestions that they’ve been cooking the books a bit, to make the outlook for oil sound better than it really is.

This year the agency has looked at the future through the carbon-tinted spectacles of its “New Policies Scenario” which “takes account of the broad policy commitments and plans that have been announced by countries around the world”.

So these are the things which governments have said they’ll do, or that they would like to do, but not necessarily things they’ve managed to get onto the statute books. So how’s that looking then? Continue reading “Cheap oil and climate ambition both down the pan, says International Energy Agency, kinda”

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Spinning a yarn on climate action

ORGANISATIONS across the globe spend squizzilions to carefully construct a corporate image which they think customers and clients will warm to.

Political parties and major  international corporations gather focus groups, engage top communications and image consultants to finely craft the corporate ideal and brand association.

Then, when they think they’ve got the image just right, they spend big on advertising and marketing “collateral” to drum the message home. Catchlines and phrases considered particularly catchy are copyrighted, as occasionally are colours.

So I wonder how the people at ANZ bank are feeling this week after their logo and “In Your World” catchphrase was hijacked by Greenpeace and replaced with”Polluting Your World”.

Greenpeace commissioned economic analysts to look at the investments of Australia’s major banks and found that while many were making sound investments in clean energy and winning sustainability and climate leadership awards, they were doing something else too – investing in coal mining and coal-fired power generation in volumes which massively eclipse their clean energy portfolios.

Bearing in mind that this year, for the second year running, there was more renewable energy installed globally than fossil-driven generation, you would think that the investment profile of institutions which make a play on their sustainability credentials would mirror this trend, or even exceed it.

Unfortunately, according to the Greenpeace-commissioned analysis, this just isn’t the case. ANZ, the study says, has invested $276 million in renewable energy in the last five years but $1.686 billion for coal.

I’ve written more on this sleight of hand over at the The Drum on the ABC. For another take on the Queensland state government’s billboard claims of being a solar state, I’ve been writing in Brisbane’s bmag on that.

Image: Greenpeace

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Take that solar sign down, Queensland

“Welcome to the solar state: We’re doubling Queensland’s use of solar energy in five years”

I’VE driven passed this Queensland Government advertising hoarding a handful of times in recent weeks. It’s on the road out of Brisbane airport and, personally, I think they (they, being the state government) should take it down.

Why? Because it’s misleading. Allow me to explain.

Firstly, Queensland might be the sunshine state, but it certainly ain’t the solar state.

According to the Queensland Renewable Energy Plan, last year only about 150 MW of the state’s 12,500 MW of installed electricity generation was coming from solar. That’s 1.2 per cent of clean, renewable energy emitting no greenhouse gases once installed.

Now the Queensland Government counts solar hot water heaters in that 150 MW. Obviously solar hot water heaters don’t generate any power at all, but they do reduce the amount of power which would have been drawn from the grid.

If you take solar hot water heaters out of the equation, the renewable energy plan says you’re left with 6MW, or 0.048 per cent of all the available power.

Now since that report was compiled, things have got a bit better or, rather, slightly less worse. Thousands of people have installed solar panels at home to take advantage of the Queensland Government’s net feed-in-tariff . Thousands more have stuck solar hot water heaters on their roof (including me), encouraged by Federal and State Government rebates.

As I’ve written a story about this issue which hasn’t yet been published, I’ll have to hold back on some of the detail for now, but I think most people would agree that Queensland is an awful long way from being in a position to declare itself a “solar state”. Perhaps if you were to get to the point where most of your energy was coming from solar, then you’d be on more solid ground.

To get an idea of how all of this looks in the bigger scheme of things, we can compare that entire state-wide 150 MW of solar energy to one single coal-fired power station. I’m going to take Tarong, which serves the southeast corner of Queensland. This single coal-fired power station has a generating capacity alone of 1400 MW and is one of the largest of more than a dozen coal-fired power stations in Queensland.

In data submitted to the Federal Government, in the year 2008/09 Tarong power station emitted 6,714,430 tonnes of greenhouse gases (bundled together and reported as CO2-equivalent). Tarong, which is owned by the Queensland Government, also has a second smaller power station known as Tarong North, which emitted a further 2,649,130 tonnes.

Now, let’s fantasise for a while that Australia introduced a tax on emissions. If you take the cheap-and-cheerful $23 per tonne suggested by The Greens as an interim price, that potentially exposes Tarong shareholders (as a state-owned corporation, that’s the State Government) to about $215 million of costs.

In one of those ironic twists that you couldn’t make up, the very next billboard on the road out of the airport is another Queensland Government effort, this time to encourage people to buy shares in QR National.

This rail hauler says proudly in its advertising that it carries “500,000 tonnes of coal a day”. If ever there was a reason not to invest in something then, for me, that would be it.

“Welcome to the coal state”

UPDATE: A pic of the QR National billboard.


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Carbon price – Rio Tinto wants one too

LOTS of excitement after the boss of mining giant BHP Billiton gave a speech in which he said was in favour of a price on carbon and would quite like it if Australia’s Labor-led coalition government could get on with it.

Perhaps BHP Billiton CEO Marius Kloppers was still a little dizzy from his company’s recent $13.8 billion profit announcement, but here’s a bit of his speech.

The decisions that we are taking now on power production and building infrastructure will still be with us by the time we expect a global price for carbon to be in place. With about 90% of the carbon emissions from our electricity sector coming from coal fired power stations, Australia will need to look beyond just coal towards the full spectrum of available energy solutions.

Failure to do so will place us at a competitive disadvantage in a future where carbon is priced globally. My main point is a simple one – we need to anticipate a global price for carbon when taking decisions with long dated impact. The decisions we take now on power production will still be with us long after a global price for carbon is finally in place.

Editor of Climate Spectator, Giles Parkinson, declared Kloppers was showing “the sort of leadership from the biggest companies that has been so desperately lacking in the last 12 months”. Greens leader Bob Brown said Kloppers’ statement would add strength to the efforts by the new government’s climate change committee as it tries to find a route to a carbon price.

But BHP Billiton isn’t the only gigantonormously-really-quite-big mining company to have laid their carbon cards on the table in recent weeks. The Queensland Parliament’s Environment and Resources Committee is currently in the midst of an inquiry into renewable energy which currently accounts for just two per cent of all the state’s electricity.

Among the submissions to the inquiry is this from Rio Tinto Alcan and Rio Tinto Coal Australia.

It is widely understood that reducing greenhouse gas emissions will require a transformation in the way we produce and use energy. While renewables will play an important part, they must be seen as part of a portfolio of low emissions energy technologies (including nuclear, renewables and carbon capture and storage) that deliver increased energy efficiency. A carbon price on all terrestrial carbon is required to deliver that transformation.

So now Rio and BHP Billiton have joined the lengthening line of companies asking for a carbon price, such as electricity retailer AGL and technology company Siemens which were co-signatories of an open letter earlier this year.

Is this the bit where we point out that Liberal leader Tony Abbott has declared he’d never put a price on carbon, even if his policy announcements before the election seemed to declare the opposite?

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