The expensive red-herring that is “clean coal”

In the national effort to cut carbon emissions, “clean coal” is a fraught issue: the technology is feasible but financial and physical issues make it a dubious prospect. Its real danger is in encouraging prolonged use of coal. [3 February 2009 | Peter Boyer]

The straight faces of Kevin Rudd, his ministers and other MPs when they talk about “clean coal” show how deeply this very dubious concept is now embedded in the Official Australian Book of Facts on Climate Change.

Mr Rudd announced last year that Australia would spend $100 million a year supporting the coal industry’s research into carbon capture and storage (CCS), or to use the shorthand term, “clean coal”, aiming to make this process commercially viable over the next decade.

In preparation for its planned 2010 emissions trading scheme, the government has also released “uncertain but plausible” assumptions about the scheme by Treasury – assumptions that include availability of commercial-scale CCS technology before 2020.

Australia relies heavily on coal to generate electricity here and (through export) abroad, so it’s a tough call for political leaders to question CCS research and development. But the coal industry’s poor record on CCS roll-out along with continually-rising global emissions tell us we’d be foolish to put all our eggs in such a basket.

Look at the history. Twelve years ago, promising that we’d have commercial “clean coal” within a decade, the Australian coal industry got a lot of government money while renewable technologies languished for want of investment funding. Yet today, the industry still says commercial CCS is a decade or more away.

We know it’s possible to capture carbon dioxide from coal-burning, compress it, transport it and store it. But we’ve also learned that CCS requires more coal to be burned for the same energy output as standard systems while releasing more acid-causing gas into the atmosphere.

We’ve learned that retrofitting existing power stations with CCS technology is extremely expensive, as are the pipeline systems needed to transport carbon dioxide from power stations to underground or under-sea repositories.

Suitable storage sites are hard to find, and usually distant from coalfields. Pipelines will often need to run for hundreds and perhaps thousands of kilometres. We know that pure carbon dioxide can kill people, making pressurised long-distance piping a public health issue. If the pollutant is to be freighted, there’s a substantial transport energy cost.

The 100,000 tonnes sequestered under Bass Strait in Australia’s only completed CCS project is less than one per cent of Victoria’s emissions in a single year. Vastly larger capacity will be needed for the enormous year-on-year tonnages emitted by Australia’s coal power generators.

We have yet to see commercial-scale CCS work anywhere, but to hear political and industry leaders talk you’d think it was a done deal. If they’re stalling for time by delaying the hard decisions, they’re doing no-one any good – least of all the industry itself. Like the rest of us, the coal industry needs a planned phase-out to adjust to a new, renewable order.

We know that reducing our carbon emissions demands above all that we deploy low-and zero-emission technologies and become more efficient in the way we use energy, and that ever-increasing emissions will be the likeliest outcome of prolonging our use of coal.

But the only certain outcome of Mr Rudd’s “clean coal” policy is just that – prolonged use of coal. Looked at this way, it’s a risky, even reckless, use of precious public funds. It may turn out to be downright dangerous.

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