Brown coal

I’m planning a full-length post on Garnaut, but I thought I’d do a quick check on what would be involved in meeting the target of a 10 per cent reduction in emissions between 2000 and 2020. My guess is that the increase in oil prices we’ve already seen will be enough to bring consumption of petrol and diesel back to the 2000 level, and that other sectors like agriculture will be roughly stable. That means that most of the reduction will have to be found in energy generation.

My rough estimate is that the use of brown coal in energy generation contributes around 10 per cent of total emissions (Update:After I revised my estimate to 15 per cent, reader Chris Short pointed me to a section of Greenhouse Gas Inventory I’d missed, which gives brown coal a 30 per cent share of electricity’s 34 per cent of emissions, so 10 per cent was right ), so, as a first approximation, the Garnaut target could be met shutting down the brown coal sector and replacing it with enough renewables to cover the brown coal share of existing electricity, and any growth in final consumption. Consumption growth would be constrained both by increasing prices and by conservation measures.

That would certainly require a substantial adjustment assistance program in the Latrobe valley and similar locations. We’ve done this kind of thing before, for example, with the end of the steel industry in Newcastle, sometimes well and sometimes poorly.

My guess is that the actual outcome would involve keeping some brown coal stations, with drying technology that reduces emissions to a level comparable with black coal, and some expansion of gas-fired power stations, offset by a combination of domestic offset measures and purchases of international offsets. The Garnaut cost estimates of around 1 per cent of GDP look pretty plausible for this. This story actually suggests a lower value, since $35 billion over 10 years is around 0.3 per cent of GDP.

44 thoughts on “Brown coal

  1. Tim M – “Ender – Nonsense. The problem is precisely the energy source. Replacement of fossil fuels with non-fossil energy sources is the solution.”

    I am glad that you think that there is a simple solution. Non-fossil fuel energy sources, at least the ones that do not leave a poisonous legacy for the future, need some sort of co-operation from the consumers. By that I mean that only with energy efficiency gains and a change in attitudes to energy can renewables hope to meet the needs of a technological society. The only reason that we can be as wasteful as we are is because fossil fuels give us endless 24X7 power at very low monetary cost. Renewables do not do this quite as well however they have the enormous advantage of almost zero environmental cost.

    Right now we favour the low monetary cost solution because we can. Until such time as we can’t I believe that virtually nothing can be done. Witness the Labor government and the whole Garnaut thing. The started with high dreams only to be brought to earth by the bean counters that basically makes putting environment before money political suicide.

    BTW LED lights are more efficient that CFLs and lack the problem of mercury. The LED light thing was rhetorical anyway and I only used it as a demonstration of our attitudes. Do you think that a person buying a new flat screen TV takes notes of the power consumption? You have to be a nerd like me to look at the back of a plasma set and see that it consumes 500W and not buy it because of this. I have measured my TV and it consumes 200W, which is quite bad, however I am waiting for the new OLED TVs that should only consume 50W.

    http://greenhome.huddler.com/forum/thread/499/led-lamps-versus-cfls?replies=8

  2. Ender – I was responding to the relentless and ill-founded pessimism inherent in your comment. You are intitled to your opinion that the Federal Govt’s emissions trading plans are already a failure, I suppose, but don’t expect me to take it seriously.

    And I was well aware that your reference to LEDs was a rhetorical one (and that LEDs are more efficient than CFLs, for that matter), and I was pointing out that, as a rhetorical point, it’s a bad one, since there is good evidence that people are changing their behaviour and taking up more efficient products, CFLs being a salient example.

    In short, I think harping doomerism is pointless. Anyway, we’re getting off topic, so I’ll say nothing further.

  3. If Rudd’s MRET of 20% (however defined) by 2020 still stands that is not compatible with a mere 10% less emissions. I believe that target would take all of Australia’s current prime site wind generation (about .8GW nameplate) to be replicated for the next 12 years with existing coal or gas plant throttled back. Wind construction appears to be in the doldrums even as new coal stations are going up. We really should be cranking out green energy now at a very rapid build rate. Somehow we are supposed to believe there will be a great catch-up flurry of construction after the 2010 ETS-lite. The twin objectives may now be impossible.

  4. “If Rudd’s MRET of 20% (however defined) by 2020 still stands that is not compatible with a mere 10% less emissions.”

    I’m not sure about that. Isn’t 10% (approximately) growth in demand over a decade reasonable?

  5. Tim M – “Ender – I was responding to the relentless and ill-founded pessimism inherent in your comment. You are intitled to your opinion that the Federal Govt’s emissions trading plans are already a failure, I suppose, but don’t expect me to take it seriously.”

    And I was responding to JQs ill founded optimisim that simply taking out one form of power generation is sufficient. This sort of thing smacks of “if we do this we do not have to do anything else” sort of thinking.

    A renewable future will not be easy however I am not a doomer in that I think that it cannot be done – it can. However a renewable electricity grid will require changes in the way we use energy and we can still use some fossil fuels as long as they are less than 30% of the energy mix. I do agree that brown coal should go however that is not the be all and end all of the solution.

    People who think that renewables are a drop in replacement for fossil fuels do not understand the way they work.

    Until such time as you can convince a majority of people that paying $5000 for a new plasma TV because China is switching to renewables for a majority of it’s electricity generation is a good thing people will want to buy a $3000 plasma TV made cheaply in China with cheap fossil fuels. Yes attitudes are changing however the fundamental behaviour for a majority of people favours cheap energy. Generally for most people things like changing to CFLs is easy to do and do not involve any changes therefore those sort of things are getting done.

  6. “Until such time as you can convince a majority of people that paying $5000 for a new plasma TV because China is switching to renewables for a majority of it’s electricity generation is a good thing people will want to buy a $3000 plasma TV made cheaply in China with cheap fossil fuels.”

    This assumes of course that the wishes of westerners as opposed, for example, to the wishes of Chinese not to die of lung cancer is the deciding factor.

  7. Ian G check my maths.

    Let’s confine it to electrical generation in capacity (not actual) in gigawatts, liquid fuels excluded. Using round numbers;

    2008 clean 1 dirty 50 clean/total = 2%
    2020 clean 11 dirty 45 clean total = 20%

    Under this time path we have to find 10 GW of clean and lose or mothball 5 of dirty to make both the 10% emissions cut and the MRET. I’d say we need to get cracking to have a snowball’s chance.

  8. Hermit, that sounds broadly correct.

    The next questions:

    1. how many GWs of current coal-fired capacity are going to reach the end of their operating life over the next decade?

    2. How many Megawatts of renewable are we currently adding per year?

    Of course, gas achieves roughly a 75% reduction in emissions compared to black coal so replacing 4 Gigwatts of coal with gas is equivalent to replacing 3 Gigawtts of coal with wind or solar.

  9. Your emissions intensity numbers for gas are a bit optimistic, Ian. Try these numbers.

    The most modern gas plants get an emissions intensity about 75% less than Hazelwood, the worst brown coal plant in the developed world.

    Another point to keep in mind that solar hot water systems get counted towards the MRET.

  10. Ian a couple of go-to sites are the Clean energy Council and Wikipedia’s sites for renewable energy in Australia. I still don’t see a GW equivalent a year of low carbon energy being installed in a decade.

    Specific projects seem to need extra googling eg the fate of the huge wind farm proposed for ‘ Mad Max’ country. That seems to stalled due to fickle winds both political and meteorological.

    I think gas is OK for combined cycle peaking plant but is wasteful for baseload. Higher priority uses are fertiliser, diesel substitute and process heat. We will have learned nothing from the UK’s North Sea woes if we squander it too quickly. Like a sleeper on the share market it should get a premium for long term term value.

  11. Hermit – “I think gas is OK for combined cycle peaking plant but is wasteful for baseload. Higher priority uses are fertiliser, diesel substitute and process heat.”

    Gas in combined cycle plants is much more efficient than coal. Thermal coal’s efficiency tops out at about 36% whereas a gas turbine combined cycle plant can be up to 55% efficient. A CCGT is not usually considered to be base load power plant mainly because of the cost of fuel – coal is cheap.

    Where CCGT plants score is that they can interact automatically and efficiently with renewable power plants, something that base load power plants such as thermal coal cannot do.

    For process heating a lot of processes can use the combined heat and power (CHP) units that are becoming popular at the moment. Rather than just burning the gas to heat water why not generate electricity first and then heat the water with the waste heat. CHP plants can also be integrated with automatic controls to interact with renewables.

    This all makes an idea of just taking out brown coal all the more unrealistic. What we need for meaningful reductions in CO2 is an integrated approach that will give us a new smart grid that can be optimised for lowest possible emissions on a day to day basis. The smart grid will combine controllable fossil fuels, HVDC links bringing in renewable power, electricity storage and electric transport to produce the reliable power that our technological society needs.

    We have the multiple problem of climate change, peak energy and a society that depends on energy and transport to keep functioning. We can solve any two of these easily however in most discussion or solutions I see misses out on including all three which is what we need to do.

    An integrated smart grid with electric transport does tick all the boxes. I do not like the idea that just getting rid of brown coal is sufficient and there exists the danger of people thinking that if we do this the problem is solved and we can forget about it.

  12. “I do not like the idea that just getting rid of brown coal is sufficient”

    I don;t think anyone is suggesting that.

    It is however a comparitvely cheap and quick way to start the reduction process.

    That means we can let more of our existing black coal plants run until the end of their operating lives and minimise the cost of the transition.

  13. Ian Gould – “I don;t think anyone is suggesting that.”

    That is true however the danger is that this sort of band aid sort of measure could become the ‘solution’ if we are not careful. It could prevent further action on really worthwhile projects if to shut down brown coal we have to spend millions compensating everybody.

    It really would be better to put the zero emission power sources into the grid and then force generators to start paying to emit greenhouse gases.

  14. Hermit, the sources you point to suggest a more optimistic picture to me. Wikipedia’s wind power article gives 6GW of proposed wind generation in Australia. Granted that not all of those projects will proceed, it still seems reasonable to project at least that much capacity by 2020, given a carbon tax of $20/t or more. There also seems to be plenty of room for growth in geothermal – this will take some changes in the way we manage transmission in the grid, but governments are already looking hard at this question. Then, as noted above there’s solar hot water.

    All of these seem to be feasible replacements for brown coal over a decade or so, and beyond that it seems reasonable to hope that photovoltaics will be cost-effective on a large scale.

    And higher prices for energy will induce steadily increasing demand reductions through higher efficiency and changes in consumption patterns.

    That’s not to say that our system will get its act together, merely that there doesn’t seem to be any fundamental technical obstacle.

  15. Pr Q I think it will take more push than pull to scale up that quickly. The obvious mechanism is dangle the auction revenue from the ETS into a restricted list of approved rebatable purchases; solar hot water, smart meters, insulation and the like. I still think they could have a no frills ETS starting 2009 not 2010 if they wanted to get that ball rolling. Or slap say $50 a tonne on coal exports.

    As for technology performance or cost breakthroughs (apart from volume) they may not eventuate ie the solar panels and batteries we have now may not improve all that much. With geothermal we are still waiting for Geodynamics to light up the town of Innamincka population 12 using the Kalina technology. We are waiting for silver bullets while we could make progress with picks and shovels.

  16. It really would be better to put the zero emission power sources into the grid and then force generators to start paying to emit greenhouse gases.

    Yes Ender. And that is pretty much the purpose of the MRET extension and the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme.

  17. John Quiggin,

    I am a retiree with an interest in the energy debate. Your blog was mentioned on the radio so I had a look. Here is my reaction to the brown coal debate it you are interested.

         The history of coal is that it has been burnt for centuries. In the latter part of the 19th century it powered steam ships and the railways, drove industry, heated homes and provided gas for heating and light. When the automobile industry started, petrol was made from coal. Coal made pharmaceuticals, fertilisers, dyes, tars and industrial chemicals. Coal has many, many applications but when it came to burning coal the process has been the cheapest and easiest. This lead Professor Striner to say………

    “Coal, as it is and has been consumed, is a waste of a natural resource. Coal should not be burned in its raw form but should be so processed that it is utilised in the most efficient and economic manner possible”

    These words were first penned in 1951 by Professor Herbert E. Striner and appear in his 1979  book  An Analysis of the Bituminous Coal Industry in Terms of Total Energy Supply and a Synthetic Oil Program.  Arno Press at page 184.

    Coal was used efficiently in England in response to a tragedy.
    London had more than 4000 deaths due to smog in 1950 and responded in 1956 with the Clean Air Act. 

    In compliance with the Act a smokeless fuel based on Thomas Parker’s Low Temperature Carbonisation Process developed in 1906 was produced. It was called Coalite and I believe is still available. There were different brands of smokeless fuel. I do not think pre-cleaning coal was practised elsewhere although British smokeless fuel was exported to many countries.
     
    Other similar processes have been devised. The cleanest and most efficient method from available information is the Karrick Process from the United States. The various technologies are available but not used.

    Burning coal directly to produce electricity is about 30% efficient. There are many ways to increase the efficiency, and it is quite possible to double, if not treble, the efficiency. This does not reduce the CO2 output per ton of coal, but halves the CO2 output per unit of power, and allows other toxic emissions and particulate matter to be captured.

     Strangely there seems to be no interest in the efficient use of coal as an interim method of reducing CO2. There seems to be no realisation that we could half our fuel bill, increase the value of our exports, and provide China with not clean but smokeless coal which would make their cities smog-free. We could do all this  and incredibly obtain oil as a by-product. Oil that can be refined into a cheap reliable supply of petrol, aviation fuel and diesel.

    Coal, even brown coal, is the eighth wonder of the world. We have not yet learnt the value of its efficient use. Instead we invest in schemes that burn coal in pure oxygen and try to sequester CO2, both horrendously expensive and neither sustainable.

    Coal is not the problem, we are. If we used simple proven methods of burning coal efficiently we could meet the 2050 targets in 2020.

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