How long will Old King Coal reign? Part I

A coal-fired power plant in China

A coal-fired power plant in China

The arguments around carbon capture and storage (CCS) as a way of producing so-called ‘clean coal’ (low emissions baseload energy) have, to date, focused on its technical feasibility. I’ll talk more about that in another post. But first, let’s consider a more fundamental question. Just how much of the black stuff is there?

Here is an Opinion Editorial I had published recently in The Age:

THE Rudd Government’s green paper on a “carbon pollution reduction scheme”, and the methods to achieve this reduction, have some strongly innovative elements. But there is a continued emphasis on investment in offsets and abatement from large-scale carbon capture projects to significantly extend the life of our coal industry. This poses three huge risks to the Australian economy. Are we sure that we want our children to shoulder them?

The first big risk is that carbon capture and storage isn’t proven. Experts believe it may take until 2015 or later to prove the technology, if then. The second big risk is that it may not prove cost-effective. Evidence is accumulating that carbon capture and storage may prove uneconomic because renewables such as solar, geothermal power and wind are falling in price very rapidly.

But the biggest argument of all for caution — yet hardly ever spoken — is that there simply may not be enough coal to go around. This could lead to global shortages, price spikes, economic disruption and a rush to other energy sources — meaning billions of dollars of stranded investments.

Incredibly for an energy resource that the world depends on, global coal statistics are shockingly poor. Take China. Since 1992, the nation has mined roughly 20% of its reported reserves. Yet, China hasn’t changed its reported reserve figures since that year. The United States and Australia have reasonably credible reserves, but other nations with large reported coal assets are Russia, India and South Africa. How reliable are their figures?

Read on here…

This bubble map shows the global distribution of coal output in 2005 as a percentage of the top producer (China - 2,190,000,000 tonnes)

This bubble map shows the global distribution of coal output in 2005 as a percentage of the top producer (China - 2,190,000,000 tonnes). Click to enlarge.

I also made some comments on the greenwash surrounding the new ‘CCS-ready’ coal-fired power station proposed recently for Victoria. You can read the transcript, or listen to the audio here. For a snippet:

JANE COWAN: This coal-fired power station is aiming to use clean coal technologies. Does that make the money any better spent?

BARRY BROOK: No because that clean coal technology, it’s been admitted, won’t come on line until at least 2020 and probably later. So it will have many years of emitting greenhouse gases to the atmosphere, contributing further to climate change, pushing the climate system towards the point where it may actually start to release carbon itself and then the whole problem runs out of our hands. It doesn’t make sense.

Right now clean coal, carbon capture and sequestration, whatever you want to call it, is not a viable technology to introduce. At best they can build a power station that may, in the future, be able to use that technology. And there’s no clear evidence that it will actually be cost competitive with renewables by the time it’s actually implemented. So that, as well, is actually just a furphy.

Barry W. Brook

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6 Comments

  1. But the biggest argument of all for caution — yet hardly ever spoken — is that there simply may not be enough coal to go around. This could lead to global shortages, price spikes, economic disruption and a rush to other energy sources — meaning billions of dollars of stranded investments.

    So what professor, the the price goes up and substitutes kick in. Substitutes like nuclear and solar etc. This is a silly argument to make.

    One website I’ve been particularly impressed with which outlines these technology is called DeserTEC – see their 2050 plan for Australia

    Professor, sorry to burst your balloon, but solar thermal is promising but it would cost around 18 cents per energy unit. Unmitigated coal costs us around 2.7 cents per unit. It still has some ways to go and websites touting promising technology are hardly reliable. Solar has been a 50 year revolving promise so I guess the promise of a solar world in 2050 is still par for the course as far as empty promises go. Let’s talk about it when they actually have the technology ready to implement at market rates.

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  2. JC – surely the point is that we should be investing in these new technologies NOW so that when we get to the point when coal does run out we already have viable industries to take the place of coal mining and coaL-fired electricity generation. Would you rather that Australia was left behind while other, more forward looking nations, reaped the benefit of the new energy paradigm? Surely the point of a carbon cap and trade scheme is to apply the carrot and the stick – raise the cost of old carbon emitting fuels so that alternatives become more competitive. It has already worked in some European countries so why not here?Regardless, we are talking about necessary reduction of carbon to avoid catastrophic changes to our environment, the costs of which would be incalculable economically – that is not to mention the human costs. Which is why, the majority view in a recent poll was people were prepared to pay more for renewable power if it meant saving the enviroment for themselves, their kids and their grandkids.

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  3. Solar thermal is decreasing in cost by about 7% per year and will be cost competitive with the levelised cost of coal, even without a carbon price, by about 2015 (immediately with a carbon price of ~$50/tonne). More on this topic in lecture 5 of Climate Change Q&A series.

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  4. Pingback: How long will Old King Coal reign? Part II « BraveNewClimate.com

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