Archive for category Energy

Campbell’s trees blown away by coal

QUEENSLAND’S new opposition leader Campbell Newman thinks that a carbon price is a “very bad idea” and told reporters yesterday that he had a better way to deal with climate change.

Something altogether more practical.

I have a positive, proactive way of dealing with this. I’m into tree planting. I planted 1.38 million trees in Brisbane.

Now that’s a lot of trees, and I’m a big fan of trees. We do need more of them.

But how much carbon dioxide does that suck from the atmosphere? I asked one of the country’s leading providers of tree planting offsets for a “ballpark” figure on this.

I was told that it depends on which variety of tree you plant, but that 1.38 million trees would offset about 370,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide and this would take the trees 20 years to achieve. Is that a lot? An average 18,500 tonnes a year?

If you take a formula offered recently by Guy Pearse, author and research fellow at the University of Queensland’s Global Change Institute, Queensland’s coal industry exports about 100 tonnes of CO2 every seven seconds.

Or in other words, the annual emissions saved from Campbell Newman’s 1.38 million trees gets cancelled out by the State’s own coal exports every 21 minutes. [awkward silence]

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Nice bit of gas-powered Churnalism

THERE’S a new service over in the UK set up by the Media Standards Trust which allows the public to check for cases of “Churnalism”.

Churnalism, says the trust, is “a news article that is published as journalism, but is essentially a press release without much added”.

Using the free Churnalism website, you can paste text from a press release into a box. The service then goes off and finds any news articles that resemble the text of the press release – articles suspected of being “churn”.

The site lets you see the press release placed side-by-side against the original and gives a percentage of how much of the release was cut-and-pasted and how many characters overlap.

In the last few days, they’ve added a service where you can do this exercise in reverse and search news outlets against press releases from some companies and government agencies.

For example, the site suspects that in the last three years 495 articles in The Guardian online may be churn. The Daily Mail online scores more than 700.

Now obviously, there are lots of occasions when there’s nothing at all wrong with a press release being churned. The trust points out that

Some press releases are clearly in the public interest (medical breakthroughs, government announcements, school closures and so on). But even in these cases, it is better that people should know what press release the article is based on than for the source of the article to remain hidden.

Unfortunately,the site is only available in the UK but you can rest assured there’s plenty of churnalism that goes on in Australia too. Some of it is harmless, but some of it is clearly not.

Which brings me to a recent article which appeared online in the Gladstone Observer and an almost identical story which appeared online in the Toowoomba Chronicle – both news sites owned by APN News & Media.

The story reported how the Queensland Gas Company had stopped work on clearing land for a coal seam gas  pipeline because “environmental plans for soil and species management have not been approved”, the report said. A serious issue no doubt and well worth the time of an APN journalist in reporting it. After all, QGC has reported it is spending $15 billion on the project which the delay was part of.

There were quotes from “QGC senior vice president Jim Knudsen” who explained the company didn’t believe their work so far had caused any  ”adverse impact on protected plants and animals”.

I asked QGC if they had issued a press release into the incident. They said they had and they sent me a copy. It’s now here online. Well, you’ve guessed the rest.

The story on the Towoomba site was almost identical to the press release, with only 5 words of the original 251-word press release changed. They didn’t even bother to write their own headline. “QGC stops work on pipeline”.

The Gladstone Observer story was identical, except for the addition of a 13 word intro popped on the top of the text. The rest of the story was a complete and unchanged cut-and-paste from the QGC release.

Why am I worried about this? Because a news outlet should not be just a distribution service for a major corporation, especially one which is drilling 6000 wells and laying more than 700 kilometres of pipeline in the areas being served by the news outlet.

I know regional newspapers have resources issues but surely its online readers should have been made aware that the story printed on its website was just a cut-and-pasted press release?

Good on QGC for admitting the breach, but you can only hope that the print versions of the Gladstone Observer and the Toowoomba Chronicle do better.

You can make the comparison between the two stories for yourself if you keep reading. I recently wrote a feature on some of the concerns related to the Coal Seam Gas industry on ABC Environment.

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Polluter Harmony

NOW there’s a place where fossil fuel lobbyists, politicians and energy executives can find love.

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Floods, climate and a “tiny” bit of coal outrage

AS the floods in Queensland and Victoria gushed through homes, businesses and streets leaving tragedy behind, all of that murky water and grime sent moral compasses and other measures of taste and decency spinning and covorting in all directions.

What outrages you, or anyone else, depends on which way your moral, political or ideological compass tends to point. Talking about building dams or the role of climate change while people are suffering could enrage some people while for others, it could simply drift by unnoticed on the media floodwaters.

Greens leader Senator Bob Brown’s assertion that the floods in Queensland were caused in part by the coal industry is a classic case in point. He made the statement on Sunday 16 January, well after the majority of floodwaters in Queensland had subsided but before the communities of Toowoomba and Grantham had begun to bury their dead. Brown said the coal industry should be picking up some of the clean-up bill for future extreme weather events.

Ralph Hillman, executive director the Australian Coal Association (ACA), responded by saying that in any case, the emissions from domestically-mined coal in Australia made only a “tiny” contribution to world emissions of greenhouse gases. If tiny is a postulated 2.5 per cent of the world’s entire emissions from fossil fuels, then tiny it is. But more on that later.

Brown was accused by some, including Resources Minister Stephen Robertson, of using the floods to make a political point. Several mining companies and industry groups including Macarthur Coal, Xstrata, the ACA and the Minerals Council of Australia expressed outrage but some could not pass up the chance to make a political point of their own. Chairman of Macarthur Coal Keith DeLacy branded Brown as “irrelevant to mainstream Australia”.

It was time to pull together, commentators said, rather than start pointing the finger of blame or making political points. Yet in the days preceding Senator Brown’s comments, there had been plenty of wagging fingers.

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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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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? Read the rest of this entry »

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Jay Leno takes the new Tesla for a spin

US talkshow host Jay Leno takes the latest version of the sporty Tesla electric car out for a spin.

With a potential range getting close to 400 kilometres on a single charge and the chance to go from zero to 100 km/h in less than 4 seconds, Teslas have a certain appeal (to people who like going fast and looking flash).

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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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Abbott and Gillard offer to widdle on the climate change bonfire

ACCORDING to Tony Abbott, only the coalition has a credible climate change policy to achieve a five per cent cut in Australia’s emissions of greenhouse gases by 2020.

Allow me, if you will, to equate this climate change challenge to a gigantic raging bonfire of all Tony Abbott’s currently and previously-owned pairs of budgie-smugglers which would surely be a blaze three-storeys high visible from Christmas Island.

Presented with the challenge of controlling this three-story high bonfire of budgie-smugglers, what Tony Abbott is saying is that only he has a credible policy to enable him to pee on it, such is the gap between what is being offered and what is needed.

A couple of days ago, I was on a journalist’s panel listening to the three candidates for the seat of Brisbane talk climate and conservation to a group of gathered greenies. Both Labor’s Arch Bevis and Liberal Theresa Gambaro re-iterated their leaders “commitment” to that 5 per cent cut (the Greens candidate Andrew Bartlett pointed out they would be looking for a 40 per cent cut).

At one point  Mr Bevis stated that Labor was following the “science” on climate change, at which point I surmised that you’d be hard-pressed to find a credible climate scientist advocating a five per cent cut.

So what does the “science” think of a five per cent cut?

Well the minimum recommended by Professor Ross Garnaut’s comprehensive government review two years ago, was a 10 per cent cut. This 10 per cent cut, Garnaut said, would represent a fair shake of the sauce bottle from Australia as part of a global effort to stabilise emissions at 550 parts per million in the atmosphere.

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Gravel path for solar

ACCORDING to the International Energy Agency’s new roadmap for solar power the world could be getting as much as 25 per cent of its electricity from the sun by the year 2050.

But there are some big ifs and buts. Releasing the roadmaps for the PV and solar thermal industries, the IEA’s executive director Nobuo Tanaka says:

This decade is crucial for effective policies to enable the development of solar electricity. Long-term oriented, predictable solar-specific incentives are needed to sustain early deployment and bring both technologies to competitiveness in the most suitable locations and times.

What Mr Tanaka is suggesting is that the road ahead for solar should be relaid with nice smooth bitumen with as few traffic lights, stop signals and roadworks as possible. The Rudd Government may point to its $1.4 billion funding of solar projects, announced last year, as evidence of these incentives. You might even look at the hotch-potch of domestic feed-in-tariffs currently being played with in different states.

Earlier this week a shortlist of eight projects under Mr Rudd’s Solar Flagships scheme was announced – four are solar PV (electric generated via panels) and four are solar thermal (electric generated by concentrating the sun’s rays to create heat to eventually drive a turbine).

While the Government has been doing much chest beating about the virtues of its flagship programme, the unfortunate reality is that the resultant 1000 MW of power generation is dwarfed, nay trampled on, by plans already in the pipeline for new coal power generation.

To put that 1000MW into perspective, it’s about the same as one single medium sized coal-fired power station. This list of electricity generation capacity in Australia from 2008, leaves a 1000 MW solar thermal plant sticking out like a tiny chink of light among a swathe of black coal.

When Mr Tanaka asks for a shiny new road surface for the solar industry, Australia appears to be building something which looks a bit more like a gravel path.

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