Clean coal

The Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg has announced legislation to allow the Clean Energy Finance Corporation to fund coal-fired power stations using Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), often called “clean coal”. Although there has been plenty of criticism, this is actually a Good Thing.

If it worked at low cost, CCS would solve a lot of problems, particularly for Australia. We could burn coal, and store the resulting carbon dioxide underground, fixing much of the climate change problem without changing anything else. The ease of this (hypothetical) solution is why CCS plays a big role in lots of climate change scenarios.

Unfortunately, cost-effective CCS doesn’t exist, and isn’t likely to. So, barring some great new discovery, the change in CEFC rules is purely symbolic.

What makes the announcement a Good Thing is that avoids the “bait and switch” used by Frydenberg and others in the past, where clean coal is described in terms of CCS, then shifted to included “High Efficiency, Low Emissions” (HELE) coal plants. This term refers to the fact that plants constructed today are indeed more efficient, and therefore have lower emissions per unit of electricity, than those built thirty years ago. But they are still far worse than gas-fired plants let alone renewables or (if it could be made to work) CCS.

37 thoughts on “Clean coal

  1. I agree its a Good Thing that a fair proportion of AUSTRALIAN renewables research should focus on clean coal. That’s because if clean coal proved viable Australia would benefit more than any other country in the world. Its why Norway is spending a disproportionate share of their renewables research on pumped storage and geothermal, and Scotland on wind and wave power – same logic.

    But gee, the physics, and therefore the economics, of CCS look a bit desperate. It’s worth a punt by us but it has to be a fairly long odds bet.

    I think it may have finally dawned on Frydenberg et al that their bait and switch won’t help their mining friends anyway. For a given energy output HELE plants mean you burn, and therefore mine, less coal. Whichever way you cut it less waste of coal means less coal mined.

  2. GE have announced progress in closed cycle turbines running on highly compressed carbon dioxide. They run at over 700 C, above the technical limit for steam and therefore more efficient. The press release suggests this is a way of prolonging the life of thermal steam generators through refits. This looks very long odds to me. You would have to rip out the old steam turbine and rebuild the boiler, so effectively it would be a new plant. The better application is in high temperature CSP. You can already build receivers running at over 1,000 C. The unsolved problem is a storage method that works at the higher temperatures, without which the new turbines are a dead end. Sandia have a scheme using hot sand, still in the lab.

  3. CCS and its accolates always avoid the energy penalty question, but more importantly CCS is a diversion that allows the fossil-fuellers to argue business-as-usual; “you see, we have a magic solution … just let us continue.”

    That is the cynically dangerous part of the un-critical re-emergence of CCS discussion.

  4. I heard Frydenberg make his announcement the other day and took issue with the claim that without CCS decarbonising Australia “would cost 3.5 trillion dollars more”. Where did he get this ludicrous notion? Has Peter Lang, zombie denialist, re-emerged as a “government consultant” again? Infuriated I rang Frydenberg’s office and asked for an explanation of the claim. After some time I received an email with this link


    …effectively a CCS glossy brochure, so yes I was fobbed off. A scan of the document contained no reference to Australia’s carbon compliance cost or any reference to 3.5 trillion dollars that I could find.

    James Wimberley the GE technology link is very interesting and demonstrates the power of technological research. And in the same vein ….

  5. ….comes this little gem from our own UoN.

    If this technology proves successful then there is yet another powerful component of the personal (household) distributed energy system which combines both battery storage, non solar power generation, and household heating and cooling. Sound too good to be true? We’ll see, but even if it is then there are other equally functional technologies.

  6. There is an insidious danger in this change: while the legislation currently bans the CEFC from investing in CCS, the current CEFC requirement for projects to provide a commercial return isn’t in legislation, it can be simply changed via the investment mandate.
    So if the government is serious about its coal + CCS madness, and can get this bill past Xenophon, Labor or the Greens, they could then direct the CEFC to throw several billion down this particular toilet. Many regulations can be disallowed by the Senate (like Brandis’ attempted family court fee hikes) but the investment mandate isn’t one of them, so there’s nothing the Senate could do to stop them.

  7. @BilB
    At least GE are prepared to tell the rubes how their gizmo works. I left out the link (as an antique I can’t figure out how to copy a URL from a smartphone). It’s here.
    Funding from Sunshot, facing the Trump axe, though it looks as if Perry may put up a fight.

  8. @BilB

    The cover is glossy, but buried in the text we have

    The overall trends, however, raise concerns. The number of integrated CCS projects which have failed to reach a financial investment decision (FID) outnumbers the successful projects by a factor of two to one. In 2010, the GCCSI stocktake of large-scale CCS projects had 77 projects at various stages of development; by late-2016 this list had shrunk to 38 projects. There is significant potential for stagnation in global project development from around 2020 given the shrinking number of projects in the early to mid-stages of development.

  9. Clean coal is a dirty lie. It’s a zombie idea that won’t die. Why are LibLab so attached to coal? Gee, it couldn’t be anything to do with political donations could it? If it’s not then these parties are even stupider than I thought. Why favour coal if they aren’t taking the big payola?

    And yes of course the physics and therefore the economics demonstrate CCS will never work. It’s too energy costly. Less energy profit equals less profit profit.

    It’s interesting to see how long the neoliberal mind keeps zombie ideas running. The neoliberal mind clearly never lets a small matter like empirical evidence tarnish its bright shining lies.

  10. The “bait and switch” still goes on – going by those appalling coal advertisements on free to air tv the intent is to repeat it so often that a gullible public will believe that Australian coal and modern coal burners are “low emissions technology”. That Frydenberg occasionally allows a distinction between HELE and CCS to come through in his utterance doesn’t change the ongoing collusion between LNP and coal industry to create and reinforce this brazen re-labelling of coal as low emissions.

    Regardless of what he may personally think, Frydenberg does LNP policy on this – the real LNP policy that happens behind closed doors, not the guff they put out in their lofty public statements. That policy is to support the long term financial viability of coal mining irrespective of what the best available expert advice on climate, energy and emissions might say about it.

    As for Labor, it seems it supports the long term financial viability of coal mining irrespective of the expert advice on climate, emissions and energy. For the one it seems to be because the dominant factions believe their own climate science denial and their own economic alarmist BS, for the other it seems to be because they believe in the LNP’s economic alarmist BS, with the climate science denial part deemed superfluous.

    2.8 tons of CO2 for every ton of that “low emissions” Australian coal is the arithmetic that makes CCS unviable – much, much more CO2 than the coal that gets burned producing it. Compare the cost of 3 high pressure certified safe and leak free tankers to one open coal truck. I don’t think it’s even worth wasting the cost of a cost benefit analysis to reach the correct conclusion.

    7,500 cubic metres of CO2 per Australian per year makes it (by volume) our largest waste stream. Somehow the delusion – from hearing endless repetitions and reiterations of BS – that we don’t make that much of it, that our contribution is insignificant, persists.

  11. Mike H: that report doesn’t really mention coal-plant CCS at all. It says that BECCS and land use changes can’t possibly work to sink enough emissions.

    The coal plant CCS concept is even dumber. It’s about trying to convert carbon to energy, and then somehow hiding away the carbon in a stable geological repository.

    Coal is, of course, a stable geological repository. To say we can do CCS from coal is to say that we can push coal down to some lower-energy form by burning it and then coaxing it into that form.

    In Iceland they harnessed geothermal heat to cook CO2 into basalt — but they could have just heated up water and brought out the energy instead.

  12. possible reason (aside from adani benefit) could be the threat of individual or small group ownership of low cost energy generation to corporate/private benefit?

    keeping fossil infrastructure in place gives time to scoop up and aggregate mass energy generation into corporate/private ownership? as part of the transition from fossil to renewable.

    let us not forget the weight of uninvestested monies currently sloshing around in the fiscal system,looking for high, long term profit.

    i mean if every unit of renewable energy generation could be shifted from private individual ownership to a unit that could only be rented,the the cashflow would be eminently viable.

    when the telephone technology was just starting to permeate into peoples’ idea of useful,
    i heard a story of farmers in America using their fencelines to make themselves a kind of local telephone soon as business aquired the power, that practice was stopped forthwith and the farmers had to pay the business for their calls.
    i don’t know if that story is for real or not,however if you go looking there are all sorts of parallels in history when something new arrives on the scene.

  13. James, perhaps CSP should consider following in the footsteps of the nuclear industry and use liquid sodium as the working fluid and nitrogen powered turbines. This solves two problems. Firstly, the need for high pressure containment on the receiver, and secondly, it removes concentrating thermal solar’s marked inability to explode.

  14. @numerobis
    The Icelandic scheme of injection into basalt is not an alternative to geothermal – the country has 99.8% renewable electricity already, from geothermal and hydro. It’s a pilot for the large-scale net sequestration we are going to need anyway. The wrinkle is IIRC that they have natural point sources of CO2 in volcanic vents, which are not widespread.

  15. @James Wimberley
    Yes, I’ve read that and mentioning it has reminded me the CIA still hasn’t delivered my shipment of Red Mercury.

    They promised me they’d get me the real stuff this time.

  16. @Ronald B
    Other readers do try Stross’ gem.
    Pressure in the receiver? Ivanpah steam works at 2,500 psi. GE’s carbon dioxide cycle goes to 3,600 psi. They cite a German ultrasupercritical steam plant at 4,000 psi. This is not stuff you should try making at home with a welder from the DIY store. One common industrial accident in Victorian factories was steam boilers turning into ground-level rockets. But it’s not red mercury.

  17. James Wimberley: I skipped some steps in my reasoning.

    CCS for sucking CO2 out of the atmosphere back into coal or carbonate rock makes perfect sense for fixing up the mess we’ve already made. It takes a lot of energy.

    CCS for coal plants doesn’t make sense. You burn coal to get energy. Then you spend a whole bunch of energy converting the CO2 back into something stable. To net some energy out of that, you need to be converting the coal to something lower-energy, but it’s about at the bottom of the ladder already.

    If you build a coal plant with CCS that drives the carbonation process by dumping into a warm layer of basalt, you do get low emissions and some energy. But you could cut to the chase and build a geothermal plant directly to get low emissions, energy, and no need to mine.

  18. John, this position is at your own fine institution:
    “The role:
    The successful applicant will work in a multidisciplinary research team of geologists, engineers, geophysicists, hydrogeologists and modellers to assess whether or not industrial scale storage is viable. You will be working with senior academics, postdoctoral fellows and students to deliver high impact science outcomes. This position will provide economics support to the project. You will be evaluating conventional project cash discounted cash flow analysis, deployment sequence optimization and real option value analysis for notional CCS projects.”

    Selection Criteria:
    – Must be able to repeatedly say “no” in a variety of interesting but professional ways.

  19. off topic-ish.

    best mot on trumpery (for me anyway)——-

    “trump manages to unite the world—well done idiot.”

    i dunno, the charge was the world was laughing at america and he would fix it.

    done and dusted?

  20. OT I guess.

    Trump has handed world leadership to China on a platter. This is not a good thing for those who have hitched their fate to the American wagon. If Trumpism is followed for any significant period, the USA’s relative decline will be accelerated.

  21. @Ikonoclast
    On a slightly more positive note, Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour looks to be giving the Tories a run for their money in the UK election, contrary to mainstream expectations. Who knows – he might even win it.

  22. @may
    Western Australia is odd in that they normally don’t allow households and business to export limit their rooftop solar systems to increase the amount of solar electricity they generate for their own use while limiting the amount supplied to the grid.

    Export limiting is not a good thing because it can and does result in clean solar electricity going to waste at times, but it is far better than not allowing rooftop solar at all.

  23. I say, stop using the term ‘clean coal’ and use the correct term ‘dirty coal’.

  24. @may

    The issue with much of remote Western Australia is that they have town-size micro grids and big diesel generators to power them. They’re in the gap between modern microgrids and proper grids. Even the Perth “grid” is at the “very small grid” end of the scale.

    That makes them vulnerable to instability and especially to over-supply. In the middle of a sunny day if the solar PV systems are producing more power than the town needs there’s no provision for dumping that power or turning off just a few of the PV inverters. So voltage goes up and everything cuts out.

    What they need is a “smart grid” that can link a bunch of the PV systems to the grid control. That would make the whole system more stable. But it would be a new and untested experiment, so it’s unlikely that WA will do it. Or any Australian government, for that matter.

    They other problem they have is that the state government subsidise the system, so it can’t be profitable and thus investment in it can (almost) never pay off. To make it profitable they’d have to replace the existing generators at a supply price of about 20c/kWh. That’s hard.

  25. @Moz of Yarramulla
    They need ways to power the fossil fuel parts down during the middle of sunny days, not power down the solar.

    The opportunity that low cost solar provides for spurring change in electricity generation systems should be maximised, not minimised, with fossil fuel plant having to face running intermittently, only when needed as a step along the way; the increased costs outside those sunny periods that intermittency burdens them with should be seen as the de-facto carbon price governments are too short sighted to introduce and used to spur commitment to storage, demand management and efficiency.

  26. @Ken Fabian

    Ken, the big problem is when they need the fossil plants to draw energy from the grid rather than supplying it.

    The small problem is that home-scale solar inverters are not designed to produce a stable grid, they’re designed to be stabilised by the grid. That means that the grid must always have a certain proportion of supply coming from the generators or it will go unstable – most likely just frequency, but it could easily turn into voltage spikes as equipment fails.

    The solution of “spend money on experimental smart mini-grids” seems unlikely to me. If the mining companies aren’t doing it, expecting a state government to go out on a limb and try it is wishful thinking. I’d love to be wrong, but seriously, experimenting on Karratha? It’s 15 hours drive from Perth, it’s 5 hours flying time from Sydney if you charter a plane, it’s ugly to get a shipping container there from China. Maintenance is going to be expensive. So anything you ship out there should be reliable and well-proven. There’s also no real fall back position – if you blow a transformer or switching gear at the main Karratha substation, no-one gets electricity until you fix it.

    It would make a lot more sense to try this in Canberra or Broken Hill because they’re closer to civilisation and have a real grid to fall back on when things go wrong. Viz, if the mini-grid looks like crashing they can shut it down and switch back to the east coast grid, and that won’t break anything.

  27. I should have thought, Moz, that for the mini-grid (ie between “micro-grid” and “grid”) the issue is storing that peak “too much voltage”. And it’s the one scale where things like molten salt or compressed air storage are viable; below that you’d be thinking batteries, above it you need less storage anyway and what you have would probably be hydro pumped storage.

    But its a small niche globally anyway – I don’t think its going to make much difference to world CO2 emissions if you just stick with diesel or natural gas for baseload for the rare Karrathas of this world.

  28. @derrida derider

    DD, storage is definitely one solution. I suspect the issue is that with unbounded solar take-up they’d have to keep adding storage very quickly to prevent the big problem above. A municipal battery could work, but someone would have to add a million dollars of capital expenditure to a budget somewhere.

    But it really is a political problem as much as anything else. If it was engineering we’d probably see small communities on the fringe of the WA grid being wired up this way, or quite seriously, the ACT. ACT votes green/left quite emphatically and have a known tendency to vote for weird experiments. Saying to an especially green suburb or two “we want to roll out smart inverters, the quid pro quo is that they’re 10kW rather than the 5kW you’re allowed now, and they work with batteries (plus we’ll allow you a feed in tariff with the batteries)”… I think they’d take it up. At least in big enough numbers that you could experiment.

    Once you had that working somewhere accessible you could roll it out to more remote areas and start really hammering the combination of big-residential arrays with batteries and smart internet co-ordination. People are working on this, but at the “scraping up a few hundred thousand dollars here and there” level. Dump a few million onto RedFlow or someone at Sydney Uni and I think it would get very exciting very quickly.

    The really annoying part is that diesel generators are insanely costly to run, so even a cycle cost of 25c/kWh for batteries is doable, as long as you’re not paying for diesel generators to feed them (some remote communities do that to get around generator reliability problems – it’s cheaper to run LEDs off old car batteries than have a second genset).

  29. So anything you ship out there should be reliable and well-proven.

    But this problem was actually solved for regeneratively-braked electric tramways more than a hundred years ago: you need a dummy load, a fuck-off bank of resistors or something. You can make them out of baling wire, even.

  30. Moz, it’s a transition and we are approaching a foreseeable tipping point and it’s a significant one on the path to low emissions. Shoring up the fossil fuel side is a mistake when it’s the right time and place to start incorporating storage into the systems – so the fossil fuel plant can power down more often and shift into the intermittent backup role that is it’s near term destiny. Storage, even at relatively small scale, can help accommodate that shift, including by it’s ability to provide services like frequency and voltage control as well as load levelling; if nothing else it can provide the time for slow responding plant that is not ideal for that purpose to do so.

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