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Turnbull's coal pitch is a Trojan Horse for gas

Greg Foyster |  22 February 2017


Australia's most politically contentious rock is back in the limelight after Prime Minister Turnbull spruiked 'clean coal' power stations in early February, and Treasurer Scott Morrison brought a lump of the stuff to pass around parliament.

Cartoon by Chris JohnstonIt was juvenile, but effective: here we are again, still talking about coal weeks later, when the real energy policy battle is over gas. But that's how it goes — a pitch for a new coal-fired power station in Australia is actually a clever exercise in repositioning gas as a greener fuel.

I'll get to that in a moment, but first let's put this furphy to rest. 'Clean coal' isn't clean, it's just slightly less filthy.

The fossil fuel lobby introduced the oxymoron 'clean coal' years ago as a marketing slogan for carbon capture and storage, a technique to take the pollution from burning coal and store it underground. Now the term has been reapplied to describe more efficient coal power stations that operate at higher temperatures.

So 'clean', in this case, is a byword for 'emissions intensity'. The 'dirtiest' coal power station in Australia is Hazelwood in Victoria, with an emissions intensity of about 1400kg per megawatt hour. A black coal power station in New South Wales emits about 900kg per megawatt hour.

The Minerals Council's new report says these fancy new power stations — the best in the world, remember? — emit 740–800kg per megawatt hour, which is only slightly below the average for the entire electricity grid (820kg), but heaps more than gas (400-600kg). Wind and solar, in comparison, are squeaky clean (0kg).

The inherent dirtiness of coal power stations makes them risky investments. They have a lifespan of 30 to 50 years, and the overarching goal of the Paris climate agreement is reaching global net zero emissions in the electricity sector by 2050. Over that timescale, climate policies that penalise polluters have to be factored in, which could leave new coal power stations as stranded assets in decades to come.

For this reason and others, industry lobby groups and big energy companies quickly rebuked Turnbull's 'clean coal' pitch.  


"In this case, the government talks about coal for two months, and then, when they switch to spruiking gas, everyone's view of gas is in comparison to coal, not in comparison to clean energy like wind and solar."


The CEO of the Australian Energy Council, a lobby group for large energy generators, said the industry had no plans to start building new coal fired power stations because 'the 50 year life of the assets and their relatively high emissions profile made them uninvestable'. AGL, which owns large coal power stations in Victoria and NSW, ruled out building or financing any new ones. Origin said it planned to close its only coal asset by the early 2030s.

The only chance of 'clean coal' being built is if the government stumps up the cash itself. It looks like that's the plan: the Energy Minister is considering rewriting the rules of the government's Clean Energy Finance Corporation so it can invest in dirty power.

But there's another reason building a new coal power station, even a more efficient one, doesn't make sense. Renewables have changed the very structure of our electricity market, and coal doesn't have the flexibility to compete.

Coal power stations are designed to provide 'baseload' power — a constant, steady supply of electricity. Their output can't be ramped up or down quickly without risking damage to equipment and shortening the operating life of the plant. The larger and older ones were meant to run all the time, or at least most of the time.

But Australia's National Electricity Market works on a bidding system, and while coal costs money to dig up, the wind blows for free and the sun shines for nothing. With low marginal costs, wind farms push out more expensive forms of generation like coal, and household solar panels reduce demand on the national grid.

The result, argued the CEO of the Australian Energy Council, is some coal power stations can't 'operate commercially given the amount of renewables in the grid'. That was the fate of Northern Power Station in South Australia, which closed last year. (Nine coal-fired power stations have closed in the last five years in Australia.)

Gas plants, on the other hand, can shut down and fire up much more quickly, making them a better fit with the type of energy system renewables have already created.

The thing is, we can't go back to the old world of simple 'baseload' power. As the Chief Scientist Alan Finkel's preliminary report into the national electricity market explained in December: 'The changes to how power is generated and how Australians receive and use it cannot be reversed. If anything, change is likely to accelerate in coming years.' The Finkel report says that makes gas, which is flexible enough to complement the peaks and troughs of wind and solar, critical in the interim.

For decades the fossil fuel industry has been positioning gas as a 'transition' fuel, arguing it is less emission intensive than coal. (Actually, it's a questionable claim: methane has a warming effect at least 34 times more powerful than carbon dioxide, and the leaks from unconventional gas mining could be much, much higher than assumed.)

They're rolling out the 'transition fuel' line this time too. After Turnbull's speech, lobby groups and large energy companies dismissed the idea of a new coal-fired power station in one breath, and then made a push for more gas in the next.

Resuscitating the bogeyman of a new coal power station actually helps this argument because it makes gas look more attractive in comparison. It works like an anchoring effect in negotiations — humans are biased by first impressions, so the initial piece of information influences all subsequent information.

When you're buying a house, for example, the seller might suggest a ludicrously high price to set an 'anchor' that will make other offers seem reasonable. In this case, the government talks about coal for two months, and then, when they switch to spruiking gas, everyone's view of gas is in comparison to coal, not in comparison to clean energy like wind and solar.

It's a clever trick. And it works.

The current pitch for coal is laying the groundwork for a concerted campaign on gas, seeking to curtail the anti-fracking movement. Just wait and see.


Greg Foyster headshotGreg Foyster is an environment journalist, an alumni of Centre for Sustainability Leadership, and the author of the book Changing Gears.

Cartoon by Chris Johnston.



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Submitted comments

Most people should know that there is no such thing as "clean coal". It is a similar concept to "flat, corrugated iron"! If we really care about future generations, we should be planning to move to clean, cheap and safe renewable energy. sources as soon as possible. It is obvious that we need to address climate change urgently. We only have to look at the rate that our ice caps are melting. We also have to cut back on toxic pollution which is poisoning human beings and other species. Caring for people and the environment is the way to go - not trying to make a case for illusionary "clean coal" to assist the profits of the large fossil fuel corporations.

Andrew (Andy) Alcock 25 February 2017

Peter McKinlay in Brisbane, Australia has invented a technology that can produce zero emission energy 24/7 at a cost lower than coal. His patented device called the DaS Energy, DaS Valve or DaS Turbine technology has received not support by the Gov't of Australia. There is also a company in the USA that has another zero emission energy source that can produce energy lower than coal, oil or natural gas. They are located at NASA's Kennedy Space Center. The co-founder of GoPro Camera funded the first round of funding. Even the Trump Administration will offer no support in this revolutionary-green technology.

Leroy Essek 26 February 2017

Greg, DEH and Qld Uni have developed a Direct Carbon Fuel Cell – a highly efficient transfer of coal to power, without combustion. THE TECHNOLOGY The UNIQUE aspects of the technology are 1. Cathode materials – approximately 50 times cheaper than traditional fuel cells that use noble metals (platinum etc.). 2. Anode materials – significantly reduced costs. 3. Power Density – having an output of double that of World leading fuel cell technology. 4. The ability to use syngas from coal (not previously possible due to coking problems). 5. The ability to produce high grade electricity, necessary in major power plants. 6. The superior thermal qualities of the tubes used in the fuel cell. The BENEFITS include • increasing electrical efficiencies • reduced emissions & ease of capture • half the coal needed for the same output • reduced operating costs and water usage, and • allows lesser quality coal to be used in the process.

francis Armstrong 27 February 2017

Back in the 1990s I worked for the Queensland government on the team developing its first environmental regulations. I was obliged to use another oxymoron, 'sustainable mining' and it stuck in my throat. On a consultation trip around the state, I made my silent protest in the graphics I used for the inevitable Powerpoint presentation. On the slide depicting a 'rehabilitated' giant hole in the ground as a lake used by happy campers, I sneaked in a duck with both eyes on one side of its head. And in every meeting at least one mining exec would mention the duck and ask what it meant. I'd reply 'I'm a lousy artist'.

Julie Davies 28 February 2017

Greg, you have not answered the question, how the country achieves reliable baseload power ? Yes there will be a transition. It will not be all renewable. Then look at the cost. The governments of QLD and NSW have sold their gas into the global market. Australian consumers can purchase that gas at global prices ( double what we are used to ) so these questions you pose will be answered by the electorates. A state that has unreliable power is not workable for business. SA Coca Cola closed retrenching 200 since your last article. I am aware of many smaller businesses that are planing a move to Victoria or NSW or to shut doors for good. The electorate will decide. The electorate will also decide on cost. The big companies may not build a coal fired plant but financiers might .. Victoria has the gas and it would be an easy solution to get it from Victoria. The southern states will get a taste of doubled energy prices this coming winter. A likely result is an electorate that is happy to "listen" to the gas / coal arguments..

Luke 28 February 2017

Luke, 100% renewable easier than you might imagine. http://www.abc.net.au/news/2017-02-27/100-per-cent-renewable-network-possible/8306482

Ross 28 February 2017

It is important to point out to people the confidence trick being played by the lobbyists. It inoculates us. Thank you.

Peter Horan 28 February 2017

Francis, that technology sounds interesting. I'll look it up. If it is genuinely low emissions and not an excuse or cover for conventional coal (as carbon capture and storage is) then that's great. The tricky thing with all these new technologies, including novel ways of harnessing the energy in sun and wind, is how to make them commercially viable at scale. There's also a question of how quickly they can be built, how durable they are, efficiency rates...it can be a long route from the lab to large scale implementation. Thanks for letting us all know and will take a look

Greg Foyster 28 February 2017

Major industries that require lots of power like smelters and run 24/7, need baseload power. Once the sun goes down or the breeze dies off, or we have a week of intense overcast weather, what then?. Batteries won't power industry!. Transitional gas, followed by nuclear, is the way. Aus has plenty of gas, uranium and technical brains looking for a career which nuclear fusion and the new fission generators being developed in Germany will provide.

Cam BEAR 04 March 2017

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