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CCS is doomed, yet we’ve pumped millions in to it

Dan Cass writes: Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) is often seen as coal’s redeeming feature and saviour. Its supporters claim that the carbon dioxide emissions caused by coal-fired electricity can be captured and then stored in geological formations, for geological time periods. If I am correct, then it is a technological failure and its primary function has been to delay climate action and divert funding that should be going to solar, wind and other proven technologies.

In the federal budget last week, the government cut about half a billion dollars from CCS funding. The public deserves to know more about these decisions. If CCS is a failure, then we deserve to know where our money has gone.

Unfortunately, CCS is the foundation of long-term climate policy of both the Labor government and Liberal Coalition. Both the major parties have committed some billions of dollars of public funding to it. Both parties are assuming that is will come on line some time after 2020 and thus Australia’s coal industry has a rosy future.

The CCS concept was proposed around 1986, 25 years ago.

So far there are 4-6 commercial scale CCS projects in the world, depending on whose definition you use. They are mostly connected to natural gas fields, not used to capture and store post-combustion CO2 from coal, which is the whole point of the exercise.

I have been grappling with the budget papers because I want to understand how much public money is going to CCS. The Australian Coal Association’s budget response claims that CCS funding was cut by over $470 million.

My reading of the budget put the CCS cuts at $670 million over the next four years covered by the forward estimates. Martin Ferguson, Minister for Energy and Resources, claims that $420 million of this money has not been cut, but rephased out beyond the estimates period.

I am also keen to understand what value Australia has got for the $400 million allocated to the Canberra-based Global CCS Institute. As one of their bloggers has written “despite ambitious demonstration programmes, progress has been glacially slow”.

To make up your own mind about the glacial progress of CCS, here is a summary of progress over 2010, on a CCS industry site. Note that not one full scale plant was completed.

Where is the evidence that all this funding has been effective? Where is the peer review? What is the opportunity-cost? What is the net benefit?

If, as it appears, the Australian Government has lost faith in CCS, this will be a major blow to the technology globally. This is because Australia is the strongest advocate of CCS.

CCS has probably had a more favorable run in Australia’s media than anywhere in world. Most of that coverage has been in The Australian. A study of media coverage by the CSIRO back in May 2009 found that 34.3% of stories about CCS were printed in The Australian.

The Australian Coal Association announced its clean coal strategy with great fanfare in 2003. It claimed that CCS would work and be cost effective. It promised to spend $1 billion of its own money over 10 years from 2004-2013.

It would be interesting to know if this spending has actually taken place. You can see that the website for this project, New Generation Coal, has more news about renewables than about CCS, which is another indicator that the technology is a failure.

The International Energy Agency bases all its coal industry predictions on a faith in CCS. Its CCS Roadmap projects that 3,400 CCS plants will be needed globally by 2050, to make a substantial impact on emissions.

If we accept the claim made by the industry, that CCS will be ready and cost-effective by 2020, this means that all 3,400 plants have to be built between 2020 and 2050. This is one full scale plant every three days.

From what I can see on the websites of the various CCS bodies, there is rather a lot of research being done into the PR side of the technology. The same CSIRO study cited above describes in detail how to win the PR campaign to convince Australians that CCS will work.

The authors not that there are only nine journalists in Australia who comprise the “elite” and thus ‘require a sophisticated engagement plan’. It was proposed that meetings with these 9 reporters should be organised. As they note;

Use of scientists at these meetings would help to ensure the information is seen as objective and based on the latest science of the technology.

The public deserves to see the facts about CCS funding, with or without scientists used as a PR prop.

Dan Cass is a renewable energy lobbyist, company director and warmenist.

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  • 1
    Philip Amos
    Posted May 20, 2011 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

    Dan, slagging off the development of low emissions technologies ain’t going to prevent climate change. Your allegiance to renewables is great, but you don’t explain how we get to a low emissions future when today coal accounts for about 40% of global electricity generation.

    A realist solution to reducing carbon emissions has to answer this question: What do you propose doing with those thousands of coal fired base load electricity generation plants? Just shut them all down? CCS is a possible solution. Australia is the world’s largest exporter of coal, and by extension world’s largest exporter of carbon. It would be morally culpably of us not to invest large amounts in technologies that can mitigate the carbon emissions of all that coal we export.

    The reality is that CCS faces exactly the same problems that renewables face: it’s uneconomic without a price on carbon. Just like renewables, CCS is struggling to move down the cost curve because there is no financial cost to carbon pollution. Just like renewables, technological advances will reduce the cost of CCS. Just like renewables, without government and private sector R&D investment CCS won’t get to wide commercial deployment.

    CCS is a proven technology: your blogger and your text acknowledge this point. It’s been used effectively for years in gas and oil extraction. The problem isn’t the technology: just like renewables, the barriers are financial and regulatory.

    Your point about PR is cheap and hypocritical. As a ‘renewable energy lobbyist’ you’d have to quit if you couldn’t engage in PR. The denialists are running a global PR campaign to discredit climate science. That low emissions technology groups are running their own PR campaign seems prudent to me.

    At we stand today, with thousands of coal fired power plants around the world, we can either pump their carbon emissions into the air or develop technology to pump their emissions into the ground. Which one is the greater risk?

  • 2
    Stephen Luntz
    Posted May 20, 2011 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

    CCS faces very different problems from renewables. The fact it is it’s uneconomic with a price on carbon, let alone without, at least when it comes to coal.

    There probably is a place for CCS when it serves double duty – storing carbon dioxide and also assisting in the process of pumping natural gas to the surface. However, the fact that even here it’s been very slow to take off, with half a dozen commercial projects world-wide should be an indication of how much trouble the technology is in.

    Phillip, your references to the huge number of existing power plants are not really relevant – the cost of retrofitting existing plants is going to be a lot higher than for new plants. So even if, CCS is economic by 2020 for new coal fired power plants it’s going to be many years beyond that before it’s economic to apply it to existing ones.

    Moreover, CCS is not in a position to “move down the cost curve” in the same way renewables can. Solar power can keep getting cheaper and cheaper because, now that we’re finding ways to use less silicon, the cost is primarily in the production process, rather than in the resources required. That’s true with aspects of the capture phase of CCS. However the costs of transporting billions of tonnes of carbon dioxide from power stations to geologically appropriate sites are not going to fall significantly. Then there is the issue of working out how to price the monitoring of sites for leakage over periods of tens of thousands of years.

    Another angle on my this here: http://forensicsfossilsfruitbats.wordpress.com/2011/04/14/cash-capture-and-storage/

  • 3
    michael r james
    Posted May 20, 2011 at 12:49 pm | Permalink

    @Philip Amos Posted May 20, 2011 at 12:10 pm

    Phillip, it is easy to take your approach but it simply falls down on fundamentals. In essence CCS is fighting against the first law of thermodynamics (conservation of energy): you cannot expect to extract energy from those complex organic carbon bonds then magically capture the low-energy gas combustion product (CO2) and reconvert it back into some different storable form (compressed liquid, or solids) without a lot of the original energy. No doubt the existing processes can be improved at the edges but the fundamental chemistry is simply energy dependent. (The best would be to get nature to do it, eg. algal biofuels, seeding ocean photosynthetic organisms; these are actually a type of solar energy, so in that case why not cut out the first step and go straight to solar?)

    In fact, last time I looked at this there was still only a SINGLE fully operational CCS on a electrical power generator (that was supplying power to a grid): the Mountaineer plant. Thus the cost of full CCS from a 1GW coal plant would be $5 billion (not including the actual power generator of course):

    (crikey.com.au/2009/10/30/ccs-institute-comes-clean-on-clean-coal/)
    “In fact the report says that there are only seven operating CCS but none are coal-burning power generating plants, again not of much interest. But this is slightly curious because there are actually two functioning CCS plants at coal-fired commercial power plants as Crikey has previously reported: a 20MW pilot plant at Schwarze Pumpe in Germany, and the Mountaineer CCS in West Virginia USA.

    Given the US$100M cost of the latter for capture of only 1.5% (20MW equivalent) of the giant 1300MW plant, perhaps it is missing from the report because it opened in late September — or alternatively, the cost implications are too scary.”
    …………………..
    A few days later I noticed that the Financial Times had cited my article but pointed out a little problem, which I duly reported in Crikey:
    (crikey.com.au/2009/11/04/comments-corrections-clarifications-and-cckups-116/)
    In fact the 20 MW pilot CCS plant at Schwartz Pumpe actually puts the captured CO2 back into the atmosphere because of local political opposition (NUMBYISM, Not Under My BackYard) to pumping the stuff underground.
    …………………..
    The fact that Martin Ferguson has cut back on the GCCSI so quietly and you have hardly heard about CCS from the government over the last year, and Ian Macfarlane openly admitted on 4Corners that it was dead in the water, should be telling you that we need to look elsewhere for solutions.
    And incidentally most coal-fired plants last no longer than 40 years (many close much earlier than that) so the transition can be done. The timing may be non-ideal but can be speeded up as more efficient, lower-cost renewable or alternatives come in. What would be intolerably stupid, and which the UK government talks about, is to keep building the things putting completely unfounded trust in a magic future CCS solution.

  • 4
    John64
    Posted May 20, 2011 at 12:56 pm | Permalink

    @michael: I thought the purpose of CCS wasn’t so much to convert the CO2 into something else, but to pump it into a hole underground and magically hope it doesn’t leak out again?

    Regardless, it does show that – once again – while there’s a lot of talk about wonderful CO2-free technologies, very few of them actually work. There’s no alternative to oil to drive our cars and there’s no solution that stops cattle farts. You can set all the targets you like, until we actually come up with real technological solutions, you’re just farting in the wind.

  • 5
    michael r james
    Posted May 20, 2011 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

    Stephen Luntz nailed it in his last para. So I cannot resist giving my last para of that 2009 Crikey article I cited:

    “Let us be clear. It is not that CCS is impossible. It is just that, unlike several renewables energy technologies which are expected to continue dropping in cost, it has always been extremely difficult to imagine ever making it affordable.”

    We should remember that Martin Ferguson has repeatedly stated that the institute will deliver at least 20 commercial scale CCS plants around the world by 2020. He stated that the GCCSI would use “$2.4B to build four full commercial-scale CCS plants in Australia.” BUT it is impossible to build even one plant for that. Dr Kelly Thambinuthu (U. Qld) estimated one full scale CCS plant could cost $4B, and Professor Mark Diesendorf (UNSW) said that it was “an Australian delusion” to think that this fantastically expensive process could be seriously addressed by Australian efforts, even if $2.4B was thrown at it. And I suspect that they are talking of a 500MW not a $1GW plant.
    All of this was obvious years before 2009 and I believe it finally sank in, to even the coal mafia like Ian Macfarlane, if perhaps not admitted openly by Martin Ferguson.

  • 6
    michael r james
    Posted May 20, 2011 at 1:39 pm | Permalink

    @John64 Posted May 20, 2011 at 12:56 pm | I thought the purpose of CCS wasn’t so much to convert the CO2 into something else, but to pump it into a hole underground and magically hope it doesn’t leak out again?

    MRJ response: Yes, but it needs to be compressed, usually liquified, which takes about 25% of the energy the coal originally released, to do that. However, as Schwarze-Pumpe showed, it faces formidable social and political opposition; and transporting it to existing oil/gas fields is again just too expensive. So there are now efforts at converting it into a solid (usually something like Calcium Carbonate) but then that takes even more energy—so back to what I wrote in my first post (let’s use nature in the first instance since it has evolved several billion years to do exactly that–which is how our fossil fuels were made in the first place).

    @John64: “There’s no alternative to oil to drive our cars and there’s no solution that stops cattle farts.”

    MRJ response: Why on earth be such a Luddite? As a research scientist I am flabbergasted by people—who no doubt have the latest plasma tv, an iPod carrying 20,000 songs in their pocket, an iPad that allows them to read a newspaper anywhere in the world—somehow cannot imagine an advance in transport beyond fossil fuels.
    In any case, GM’s Volt hybrid has just sold out of the first 60,000 vehicles and is rushing to expand production. Every major manufacturer is working on hybrids or fully electrics (or even in alternatives, hydrogen, compressed air).

    And even cattle: first it is not farts but methane released in their “top” stomachs in which they break down cellulose (a very tough complex carbohydrate–the rawest form of “fossil fuel”) ie. it is burps. A lot of work has been done in the last few decades to employ alternative cellulases (the enzymes that break down cellulose) eg. from termites or other organisms and engineer them (so they work in less anaerobic conditions) and to introduce into cattle (originally a lot of this work was to improve nutrition of cattle feeding of very poor or super-tough grasses/spinifex etc in marginal lands). So it is not so silly.
    John, relax your mind. There are a universe of possibilities out there. We do not have to be stuck in the present forever.

  • 7
    John64
    Posted May 20, 2011 at 2:02 pm | Permalink

    @mjr: Yes and that iPad is made out of plastic – which is made from oil. Now as you say, GM’s Volt is a Hybrid – it either needs oil or electricity to work – electricity which in Australia, comes from coal. The Volt is also a nice car but it doesn’t have a towbar. GM’s official position is that towing anything with it is “not allowed” – you void the warranty (because you’ll break it). Turns out there’s not a lot of power in stored electricity. I’d also like to see the Government pay for everyone to own a brand new car.

    Compressed air vehicles currently do not meet safety standards. There’s not a lot of power in compressed air after all so you have to make them very, very light. You’ll be saving the planet by increasing the road toll.

    Now as a research scientist you should be aware that it’s power intensive to create Hydrogen. You need a lot of electricity. It takes about 1.2 – 1.5 kilowatts to produce 1 kilowatt’s worth of Hydrogen from water. You’ll need a lot more solar panels if you intend to replace oil with that.

    Until you build an electric truck, we’ll still be using oil. A substantial amount of Australia’s CO2 comes from freight – After all we’re a big country and we haul a lot of stuff from point A to point B using oil-powered trucks. Hybrids might be cute for inner-city trendies but they’re not a functional replacement for our transport needs. Not by a long-shot. Sure, we’ll get there one day – but we’ll put a man on mars one day too. Would you like to bet on when? We’ll have Fusion power first – which incidentally, actually would go a long way to reducing global CO2 emissions.

    As for cattle: Sure they burp methane but they fart it too. As a research scientist you can look that one up. Either way the point still stands, there is currently no technological solution that stops them from releasing methane. It’s “under research”… Just like Carbon Sequestration and Storage is. And genetically modified cattle? Doesn’t the same Green lobby that supports Greenhouse Gas reductions also oppose genetically modifying anything?

    Good luck with that one.

  • 8
    Mark Duffett
    Posted May 20, 2011 at 2:21 pm | Permalink

    Though I think he draws a long bow in several places, it’s hard to contest the author’s central premise that CCS investment (whether by government or otherwise) is going in exactly the opposite direction to what would have been expected if it is going to make a significant difference.

    However, I feel compelled to point out that solar and wind are not ‘proven’ technologies, in the sense that they have not sustained more than 20-25% of an electricity grid, anywhere in the world.

  • 9
    D. John Hunwick
    Posted May 20, 2011 at 5:22 pm | Permalink

    Than goodness for someone like Dan Cass who can assemble all this information and share it about. It is the reason why I subscribe to Crikey to have access to such scholarship. While CCS should be kept open as an option whatever money is intended for it should be put in comparison with alternatives. I prefer solar towers, wind farms, geothermal plants and DC Transmission structures. I look forward to an electric car and a decerase in gods being transported because of regionals devloping more self-sufficiency. The alternatives to CCS need more support.

  • 10
    shake up
    Posted May 20, 2011 at 11:53 pm | Permalink

    Can I just scream something into the energy/climate debate in Australia? “GEOTHERMAL ENERGY!!”

    Geothermal has MASSIVE potential in Australia, as in, it could easily replace coal for baseload power in 15- 20 years with major investment, including in grid connection. I would like to see a big chunk of the carbon tax revenue go to this, but sadly the government hasn’t the ticker for that. Killing off the diesel rebate and putting the money into the most promising renewables like wave and geothermal is an absolute no-brainer. Even without connecting to the national grid, there are thousands of mines that are off-grid and are paying a fortune for their diesel power (albeit heavily subsidised by the government).

    The government needs to stand up to the vested interests, push the carbon tax through and look to support cutting edge renewables, with a view to exporting the technology and expertise as the rest of the world transitions to cleaner energy.

    I am so sick of the vested interests (from the polluters, to the corrupt scientists making a motza out of ‘sceptic’ books and talks, to the Murdoch press, to Abbott’s self-interest) holding so much sway over the public on this. If we don’t act now we will only be dropping even bigger problems on our kids. The ‘market,’ left alone, will NOT solve this. Hazelwood and the like could still be running in 30 years if the government doesn’t intervene on this. CCS is, I think, a bit of a furphy, intended to allow the vested interests to continue business as usual and delay the inevitable switch to renewables.

  • 11
    PeeBee
    Posted May 21, 2011 at 8:53 am | Permalink

    However, I feel compelled to point out that solar and wind are not ‘proven’ technologies, in the sense that they have not sustained more than 20-25% of an electricity grid, anywhere in the world.

    Fairly high hurdle for a definition of ‘proven’ I would have thought.

  • 12
    kd
    Posted May 21, 2011 at 6:57 pm | Permalink

    Fairly high hurdle for a definition of ‘proven’ I would have thought.

    I’d like to see a geographic entity managing more than 80% on renewables mind you. As far as I can see Tasmania and Iceland manage this criteria with hydro and geothermal resources respectively. Time to see if a big island can manage such a feat. ‘Straylia, you’re well placed to make that transition!

  • 13
    michael r james
    Posted May 21, 2011 at 10:30 pm | Permalink

    ...not sustained more than 20-25% of an electricity grid, anywhere in the world....

    Could have said the same thing about nuclear for the first 20 years (hmm closer to 30 years) after first introduction. In the US nuclear’s contribution is just under 20% but will drop fairly steeply in the next few years due to closures of old plants.

  • 14
    Socrates
    Posted May 22, 2011 at 9:05 am | Permalink

    Dan is right. CCS is the coal industries’ equivalent of low tar cigarettes. It tries to answer the question “How can we keep the selling of this dangerous product legal?” The motive is usually economic, not resolving a scientific problem. This is well demonstrated by Philip Amos’ comment:

    A realist solution to reducing carbon emissions has to answer this question: What do you propose doing with those thousands of coal fired base load electricity generation plants? Just shut them all down? CCS is a possible solution.

    Why must CCS answer that question? All of those plants have economic lives and would need replacement at some point even if global warming didn’t exist. The objective of the coal industry is to make sure they get replaced by new coal power plants. I hope they fail.

    While I agree peak oil is a serious problem, that is a bit of a non-sequiter. In Australia all forms of transport only cause about 16% of our anthropogenic GHG emissions. Coal is the biggest cause of GHGs.

    That being said, it is an unfortunate fact that wind only has potential to supply about 25% of demand in Australia, and solar is much less economic. More research into energy storage?

    I sometimes wonder if the whole economic policy idea of putting prices on carbon to get energy industry change was a mistake? I think we would have been better off following the Montreal Protocol approach (on CFCs) and banning the construction of new coal power plants, then having a sunset clause on existing ones. That would have forced us to find the next most economic alternative. Whether it was wind, solar or nuclear would have naturaly emerged in response. Instead after 15 years of no progress, we are still dealing with red herrings.

    In closing, if there isn’t a natural market for something, why do we assume an economic policy will solve a problem? We have a scientific problem, yet we expect economists to solve it. Economists have come to dominate our decision making, but I don’t think we are getting better decisions.

  • 15
    Socrates
    Posted May 22, 2011 at 9:17 am | Permalink

    John64

    I agree with your comments on compressed air and hydrogen cars (unviable) but not your other comments. The obvious solution to oil use in Australian transport is greater use of trains and coastal shipping, which use a tenth (or less) of the oil and energy per tonne km of freight that trucks do. Also it is possible to make electric trucks that can haul heavy loads (electric mine haul pacs are available). Their problem is short range. But for city distribution they could work, provided we had adequate long distance rail freight, which we don’t now.

    Electric and hybrid cars would require reform of electricity production from a GHG point of view, but would eliminate 55% of our oil use. Saying Volts can’t tow anything is irrelevant to 98% of driving that people do. For the other 2%, we will just need more electric trucks and utes for hire.

    I wish people would not mixup AGW and paek oil. They are related, but it just obscures finding a solution to AGW.

  • 16
    Fran Barlow
    Posted May 22, 2011 at 2:16 pm | Permalink

    A couple of quick things

    1. The places near existing coal/gas plants where it might be technically feasible to store compressed CO2 on a geological timeframe are themselves a finite resource. Use them up and you have to find a new place to do it on the same timeline as the operation of the plant. The further you have to pump the compressed CO2 the more expensive in cost and energy terms it is to implement. So instead of the marginal cost falling over time, it increases.

    Unlike nuclear hazmat which is tiny per unit of output, stable and inncocuous in 300-1000 years, this waste must be stored until the end of days.

    2. The industry says a cost of $100 tCO2 will be required to make it viable. The industry opposes an explicit price on carbon. Ergo … the industry itself declares that it will not support measures needed to make the technology economically feasible. Why should they receive state assistance?

    Let them lean on the LNP to get a robust and explicit price, before pitching for assistance. They had ample time in the 90s to do CCS if they thought it viable. They didn’t. This is just expensive window-dressing designed to ease concerns about job and profit losses in coal.

  • 17
    michael r james
    Posted May 22, 2011 at 6:18 pm | Permalink

    The whole point of CCS and the GCCSI was to justify the continued use of coal. The crunch will come with the UK as discussed in my article exactly two years ago (below). Or to a lesser extent, with what is done with Loy Yang and Hazelwood (not really the same issues because these plants are ancient while the Brits plans include 4 new coal plants.) If the Brits continue with either coal or even gas-fired generation built under the assumption that some large percent of their emissions will be CCS’d, then we know 1. they are not sincere or honest and 2. the UK will fail to meet their ambitious targets.

    (crikey.com.au/2009/05/06/more-smoke-and-mirrors-from-the-coal-lobby/)
    Perhaps this has been examined most succinctly by George Monbiot in his response to the UK government plan to build four new coal-fired power stations with partial CCS. Despite the horrendous cost -- more than A$2B for each of four CCS plants attached to four (new) power stations -- they will capture at most 25% of the carbon output, with a promised 100% capture by 2025 (crossing their fingers for the technology and costs).
    ......
    That is Plan A but, as Monbiot points out, then we are asked to believe that if it fails, Plan B is that these gigawatt coal-fired plants will be closed down? Just like the dirty brown coal plant being built in Victoria at a cost of billions of dollars, it is inconceivable that any new coal plants being built today will be closed down much before their 40 year lifespan. The politicians are making promises that cannot be enforced and at a time they will not be in office.

  • 18
    michael r james
    Posted May 22, 2011 at 6:37 pm | Permalink

    @Socrates and John64.

    The thing about alternative is that some may fill certain niches. I do not think hydrogen will ever be viable for cars but they could be an alternative for larger transport vehicles because it can provide the larger power requirements, and refueling stations can be far fewer etc. If I remember correctly Iceland is, or has, converted their entire bus fleet to hydrogen.

    Compressed air already has a few niches, eg. fork-lifts. The Indians are examining whether it can be used for small cars because it is a lot cheaper than electric batteries. And “recharging” is very fast.

  • 19
    Posted May 22, 2011 at 10:26 pm | Permalink

    Thanks everybody for good comments. Isn’t it nice to sit in the Crikey bubble without all those idiot Trolls that my articles attract on the Drum or Punch?!

    @Stephen Luntz: I wonder if the reason CCS is so stuck cost-wise is that the technological components have already been improved as much as possible? (cf PV etc).

    @michael r james: glad to read your concise explanation of the thermodynamics.

    @D. John Hunwick: Glad you found it useful.

    @kd & @Mark Duffett: there is a whole network of nations aiming for carbon neutral. http://www.unep.org/climateneutral/About/tabid/95/Default.aspx

    @PeeBee: be warned, Mark is upset because nuclear power is dead, post Fukushima and he’s rather obsessed with it. ;-)

    @John64: the same people who were skeptical about climate change are now skeptical about solar (etc). I remain optimistic that the green movement is going to be proven right again. I believe in science, technology and human potential.

    @Socrates: I like your point so much, I’m quoting:

    “I sometimes wonder if the whole economic policy idea of putting prices on carbon to get energy industry change was a mistake? I think we would have been better off following the Montreal Protocol approach (on CFCs) and banning the construction of new coal power plants, then having a sunset clause on existing ones. That would have forced us to find the next most economic alternative. Whether it was wind, solar or nuclear would have naturaly emerged in response. Instead after 15 years of no progress, we are still dealing with red herrings.”

  • 20
    Mark Duffett
    Posted May 23, 2011 at 10:34 am | Permalink

    Yes, @PeeBee, it is a high hurdle, but I think it’s a fair one because it’s precisely with this point – practical scalability – that those of us worried about pursuing renewables as our only low-carbon energy option are primarily concerned.

    Given that comparatively very few existing reactors are at high tsunami risk, and this risk is obviously avoidable for new reactors, proclaiming ‘nuclear is dead post-Fukushima’ looks much less like a belief in ‘science, technology and human potential’, and a lot more like schadenfreude and an endorsement of irrational, knee-jerk reactions. It’s also wrong. The interim report of the UK’s post-Fukushima nuclear review has been released, and its recommendation is to proceed essentially as previously planned. Similar sober reviews in a slew of other countries including China have or will produce similar results (businessweek.com/news/2011-05-22/uranium-rebound-seen-as-china-s-nuclear-plans-offset-fukushima.html). Only Germany and to a lesser extent Japan look like putting a serious long-term kibosh on nuclear at this stage, and they will pay major penalties for doing so.

  • 21
    aliceg
    Posted May 25, 2011 at 4:14 pm | Permalink

    Asking the question about why the Australian Government reduced its budget allocation on carbon, capture and storage (CCS) is a valid question. Jumping straight to the conclusion that it must because of a “technological failure” is a long bow to draw. It’s what the logicians would call an invalid argument. You acknowledge in your article that there are 4-6 commercial scale projects (actually there are 9) operating around the world – doesn’t this suggest that the technology hasn’t ‘failed’ and the reason might lie elsewhere?

    Clearly you are an advocate of renewable energy and not a CCS fan, and that’s fine, but it is incorrect to say that solar and wind are proven technologies at scale. This is a common misconception. To clarify, a medium size coal-fired power plant, powering a medium size town, might produce in the order of 600-700MW (a really big power plant might produce in the order of 2000MW). In comparison a really large solar energy station currently produces in the order of 100MW. That’s not to say that we shouldn’t be endeavouring to scale up wind and solar technologies – we should and are; the point is that it is important to provide accurate information.

    You note that the existing commercial scale CCS projects are connected to natural gas fields, and “not used to capture and store post-combustion CO2 from coal, which is the whole point of the exercise” (emphasis added). CCS linked to coal-fired energy is important, but only half the story. The whole point of the exercise is to reduce CO2 emissions. Much of this emission reduction is tipped to come from CCS applied to industrial plants (not just coal-fired power stations) whether this be gas processing, refineries, iron and steel, cement, ammonia, pulp, or ethanol production.

    In the spirit of providing balanced information, it’s important to note that along with Australia there are other “strong advocates” of CCS, including UK, Canada, USA, Norway to name a few (based on the fact that these governments have also committed billions of dollars to support CCS deployment in their countries). It’s probably also important to note that the International Energy Agency advocates for a portfolio of technologies if the world is going to achieve its greenhouse gas reduction targets, CCS is just one of the technologies.

  • 22
    michael r james
    Posted May 25, 2011 at 7:57 pm | Permalink

    @shake up Posted May 20, 2011 at 11:53 pm
    Can I just scream something into the energy/climate debate in Australia? “GEOTHERMAL ENERGY!!”

    I hear you. (but only now, your post must have been in moderation?). I would gladly see the government spend that $2.4 billion or even more on geothermal. Like you, I reckon it is a red-hot bet and worth the gamble. (sheesh, if we can throw a billion dollars on shipping asylum seekers around, nevermind the $11 billion claimed to be the miners fuel subsidy….) Meanwhile the few (is it three?) companies doing the R&D have to potter on with about $40 mil each. A disgrace and beyond stupid.

    @aliceg Posted May 25, 2011 at 4:14 pm
    Jumping straight to the conclusion that it must because of a “technological failure” .....
    Much of this emission reduction is tipped to come from CCS....
    .....there are 4-6 commercial scale projects (actually there are 9).......

    Alice, you don’t seem to have read the other posts. There is only a single CCS that operates on a electricity generator. All of the others are merely capturing gas (mix of CO2 and methane etc) that comes up with oil and is re-injected into the same oil well. In no meaningful way is that a model for what is required: it doesn’t have to capture very dilute CO2 from an combustion exhaust stream, it doesn’t have to find a suitable injection geology and it doesn’t have to transport the CO2 to that injection point. Capture from non-generator sources is relatively trivial and in any case is not the important issue here.

    No one here, including Dan Cass, has said CCS is not technologically possible. Indeed I have said the opposite. Flying commercial airlines flew at supersonic speeds for 25 years, but there are none flying anymore or any planned. As with so many technologies, it is the economics (plus a few other issues).

    Perhaps you take comfort in some other countries also supporting CCS. (And no one is actually spending billions on CCS no matter what “policies” or “intentions” they may announce. I have made the very straight-forward prediction that the UK will fail dismally in their plan of 4 CCS capturing 25% of CO2 from 4 coal-generators. I wish it wasn’t true.) Most of us would dearly like CCS to be viable because that would solve the major problem with this dominant form of energy generation. Most who look at this issue dispassionately cannot agree that it is a solution.

  • 23
    Matthew Brennan
    Posted May 26, 2011 at 4:25 pm | Permalink

    Aliceg: According to the Australian Coal Association own website, Australia produced 330 Million tons of saleable black coal in 2008-2009 and exported 263 Million tons. Based on 70% carbon and simple stoichiometry this amount of coal produced around 825 Million tons of CO2 of which Australia effectively exported 657 and hence domestic CO2 emmsions from black coal would have been around 167 million tons in that year.

    CCS involves the processing plant and infrastructure to strip, transport and dispose of annually around 2.5 times the amount of coal that was mined in the first place. The word disposal is germaine because the CO2 will have no commercial value, it truely will be garbage! (Dry Ice anyone???) Therefore the capital and operating costs associated with CCS will have to borne by the electricity utility in addition to whatever it costs to generate electricity now and will end up being paid for by electricity consumers. (Try telling that to Tony and Barnaby!!!!)

    CCS proponents can generate as much spin as they like. There is no way that a processing and material handling exercise on this scale is not going to avoid huge investment, huge operating costs and huge energy penalties. The ACA probably love the idea because of all the extra coal fired power stations that would have to be built just run the CCS operation!

  • 24
    aliceg
    Posted May 26, 2011 at 4:25 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for your reply James. My aim was to object to the implication in the article, that whole point of CCS was to apply it just to just coal-fired power plants. CCS can be applied to a range of industrial processes. I disagree with you that capture from these non-coal generation sources is relatively trivial.

    However, I think you are objecting specifically to ‘Enhance oil recovery’ plants as not providing any “meaningful model for what’s required.” Three things in response: 1) three of the operating commercial scale CCS plants, although related to oil and gas sector are not EOR plants, 2) two of the operating commercial CCS plants are EOR, but they are monitoring the long term storage of the CO2 injected as part of the project, and 3) EOR provides a cost effective avenue for implementing the technology so improvements in the technology can bring the costs down. (If anyone is interested in further information, this can be found in the Global CCS Institute’s Global Status Report, http://www.globalccsinstitute.com/global-status-ccs-2010, p 49, which by the way, is where I work – hence my stance that I think CCS is an important part of the greenhouse gas solution.)

    CCS is not about propping up the coal industry, it’s about reducing greenhouse gas emissions. I would echo Philip Amos’ sentiment, that if the world is serious about achieving its greenhouse gas mitigation targets – it really has to do something about lowering the emissions from the 80% of energy produced by fossil fuels worldwide. Energy efficiency is a large part of the answer; CCS is currently the only other option available to reduce CO2 emissions from fossil fuel based plants in any significant volumes. Renewable energy is an essential part of the solution as well.

    Re you second point: it was my interpretation of Cass’ article that he was saying there was a technological failure, not an economic failure. And yes – CCS is expensive and this is arguably the largest barrier! The same could be said for up-scaling wind and solar technologies, so they can become viable alternatives to fossil fuels, which are not proven technologies at scale.

    Re your third point “Perhaps you take comfort in some other countries also supporting CCS.” Cass’ article states “….Australia is the strongest advocate of CCS.” My point was to flag that this wasn’t exactly true.

  • 25
    aliceg
    Posted May 26, 2011 at 4:31 pm | Permalink

    Hi Matthew – just saw your post as well. I agree, CCS is expensive due to the investement in extra capital costs, extra operating costs and the energy penalities – as you’ve pointed out. The benefit in doing CCS is purely a CO2 mitigation benefit, not because it’s cheap. I’m not sure that any propoents of CCS would disagree or argue with that.

  • 26
    michael r james
    Posted May 27, 2011 at 8:48 pm | Permalink

    Alice, it would be nice to feel a part of a solution. But, alas, the economics and timescale (and yes storage problem) of CCS is just so bleak. And since there is a fundamental issue of laws of physics, there is no feasible technological solution. Sorry to be so repetitive but it is key. (The only technological solution is in fact biological as I also previously mentioned but that is not classified as CCS.)

    On top of that bleak outlook for even newly built coal generators, it is even worse for existing plant: it is a fantasy that these will be retrofitted–economics and technological barriers stop it. By itself that means it can be no solution. (Again, it is not that it cannot be done–Mountaineer was retrofitting, well 1.5% of it–but that it is very very impractical.)

    This pessimistic outlook is why some people go into despair and others (Barry Brook) turn to nuclear, but it almost suffers a similar set of problems. Economics, timescale (of construction or R&D of all the wonderful “next gen” tech that will save us) before you even get to politics.

    So the biggest issue with CCS is that it is indeed used to justify continuing to mine and burn coal. I am not going to say we should stop mining coal today but we can phase out our (Australian) coal-fired generators without too much financial pain. As I wrote in Crikey, drawing on Garnaut’s data, this will have little impact on the coal miners (which is another false argument made; ie. it will send them broke!)

    Anything that is putting money and research effort into CCS is taking away from a true long-term sustainable solution.

  • 27
    BruceMcF
    Posted June 1, 2011 at 1:52 am | Permalink

    Actually, Australia spends quite a lot of its oil on trucking quite big shares of its truck freight between very few actual “points A and B”. Indeed, electrify the Melbourne / Sydney / Brisbane freight rail corridor and quite big chunks of the road freight market can be swapped for long haul electric freight rail and shot haul trucking ~ and obviously short haul trucking is far more appropriate for pluggable hybrid electric / biodiesel than long haul.

    And of course, while windpower and utility grade CSP requires backing power supply, it does not require a SUPPLY as substantial as the capacity required, so biocoal in existing coal fired plants as firming supply behind conventional and pumped hydro offers a quite effective means of providing substantial capacity back up within a reasonable total energy supply budget for biomass energy.

  • 28
    Posted June 7, 2011 at 8:53 pm | Permalink

    I should respond to some more comments here but just wanted to say

    THANK YOU

    for not being crazed, anonymous Troll morons like on The Punch, ABC Drum or National Times.

    Crikey’s comment crowd is good company.

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