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Fact check: Can clean coal technology halve emissions within 5 years?

Posted 26 minutes agoWed 12 Nov 2014, 10:06am

More than half a billion tonnes of coal is mined in Australia each year from national reserves that are the fourth largest in the world, behind the United States, Russia and China.

Coal exports have added, on average, $44 billion to the national annual income over the past five years, with Australia predicted to be one of the biggest beneficiaries on increasing global trade in coal. Prime Minister Tony Abbott says coal is “good for humanity” and that he is confident about the future of the industry.

But the latest ‘synthesis report‘ from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, released in November, warns that without, among other things, reducing the carbon intensity of electricity generation, global warming is on track to exceed current temperatures by 4 degrees Celsius by 2100.

Environment Minister Greg Hunt says the Government’s “direct action” plan will underpin research into clean coal technology, which will “significantly” reduce emissions from current coal-fired power generators.

“What we have to focus on is reducing emissions and the best thing that we can do is to actually clean up existing power stations. What we’re proposing right now is to work with power stations. We have the research of the CSIRO which is talking about a 30 to 50 per cent reduction in emissions from brown coal power stations through their direct injection combustion engine research,” he told ABC radio on November 3.

Mr Hunt told the ABC’s Four Corners in July that: “The technology which is emerging now and which I think will be available over the next three to five years cleans up very significantly – not perfectly, but very significantly, by up to 30 to 50 per cent the emissions from current generation.”

Can clean coal technology halve emissions from current power generators within five years?

  • The claim: Greg Hunt says technology which will be available over the next three to five years will reduce emissions from coal-fired power stations by up to 30 to 50 per cent.
  • The verdict: The technology remains in a development phase and is not realistically expected to be commercially operative and rolled out within three to five years. No other clean coal technology sufficient to cut emissions from current generators by up to 50 per cent is economically viable at industrial scale in Australia, or expected to become viable within the next five years.

Available technology for ‘clean coal’

In October 2012, the federal Parliamentary Library summarised the options for reducing emissions in power generation. It stated: “Designation of a technology as a ‘clean coal’ technology does not imply that it reduces emissions to zero or near zero. For this reason, the term has been criticised as being misleading; it might be more appropriate to refer to ‘cleaner coal’.”

Australia has about 25 coal-fired power stations in operation which burn black and brown coal. According to the Climate Council, 65 per cent of Australia’s coal-fired power stations will be over 40 years old by 2030.

All but four of Australia’s power stations are what are known as older, “subcritical” plants, which waste 65 per cent, or more, of the coal they burn.

Four “supercritical” plants were built in Australia in the late 1990s to replace old plants from the 1970s and emit less greenhouse gases than the subcritical plants.

According to the International Energy Agency (IEA), state-of-the-art, ultra-supercritical (USC) plants can run at up to 46 per cent efficiency. On World Coal Association estimates, those efficiency gains mean a USC plant could emit up to 40 per cent less than a regular, existing power station. Advanced-USC plants, which are even more efficient, are being developed overseas.

The association’s website estimates that for every one percentage point gain in efficiency, there is a 2 to 3 per cent reduction in the amount of greenhouse gasses produced. So, a USC plant running at 46 per cent efficiency would produce 22 to 33 per cent lower emissions than an existing plant running at 35 per cent efficiency.

University of Queensland Energy Initiative director Chris Greig says it is reasonable to suggest that any new high-efficiency, low-emissions technology would produce 30 per cent to 50 per cent lower emissions than the current subcritical plants. “But 50 per cent would be a stretch. It would be comparing the best replacement technology with the worst existing plant,” he told Fact Check.

But Australia is unlikely to implement either the USC or Advanced-USC technology because the cost of retrofitting existing plants is prohibitively expensive, almost equal to building an entirely new plant, according to Professor Greig, and Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF) head of Australia Kobad Bhavnagri.

This means the supercritical or ultra-supercritical technology will likely only be used if a new plant is built, and according to an August report from the National Electricity Market Operator, for the first time in history, Australia will not need any more coal or gas power capacity to maintain adequate supply over the next decade.

BNEF also says in its Asia Pacific 2030 Market Outlook report, released in June, that new coal generation projects “are unlikely in Australia, as lenders are reluctant to contribute finance citing significant reputational risk”.

Future technology – DICE

With USC technology too expensive to retrofit, CSIRO researchers are investigating cheaper, more effective technologies to reduce emissions created from burning coal. Those technologies include carbon capture and storage, and intense gasification technologies. But Mr Hunt says it is direct injection carbon engine (DICE) technology which will clean up Australia’s coal industry.

The CSIRO’s head of the Advanced Carbon Power division, and principal scientist working on DICE, Louis Wibberley, says that it would be “absolutely possible” for DICE to cut emissions by 30 per cent, or up to 50 per cent respectively, when compared to old black and brown coal generators, if the technology could be developed to a commercial roll-out stage.

“But we are struggling to get the funding from the coal industry,” he told Fact Check.

Dr Wibberley says DICE technology, which is essentially a diesel engine about the same size as those used on ships, uses a liquid slurry of water and brown or black coal (and bio-char if available) to create energy.

He says the technology to create the right type of liquid is at commercial stage, but the first fully-sized engine to power a commercial plant won’t be available until 2020, as a best-case scenario.

He says while Australia has one laboratory small-scale prototype engine, the Japanese should be ready to test a 1,000 kilowatt single cylinder engine some time over the next 18 months, which would be big enough to power about 1,000 homes.

He notes that a 12,000 to 30,000 kilowatt prototype demonstration engine could be possible overseas by 2018.

German company MAN Diesel & Turbo estimates it can manufacture an engine within three to five years.

Dr Wibberley says Australia is about a year behind that schedule for implementation, because of funding and administrative issues which have delayed development of the technology.

The benefit of DICE technology over other clean coal systems is that individual engine units can be inserted into existing power plants, and could produce between 5,000 and 7,000 kilowatts each.

Dr Wibberley says the expectation is that existing coal generators could be systematically decommissioned and replaced with DICE units in a planned, staged rollout, which could be cheaper and easier than retrofitting plants with other technologies.

A commercial DICE power plant is expected to cost about $1.4 million per 1,000 kilowatts to build, and could also assist in the uptake of carbon capture and storage, “delivering a 30 to 40 per cent cost advantage (in terms of $/t CO2 abated) compared to conventional coal and gas power generation technology,” Dr Wibberley said in a paper presented to the International Energy Agency in May.

“The cost to commercialisation…would be comparatively low (say $75 million) and far less than most other cleaner coal technologies,” it said.

Is DICE the answer?

The CSIRO says that unlike traditional generators, DICE technology:

  • can provide rapid response power when renewable generators aren’t meeting demand;
  • is modular, meaning it can be added to existing plants when old units are scrapped;
  • requires half the capital investment of conventional technology; and
  • could encourage a new export market for the coal slurry, which is non-flammable, environmentally benign and can be safely transported and stored.

Mr Bhavnagri says that putting aside DICE technology, which is still in an early research phase, Mr Hunt’s statements about clean coal technologies making a significant impact on reducing global warming “aren’t supported by the evidence and lack substance”.

He says BNEF doesn’t focus on clean coal anymore, “which is indicative of the fact it doesn’t really have that much of a future”.

BNEF expects that emissions from Australia’s power generation sector will remain high for at least 15 years, despite more renewable energy technology coming on line. Its Market Outlook report states that power sector emissions in Australia are only expected to fall by 6 per cent between 2013 and 2030.

The report says coal will persist as an energy source, and with the incumbent coal fleet likely to be long-lived and remain cheap to operate, output – and emissions – will stay high.

“To decarbonise the power sector in the absence of cost-effective sequestration technologies, policy measures will be needed that raise the short-run cost of coal and force larger amounts of retirements [of subcritical generators],” it said.

Climate advisory panel

  • This piece was reviewed by all members of Fact Check’s climate advisory panel.
  • Meet the panel here.

The verdict

While Mr Hunt did not specifically mention DICE during his Four Corners interview, the Environment Minister subsequently confirmed publicly that his statement about reducing emissions by up to 50 per cent was based on the CSIRO’s technology.

That technology remains in a development phase and is not realistically expected to be commercially operative and rolled out within three to five years. Funding issues and lack of widespread industry support have put development of DICE technology in Australia behind the rest of the world by about a year.

No other clean coal technology sufficient to cut emissions from current generators by up to 50 per cent is economically viable at industrial scale in Australia, or expected to become viable within the next five years.

Whatever the technological developments, forecast demand for coal-fired electricity in Australia is not expected to make implementation of the new clean coal technologies economically viable domestically.

Mr Hunt’s statement is highly ambitious.


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