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. There is definitely no such thing as clean coal. You scrub it and you scrub it and you scrub it, and it still a dirty lump of coal when you’re done. And trying to capture and sequester CO2 emissions that result when burning it can’t come close to being competitive either.

    Fortunately the cost of wind and solar energy have dropped far faster and further than any of the widely discussed projected paths of decarbonization took into account. This helped the plans avoid criticism for unrealistic costing, but as a result they missed the unrealistic price drops we have had.

    You win some and you lose some, and winning cheap renewable energy is a far better prize than cheap CCS. So the failure of CCS hasn’t put us behind since we are ahead in other areas and we are currently far ahead of where many expected us to be at this point.

    And I definitely agree that nuclear power is extremely unrealistic given that at Australian installation prices solar power is cheaper in England than what electricity from the Hinkley C reactors will cost, if they get built. By the time the reactors actually come online solar power will no no doubt be far cheaper.

  2. John – have you seen this – rather depressing, but it sort of confirms what most people must know inside?

  3. Agree that CCS Ready was always a non-sequitur.

    It was an idea worth exploring when faced with the challenges of achieving some modicum of binding commitments for other climate change policies. But only a small amount of thinking took one straight to the conclusion that that fundamental challenge applied with even more force for investments in a process that had different technology routes and was still only in a development stage.


  4. Rob, that article completely ignores the good news. What is important for climate change is carbon emissions and the big news there is that in 2014 anthropogenic emissions were only up 0.5% from 2013. I was hoping that 2013 would have been the peak, but the figures for last year were revised upwards.

    Hopefully 2014 will be the peak for greenhouse gas emissions by human civilisation. With Chinese coal consumption possibly down 250 million tonnes this year compared to 2013, we are definitely in with a good chance, although increasing coal use in India and Australia is cause for concern.

    We still have a long way to go to stop the build of CO2 concentrations in the atmosphere, but it looks like we have passed a vital milestone on the way to achieving that.

  5. Reading this article it strikes me that the big challenges are now moving beyond energy generation to the issues of energy storage, energy use efficiency/conservation, product longevity (can lasts twice as long you effectively halve the energy needed) and efficient maintenance – operating costs if you like.

    Related to this is a fact I also less often see discussed – full appreciation of how coal and oil provide not only energy but very high density, convenient low maintenance storage which is fully scalable.

    So what is the economics of this flip side. I am still seeing more cherry picking than real light.

    Once the politics of energy source is overcome (dont mean to minimise the challenge this poses) PV, solar thermal and wind seem already sufficient for current world needs and sun based energy is broad based and concentrated in the poorer nations which is a nice change. (Robots etc. is a complication for later).

    So its the next step that has me intrigued as to how it will go.

    In respect to storage many options not much discussed in the broadsheets seem to be emerging including compressed air and water storage transfer. But how effective are they? Can we eliminate liquid fuels and hence the demand on agricultural land and for forest destruction?

    In respect to efficiency there is still a long way to go here and lots of trimmable fat to judge by the proliferation of my pet hate – giant urban assault vehicles that never get out of the inner city.

    Next there is the question of lifetime. Nothing lasts forever but my own house is a 100year plus double brick which should last another hundred barring fires or crashing planes. But today’s houses are inbuilt with an absurd 25 year lifespan reflecting the economics of building industry profit and returns maximisation.

    The same even goes for areas where nominally there has been a change – e.g. LED lighting. The diode emitters have a 50,000 hour plus expectation but thanks to deranged modern economics unit life is probably only a few thousand hours or even less due to dodgy circuit controllers makign for a more affordable product.

    But of course the economics favors high turnover disposable stuff!!! When you think about it producing a few expensive units which will never need replacing is insane for a company unless you want to save the planet. Unfortunately superannuants want short term returns.

    And finally we have maintenance – a stitch in time as it were. But of course discounting and other factors mean this is less encouraged and more importantly it may make sense to run an item into the ground and replace it with a newer efficient model rather than repair the old banger.

    I love tinkering to get an old pump going again – did this the other day for watering – brilliant and emotionally rewarding. But when and when not does this make sense, energy recycling and resource scarcity wise?

    Great metaphors are the milk bottle and the Cuban car.

    So it would be kind of interesting if John could open a discussion on how to deal with the insane economics which promotes fetish, inbuilt obsolence, and cheap and nasty high return yielding on time products and how to change it. We can no longer afford this resource/energy style.

    v. Noble recycling which also has a lot of perversity built into it as well so it may not be so great – irrespective of our optimization calculations. The fact is all materials break down especially our modern ones – like plastics, rubber, magnets – due to microorganisms, solar radiation, water/salt weathering, chemical bond vibrations, and my favorite….termites.

    The planet has not evolved as a static system where there is zero energy and material use but a – within certain limits which we are exceeding – and energy and material using a processing system.

    Thus aiming for a static near zero energy using world is not a great principle either – if you like dealing with this is not a case of four legs good (long lifespan), two legs bad (disposable napkins). A classic case is halogenated compounds like DDT, PCBs, PBBs and PFOA which were designed to be stable but as a result of being long lived bioaccumulate and cause much ecological damage. Conversely if microbial and fire breakdown of cellulose and relatives was not so effective we would now be drowning in wood and charcoal.

    As the Moody Blues put it ….. its a question of balance. But where does the optimal balance between energy production and consumption lie for our species.

  6. Minor point on peaked gas generators: we can eventually shift them to run on hydrogen, renewably catalysed using the long periods if surplus variables. Germany is already working towards this. It makes far more sense than fuel-cell vehicles, the SMRs of the sustainable transport world. China already has 80,000 electric buses.

  7. ‘Clean’ coal is not going to happen. Agree

    ‘Clean’ nuclear is also not going to happen. The nature of the ‘dirt’ is different.

    I sincerely hope the public discussion on what Australia should do, given what the UK (and the USA) is doing, will include data on the natural differences of the countries.

  8. Rob Banks :
    Sorry – forgot the link

    Critical point Rob. There is increasing literature on ‘blow back’, the problem of what to do with all the savings we can make from improved efficiencies, economies etc.

    And heaven help us if we ever stopped investing in unproductive military munitions. We might even double the economic growth rate.

    There is a paper in Ecological Economics I saw while back that had a look at where global energy use was trending. Put another way how did energy use change as a function of affluence (probably GDP). If memory serves me correctly the limiting figure was 13 kW per capita.

    To put that in context current global energy use is around 17-18 TW or a bit over 2 kW per capita. By contrast and using the old back of the envelope a global population of 10 billion should be looking at about 130 TW!

    And this is before we account for increased energy use to power all those domestic fembots and account for medical breakthroughs leading to us iving on average 200 years as adults and having adult demands for resources for most of this period as against half that now.

  9. Meanwhile here in the “Lucky Country” yesterday came the Australian Power Generation Technology Report ( ) which heavily featured CCS. How long will it be before our Luck runs out? If Luck = Coal, quite a while. If Luck = Executive Intelligence then it is too late, there is very little left.

  10. another “big challenge” to contemplate – simply ensuring that all externalities are included at each and all points of consumption, and where there is difficulty putting a price on them, a reasonable conservative estimate (ie large) is accepted. Would this solve problems related to resource use?

  11. RB, I wave my hand as I say slowly and deliberately,

    “you must all go home and rethink your lives”.

  12. All totally predictable.

    If you are going to have a global multi-capitalist economy then investment funds will always demand the cheapest inputs no matter what inequities, injustices, and impacts arise.

    This, combined with the expansion of coal consumption in India, plus NSW’s approval of Rio Tinto’s coal mine expansion in Hunter Vally, means that our environment in the long run is factually doomed.

    Emissions reduction targets and seeking offsets are pointless given the state of the Third World and less developed nations. The need is not simply to cut emissions but remove the current CO2 from the atmosphere without replacing it.

    There is no way an economy based on competitive growth, productivity, competition and private enterprise can ever do this.

    People do not realise that the natural state of the Earth’s atmosphere was unsuitable for all life except bacteria and was only made habitable by storing carbon in fossil deposits.

    Reintroducing this carbon into the atmosphere is guaranteed suicide.

  13. I find the tone of the Carrington Guardian article kinda weird. It quotes the would-be recipients of the billion pound CCS budget saying that they don’t like the change. No surprises there. It notes that CCS was part of the existing grand plan and if we can no longer do CCS this poses a problem for that plan. Also, unsurprising.

    Nowhere does draw the obvious conclusion that it is better to stop flogging a stillborn horse and move on. Instead it presents the change as government failure. To my mind, dropping imaginary solutions is progress.

  14. The George Monbiot article in the Guardian that Rob Banks linked to did not consider Steve Hatfield Dodds paper in Nature which refutes Monbiot’s arguments.
    And what is fascinating about the Australian Power Generation Technology Report referred to above is that it shows that by 2030 the costs of renewable and ‘coal without CCS’ are comparable. But that in 2030 the costs of renewables are much cheaper than ‘coal with CCS’ despite the fact that ‘coal with CCS’ costs are projected to decline markedly. So the numbers from the prime advocates of ‘coal with CCS’ do not justify their position.
    Also the report increases dramatically it’s estimates of the costs of nuclear, so it is clear that nuclear power is not a viable economic option for Australia.

    There is still the slim possibility that there will be some technological breakthrough with CCS, so that CCS will become one of the technologies we will use in the future, but as John has convincingly demonstrated, their track record so far would not lead one to hold one’s breath.

  15. Three of the principal backers of the Australian Power Generation Technology Report were Australian Coal Association Low Emissions Technologies (ACELEC), the Electric Power Research Institute, and the CO2CRC. When you have reports produced by groups like these which provide numbers which indicate that renewables will be dominating any new power generation installed from 2030, then you know the battle has been won.

    There really has been a remarkable change in the last 5 years or so in this area.

  16. Rob Banks :
    another “big challenge” to contemplate – simply ensuring that all externalities are included at each and all points of consumption, and where there is difficulty putting a price on them, a reasonable conservative estimate (ie large) is accepted. Would this solve problems related to resource use?

    It seems to me to be a bit late now, about 5000 years too late. (I have in mind the early civilisations, China, India and the Middle East). Moreover, using concepts which I believe did not exist then (I don’t really know), in what unit should prices be expressed? This is very important because, even if all negative externalities would be priced in abstract units of account, called ‘money’, then (net) debt denominated in monetary terms, issued either by public or private agents, entails bringing ‘consumption’ (usage of natural resources) forward in time. That is, relative to a theoretical complete price system, which allocates the usage of natural resources in a manner compatible with the natural decay rate of planet earth (finite life), net debt (ie total lending exceeds total savings of monetary units) implies that at the time net debt is issued, natural resources can be aquired and used, which could not have been used otherwise at this point in time.

    My argument is based on comparing the Arrow-Debreu model with features of a monetary economy with private or public net debt and general knowledge about the economic aspects of the named civilisation. Regarding the latter, see for example the long history of deforestation in China.

  17. Newtonian, currently Australians average around 7.5 kilowatts of energy use and it doesn’t appear to be increasing. If transport were electrified that would drop down to about 5.8 kW. Italians average around 3.75 kW and electrification of transport might drop it down to 3. So if the current average is over 2 kW then we are more than two-thirds of the way towards the world having an average energy consumption that could sustain a first world, Italian style, standard of living.

  18. @Newtownian
    You raise interesting questions.
    When you can make something 5% cheaper and it has a 5,000 hour lifespan instead of a 50,000 hour lifespan, then you need government to save people from themselves. Legislate – it is the job of government to make laws when free markets produce perverse outcomes.

    I heard once that the average electric drill gets used for less than an hour in its lifetime. But this is entirely reasonable when you can go and buy one and do the job yourself for much cheaper than paying a tradie to come in and do it. I don’t know how you solve that one, but clearly it needs to be solved. (Actually, you solve it by putting a proper environmental price on everything. And you pay everyone properly, including the guys who make the drills. And you have tool libraries.)

    But weirdly, some things improve. Cars now are much better and last longer than they used to. And that is going to get a whole lot better when electric motors replace petrol and diesel.

    If we want a bright future, we will need government to win the battle with those whose ambitions will be thwarted by proper environmental pricing and sensible regulation of markets.

  19. I never fully understood the accounting methods for GDP; the cost of ore/coal etc including the cost of infrastructure plant etc is seen as a product despite the machinery plant being partly if not wholly imported. But the emissions created by using that product, if exported, are not measured.

    Greg Hunt seems to somehow be able to toss these figures around and come out ahead.

  20. @Ernestine Gross

    You make an interesting point.

    “That is, relative to a theoretical complete price system, which allocates the usage of natural resources in a manner compatible with the natural decay rate of planet earth (finite life), net debt (ie total lending exceeds total savings of monetary units) implies that at the time net debt is issued, natural resources can be aquired and used, which could not have been used otherwise at this point in time.”

    In relation to your “bit late now” statement can we not, with present knowledge, determine a new “exploitation rate” given the earth is partially damaged by previous action? The biosphere is now damaged goods but it still has a new lower potential yield left between today and final natural decay.

    The issue of this final “natural decay” is also interesting. It is not a neat, discrete point in the far distant future. There is the issue of non-renewable versus renewable resources. There is the issue of the sun going nova eventually. There are also many nearer possible black swan final events like global nuclear war and super-volcano eruptions (to name two). To play devil’s advocate, a conservative estimate would be that modern global human civilisation has a 1 in 1,000 chance of being destroyed in any given year. Given this probability estimate, how would it change the equation related to “using resources up too fast”? Should we base a discount rate on our own stupidity which action then becomes a kind of stupidity piled on stupidity? I really don’t know but it is an irony inherent in the considerations.

  21. There is still the slim possibility that there will be some technological breakthrough with CCS

    No there won’t.

    The basic technical problem is “where to put the carbon”. If strata gastight over geological timescales were commonplace, then all the buried organic material would rot to methane and be trapped, and natural gas would be everywhere.

    A litre of natural gas burns to a litre of CO?; we have enough strata to store emissions from methane, or some low multiple. Coal? No way. It’s stupid even suggesting it: we’d have been better taking the money that went into CCS research, turning it into US dollars — paper is renewable! — and shovelling it into Loy Yang B, and we could — and did — comfortably predict that in advance.

  22. CCS was always going to founder on the laws of thermodynamics. The amount of energy required to capture CO2 from the exhaust or stack stream, to compress it, transport/pump it and store it was always going to be a big fraction of the energy harnessed by burning coal.

    First, look at the basic efficiency of a coal plant. “Typical thermal efficiency for utility-scale electrical generators is around 33% for coal…” – Wikipedia.

    Second, look at how much more that efficiency is reduced for the requirements of CCS. Some of the literature suggests a drop in thermal efficiency of about 20%.

    “SaskPower’s Boundary Dam Unit #3 is a 43-year old coal-fired generating unit that has been retrofitted with CCS technology. Despite SaskPower receiving $240 million from the Canadian government towards the $1.3 billion Canadian construction costs, the high capital costs of this pilot project underscore how far away CCS is from being competitive with conventional power plants. But the high construction cost is not the only problem with the plant.

    The retrofitted plant is much less efficient than a conventional coal plant. It is rated at 110 megawatts compared to 139 megawatts before the retrofit–a reduction of around 20 percent. That reduction is in line with some published estimates for the “energy penalty” imposed by CCS systems. In other words, the CCS technology itself uses about 20 percent of the energy produced by the plant. This parasitic use of energy is one barrier to the adoption of CCS technology.” – Institute for Energy Research.

    Then there is the issue of how safe or unsafe the CO2 stores are from future out-gassing. As well as immediate dangers to humans and wildlife (CO2 suffocation in depressions and valleys there is the issue that any out-gassing immediately renders the energy and financial investment worthless.

    “Experts conclude based on number of lines of evidence that retention rates will be greater than 99% over 1000 years, suggesting a low probability of unintended leakage (IPCC, 2006)”

    It appears the energy cost is the issue not the storage risk if the above is the be accepted. So the final issue is this. Does coal generation remain financially viable compared to competitors (like solar and wind power) after the extra costs of CCS are added in? Going on current power costs the answer is a resounding “no”.

  23. > It appears the energy cost is the issue not the storage risk if the above is the be accepted.

    A thousand years!

    Thousand-year containments are what we put heavy metals and PCBs into. Domestic waste, even, sometimes. Nukes get five or ten times that, and CO? in the quantities we’re talking about — no point building CCS if it’s a marginal addition to the world’s energy budget — is infinitely more dangerous and less tractable than nuclear waste.

    I shouldn’t need to point out that if someone says, “what I plan to do will be safe for a thousand years”, it means they don’t want to tell you how it’ll perform over any longer timeframe, right?

  24. @Collin Street

    I can understand you arguing for a longer, more stringent containment time than 1,000 years for CO2 storage. I would go along with that consensus if I was sitting in a room full of people arguing for more stringent containment of CO2 from thermal coal plants. At the same time, I would (privately) question whether global civilization and even homo sapiens will last another 1,000 years for many reasons other than climate change. Nuclear war for example comes to mind.

    The point, I think, is that we don’t even have to bother with discount calculations (if that is the correct term) for CO2 CCS risks 1,000 years out. Solar and wind power are more cost effective, scalable and environmentally safe right now compared to thermal coal, even with CCS, so the argument is already over.

  25. 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?

  26. @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?

  27. 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?

  28. 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.

  29. 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.

  30. 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.

  31. 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.

  32. 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.

  33. 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.

  34. 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.

  35. 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.

  36. @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.

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

  38. @Ikonoclast

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

    How DARE you?!?!?1!

  39. @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.

  40. 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.

  41. @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”.

  42. 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.

  43. @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.

  44. 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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