Clean Coal is not going to happen

The announcement that the UK government is cancelling funding (budgeted at stg 1 billion) for its proposed competition for carbon capture and storage (CCS) marks the end of the last best hope that we can mitigate CO2 emissions while continuing to burn coal. If follows the abandonment of similar programs in Australia and the US.

Two thoughts on this.

First, it makes a nonsense of one of the justifications for supercritical coal-fired power stations, namely that they can be made “CCS-ready”.

Second, lots of projected paths to decarbonization involve substantial reliance on CCS. Those will need to be scrapped or changed substantially. The simplest change would be to replace coal+CCS with nuclear (the UK government now seems to be chasing the mirage of Small Modular Reactors) but that is only marginally less unrealistic than CCS (a new post on this shortly, I hope). The alternative is to rely on a combination of storage and smart grid pricing to adapt our current electricity system to one driven mostly by wind and solar PV, with hydro and limited amounts of gas as the dispatchable sources.

50 thoughts on “Clean Coal is not going to happen

  1. Ronald, can you please explain this statement

    “Newtonian, currently Australians average around 7.5 kilowatts of energy use and it doesn’t appear to be increasing.”

    I have thought about that every way possible and it just makes no sense to me. Kilowatts is an energy level, a flow rate, so are you saying that every Australian has a continuous 7.5Kw flowing to serve their needs? That would mean every person had their own stove with all of the elements on permanently, for instance.

    How did you arrive at this 7.5 Kw figure?

  2. @Rob Banks

    So if I purchase a tank of fossil fuel from Indonesia – does this mean that my Australian carbon footprint is zero?

    Do I reduce my carbon emissions simply by purchasing fossil products from China, India etc?

    Does Australia reduce its carbon emissions by encouraging people to fly internationally on carriers other than QANTAS?

    Is this the gist of Monbiot’s article?

  3. And CCS requires somewhere to put the recovered CO2. For some coal fired power stations, there might be somewhere geologically suitable and accessible; for most, it simply won’t be the case.
    The cost barrier of the additional infrastructure necessary to do the CCS, the fact that it is parasitic by requiring substantial energy to do the job, the fact that it increases the effective price of electricity, and the fact that it requires coal to be dirt cheap, all count against CCS.

    CCS is really just an excuse to go on avoiding the the inevitable: we must cease using coal, especially dirty coal, for energy production. The sooner we do it, the better off we all are in the longer run. Unfortunately, there are some hard-right who are of the view that the threat posed by AGW is nil, and they have significant influence; there are also some hardliners on the left who would support mining jobs irrespective of the damage it does to our global environment. So, CCS will find some political supporters here and there. The fact that CCS in principle it can be done is used as a smoke screen to conceal the real question, i.e. Why are we still burning coal for power when we know it is the single most significant contributor to anthropogenic global warming?

  4. Yet more injustice and inequity as coal mining wreaks havoc on society.

    Bye Bye native Title

    All conservative politics can be simply summed up as an effort to make sure its supporters don’t have to pay attention to the concerns of people who are not them.

  5. BilB, you are confusing average with continuous. If I leave my light on all the time it will continuously emit 12 watts of light. But if I only turn it on for one hour a day, then for that hour it will emit 12 watts of light, but the average amount of light it will emit will only be half a watt.

    Taking the average of something can smoosh many and potentially widly varying figures into one number. For example, if I wanted to find out the average amount of figs I ate last week I would look in my fig diary and see that I have written: Sunday 12, Monday 0, Tuesday 0, Wednesday 3, Thursday 2, Friday 1, Saturday 11. I take all those numbers and add them together to get 29. I then divide them by the number of days, which is 7, to get 4.14 as the average number of figs I ate each day last week.

    I got the figure for the average power consumption per person by taking the figure for primary energy use for Australia, determining the average amount of power consumption required to reach that figure and then dividing by 23 million, which is roughly the population of Australia.

    Note it is quite possible I made a mistake with my arithmatic, as that is something I often do, but the figure of about 7.5 kilowatts is in line with what I already knew.

    Primary energy consumption mostly consists of the thermal energy of burned fossil fuels. That’s all the coal, natural gas, and oil burned to generate electricity and all the oil and other fossil fuels burned for transport, mining, agriculture, etc. There is also a much smaller contribution from renewables. Note that primary energy use counts the thermal energy in coal and not the much smaller amount of electricity that is generated from it. Very roughly, half of Australia’s primary energy use is for electricity generation and the other half is for transportation, industrial and building heating, agriculture, mining, etc.

  6. Thanks for clearing that up, Ronald. So what you are saying is that 23 million people are drawing 7.5 kilowatts 24 hours a day for 365 days per year. The figure this gives, 1,511 billion Kilowatt hours is way too high. Australia’s total electricity consumption at present is around 245 billion kilowatt hours. This would give you an average per person electricity consumption rate of (7.5/6.16) 1.22Kw.

    I actually did that calculation years ago for my factory, but from the total consumption figure from my power bill, at a time when I was working the machines fairly hard and it came to 2.4 Kw 24/365. It could not be determined by the machine name plate times hours in operation as very few machines pull their name plate value continuously. Just the same as a domestic stove will never pull the total of all of its elements (8.5Kw). So have to work back from the only known figure, the total energy consumed.

    Even the 1.22 Kw figure is missleading as it includes industry as well as domestic. It sounds low but when you realise that a family of 4, a household, by that measure would consume 115 Kwhrs per day, which is way too high.

  7. BilB, it is the thermal energy, in the fossil fuels, not the electrical energy that is counted. As our fossil fuel generators are only about one third efficient multiply the 1.22 kilowatt figure by about three to allow for that. And in additon to that there is the energy used by transportation, industry, agriculture, etc. which mostly comes from oil and natural gas.

  8. Ronald your figure is way out of wack on the one hand, and a meaningless metric on the other. While attempting to reconcile your figure with some kind of reality I uncovered some interesting relationships such as that the total motive power of Australia’s commercial aviation fleet is just a little less than Australia’s peak electrical generation capacity. The total rating of all in service electrical appliances is far less, but the total energy rating of the automotive fleet is an astonishingly high figure dwarfing both of those many fold. There is no way other than a detailed survey to determine the total load capacity of industry other than by making assumptions based on the energy content of all of the product produced, but that still does not give a figure for machines in place but not in use.

    The figure you came up with in no way reflects the energy throughput particularly as you specifically excluded transport energy load from it, and it cannot be used to predict changes in the load, as there is over capacity to consume by a factor of around six for domestic, perhaps twenty for industry, perhaps a hundred for transport if it had been included, and I can’t even imagine what that might be for agriculture as the scope there is so broad.

    Apart from that you have not demonstrated your methodology for determining which loads would be included in your database to use for the calculation nor how you arrived at how people would use those loads. Do people turn your light bulbs on all day or turn them off, how many people are using LED bulbs and how many still have incandescent bulbs. What I am saying is that I believe you just plucked a figure out of the air, and it was far from reality.

    The only reasonably accurate method for determining energy useage , and even averaged per person system load (your Kw figure) is to use the knowns of total electricity consumption and total fuel fossil and renewable fuel consumption, then apportioning that out to the population.

    Your “numbers” might have been correctish if they were 7500 Kwhrs for Australian household consumption and 4500 Kwhrs for European households as that is believably close to reality, and that is why I picked up on your figure thinking it was a miss-typing.

  9. BilB, here is the wikipedia article on Primary Energy:

    There’s a one link limit, but I’m sure you can find Australia’s primary energy use on your own.

    And that’s all I did. I looked up Australia’s primary energy usage and converted it into average per capita power output. If you do the same you will see it will come to about 7.5 kilowatts.

    And if you don’t want to do that, that’s okay.

  10. Ronald,

    You cannot possibly arrive at that figure from your link. The figures there are all in terrawatt HOURS, not Kilowatts.

    There can be only a handful of numbers involved show us which ones they are and your calculation. The “you figure it out for yourself” defence will not disguise your misunderstanding.

  11. BilB, if my stove uses 5 kilowatt-hours in 2 hours then we can work out its average power use in that time period by dividing the number of kilowatt-hours consumed by the number of hours it took to consume them. In this case, 5 divided by 2, which gives 2.5 kilowatts.

    We can check if that is correct by working backwards. If the stove’s power use is 2.5 kilowatts then after one hour it will have used 2.5 kilowatt-hours of energy and after 2 hours it will have used 5 kilowatt-hours.

    According to the Australian Department of Industry and Science, in the 2013-2014 financial year, Australia’s primary energy use was 1,620 terawatt-hours. If we divide that by 24 million, which is Australia’s populaton, we get 67,500 kilowatt-hours per capita. And dividing that by the number of hours in a year gives us an average power use of 7.7 kilowatts per Australian. A little higher than my original calculation.

  12. @Ronald Brak

    A few questions or issues.

    1. Does “primary energy use” mean “electric power use” or absolutely all measurable power the nation uses? I think it is the latter. For example, all the hydrocarbons we burn in cars, ships and planes would be included I think. In fact, I think primary energy use would also mean the energy the coal liberates at the power station, of which only about 30% gets turned into usable electricity.

    2. To say we have an “average power use” in this context might be a little misleading. We don’t directly and personally “use” a lot of primary energy use. It gets wasted before it ever gets to us. However, we do all collectively use the primary resource to run our whole system and this has resource and environmental impacts so in a another sense it is meaningful.

    3. The individual is not directly using a lot of this energy. Much of it gets wasted before it gets to the individual. Much is used by big factories making things that a particular individual might not use. But in another sense the “average individual” is putting this burden on the entire primary energy supply system (natural and man-made).

    In summary, I think this is one of those cases when keeping the conceptualisation at the aggregate is a lot more meaningful than saying the “average individual” uses so much. There is really no average individual. But feel free to disagree with me, I am not hard and fast about this. At another level, it is astounding and a bit scary that we are on average continuously using 7.7 kilowatts per person primary energy in Australia.

  13. Oops, in the above post my points 2 & 3 just say the same thing in slightly different ways. Sorry for that thought duplication.

  14. @Ikonoclast

    (1) Yes, it is all* the energy use of a nation and not just electricity. As you point out it takes 3 times or so as much the thermal energy in fossil fuels to create electrical energy. While the amount of energy obtained from renewables is increasing, in Australia primary energy use still mostly comes from coal, oil, and natural gas.

    (2)&(3) The reason why I mentioned Australia’s average power use per captia was in response to a passing comment by Newtonian. I wouldn’t just mention it out of the blue in case it confused people. Which it did.

    Because of mining, agriculture and other industry the average person doesn’t personally use that much power directly. However, it is still correct to refer to the average power use per person, even if the median (that is the amount that most people use) may be much lower or much higher than the average.

    *It is all the energy we take action to divert to our use. So using sunlight to see what you are doing doesn’t count, but capturing energy from sunlight with a solar cell and then using it to power an LED light does count.

  15. Hard to believe now, burning coal was once seen as romantic (in the broader sense of the term).

    As recently as 1998;

    “i wish i was the brakeman
    on a hurtlin fevered train
    crashin head long into the heartland
    like a cannon in the rain
    with the feelin of the sleepers
    and the burnin of the coal
    countin the towns flashin by
    and a night that’s full of soul” – Fisherman’s Blues by the Waterboys.

    More broadly, it serves to illustrate how badly the “romantic sensibility” can lead us astray. And I say this as a person who loves many productions of the Romantic movement.

    “The movement emphasized intense emotion as an authentic source of aesthetic experience, placing new emphasis on such emotions as apprehension, horror and terror, and awe—especially that experienced in confronting the new aesthetic categories of the sublimity and beauty of nature. It considered folk art and ancient custom to be noble statuses, but also valued spontaneity, as in the musical impromptu. In contrast to the rational and Classicist ideal models, Romanticism revived medievalism and elements of art and narrative perceived as authentically medieval in an attempt to escape population growth, early urban sprawl, and industrialism. – Wikipedia.

    This led paradoxically (or not) to “Industrial Romanticism”. The Waterboys give us a late, minor example.

  16. @Ikonoclast
    Yes, there’s also the old anti-nuclear song by Sting, lionising coal miners: “we work through ancient forest lands and light a thousand cities with our hands”.

  17. OK, Ronald, I concede. Your calculation is correct, and very upsetting.

    The energy consumption rate to maintain our life style IS 7.7 kilowatts.

    To put that in a visual sense, it takes 7500 litres of petrol per person per year to maintain our lifestyle.

    I did in fact cover this a year or two back where I did a series of posts talking about our life style carbon stack. I just never converted it to an energy consumption rate as you have done.

    So to put that into petrol terms per family that is 30 cubic meters of petrol per family of 4 every year. That is very concerning. But to ease the mind a little to convert that into sustainability terms in back of the envelope calculations, The per hectare yield rate of Ironbark growth is between 9 and 18 cubic meters. Say 12 cubic meters. So one hectare will sustain 1.5 people where 1 cubic metre of Ironbark equals one cubic meter of petrol. So to sustain the Australian population in the energy style to which we are accustomed requires 150,000 square kilometers of prime ironbark growing land to supply our energy needs. As wood fuel is about half the energy content of petrol the land needed will be twice as much therefore requiring 300,000 square kilometres.

    Conclusion? can Australia be decarbonised? Yes.*

    *Unless I have made a horrible miscalculation.

  18. @BilB

    I think it would be a lot easier to switch to solar power, wind power and an all-electric economy including cars. We don’t need to be burning anything. By all means plant lots of trees though. Just let them grow. Manage them so there won’t be huge bush fires in the current, still-changing climate. That last stipulation will be a very difficult challenge.

  19. Of course denuding 300,000 kilometres of forest each year is not the answer, but the calc above puts the task in a visual sense. The fact is that solar panels are 10 times more efficient at converting solar energy into usable energy than growing trees would be. That would then cost around $2.6 trillion to build solar PV to replace all of Australia’s energy needs (coal, oil and gas), minus efficiency factors of scale, with an annual panel replacement cost of some 42 billion per year. Sounds like a lot until it is compared to the current energy cost of 184 billion per year (the petrol equivalent at $1 per litre for a continuous energy consumption rate of 7.7 Kw for 24 million people.

    The cost of total decarbonisation is a 40% energy cost saving (where the energy cost standard is 11 cents per unit) and very low unemployment.

    This is all calculated, however, at fossil fuel consumption efficiencies which as Ronald Brak pointed out are an average of 30%, so where the entire energy system is electrified the total amount of energy will be less. Where fuel is required for Commercial Aviation this will remain as liquid fuel which in the longer term will be replaced with algal oil sourced fuel. Similarly fuel for Maritime use will remain oil origin unless shipping transitions to Nuclear Propulsion. So the reality is that the big decarbonisation figure will be at least 30% less.

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