22 February, 2017
Courtesy of the Australian
In the language of energy security, storage — not coal — is the new black. Intermittent renewables like wind and solar make a lot more sense if excess power can be stored for use later when the wind doesn’t blow or sun does not shine.
At one extreme there is a promised boom in the deployment of Tesla Powerwall-type products: sleek lithium ion battery packs to pair with solar panels, a cutting- edge consumer double for the power-hungry home of the 21st century.
Then there’s pumped storage, where excess power is used to lift water to a height so it can be released through a hydro-electric system to produce electricity when intermittent energy systems fail to fire.
But perhaps the biggest storage potential of them all — one which could save an almost unlimited amount of carbon dioxide emissions — has been moving ahead in Victoria’s Latrobe Valley largely unheralded.
Given the political lifeline thrown to lower-emissions coal, CarbonNet’s time may finally have come.
Power failures in South Australia have sharpened intense political debate and put a new focus on building new generation, lower emission coal-fired power plants despite big questions over who would risk funding them.
The spotlight has now shifted to carbon capture and storage, which offers the potential to reduce carbon dioxide emissions from existing coal-fired power stations by up to 90 per cent.
Federal Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg is planning to open up Clean Energy Finance Corporation funding to CCS and Labor is wedged.
It has previously supported carbon capture and storage but is now arguing it should not be at the expense of existing funding for renewables.
The question is whether emissions captured and stored are equal to those never released.
It is another battle line that will ultimately be drawn in the working class areas of the Latrobe Valley, which has much to lose from Australia’s transformation to a low-carbon electricity sector.
The CarbonNet Project offers one alternative to managed decline. It has been working to establish a world-class, large-scale CCS network close to Australia’s highest emissions coal-fired power stations.
The network would bring together multiple carbon dioxide capture projects in Latrobe, transporting CO2 via a shared pipeline and injecting it into deep underground, offshore storage sites in Gippsland.
The Latrobe Valley is strategically and politically important.
It is where the state’s brown coal electricity generators, which provide more than 90 per cent of Victoria’s electricity, are located.
Environment groups are calling for a managed exit from coal but the brown coal generators are increasingly needed to keep the lights on in South Australia, which has closed its coal-fired power generation, which were forced out by a high penetration of wind and solar.
Research has shown the geology of the offshore Gippsland Basin, next to the Latrobe Valley, is ideally suited for deep storage of captured carbon dioxide. There are porous rocks deep underground covered by an impervious rock layer that stops stored carbon from escaping.
The geology needed for CCS is similar to the natural reservoirs that trap oil.
The CarbonNet project is exploring the potential to capture and store one to five million tonnes of CO2 a year, with the possibility of scaling up.
Successful implementation of the project would be the starting point for an expanding commercial-scale carbon transportation and storage system, enabling new industries and a significant reduction in carbon emissions in Victoria.
CarbonNet is managed by the Victorian government and funded by the Australian and Victorian governments.
But it rarely gets a mention in terms of the rush to a low emissions power future.
CCS remains the ugly duckling of the climate change response.
This is despite the fact both the International Energy Agency and Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change say publicly the Paris 2C warming target cannot be met without it.
The IEA estimates that one-sixth of emissions reduction will come through CCS by 2050.
In Australia, CCS has been put firmly back on the agenda following the Turnbull government’s embrace of new coal technologies and the prospect of opening up Clean Energy Finance Corporation funds to support it.
Combined high-efficiency, low-emissions coal plants with carbon capture and storage can reduce carbon dioxide emissions from coal by 90 per cent.
The Finkel energy review has been told Australia’s renewable energy target is driving short-term deployment of renewable technologies rather than building the resilient, reliable, low-emissions grid of the future.
In a submission to the Finkel review, the Melbourne-based Global CCS Institute says although the RET is intended to encourage a wide range of technologies, it is only incentivising the lowest-cost renewable technologies, notably wind and solar PV, with no encouragement for the full arsenal of clean energy options required.
CCS Institute chief executive Brad Page says a more realistic approach to Australia’s energy transformation is needed.
“We know that an overreach in the deployment of renewables leads to grid instability and price and energy security problems that have been well evidenced over the past few months,” Page says.
“Pinning all of the low carbon electricity task to just a few renewable technologies is not a rational approach to energy security.
“Too little attention is being paid to the role which CCS-equipped fossil fuel generation can play in keeping industry afloat while decarbonising the energy sector.”
The CCS Institute says the cost of CCS on coal and gas-fired power plants in Australia has been estimated to be between $150 and $200 per megawatt hour today compared with about $300/MWh for grid battery storage necessary to support intermittent renewables. But the CCS industry says costs will continue to drop with increasing deployment.
“CCS cannot be excluded from policy settings because of ideological prejudices towards fossil fuels,” Page says.
Environmentalist groups remain sceptical of carbon capture and storage, however.
Greenpeace says it is an unproven, risky and expensive technology.
The group says it opposes CCS “as a dangerous distraction from the safe, secure 100 per cent renewable energy future we all want’’.
But Peter Cook, of the Peter Cook Centre for Carbon Capture and Storage Research at the University of Melbourne, says several studies show that retrofitting some existing power stations with CCS “does warrant serious consideration as a cost-effective option for a secure and reliable 24/7 low-emissions electricity”.
“People sometimes lose sight.” Cook says, “The strategy ought to be to reduce our emissions, not to put a particular technology in place.
“We should not be talking about 100 per cent renewables. It is a matter of what we want to do to be able to cut down our emission in the most cost-effective way. We should not be prejudging how we are going to do that.” Cook says it is inevitable that renewable sources such as wind and solar are part of the future.
“But for the present, we are going to have an increased recognition of the need to keep sources like coal, gas and biomass going to provide dispatchable power,” he says.
“The question is are we going to provide that back-up without doing anything about the emissions … and it is inconceivable we would do that.”
Cook says the price of CCS is comparable with renewables.
“The cost is in the right sort of ballpark in terms of a number of renewable options,” he says.
“It is more expensive than wind but less expensive than solar PV but it does have the advantage that it can provide dispatchable power and low-emissions power.”
Cook says he believes Australia should at least assess each power station on its merits before it is closed to see if it is suitable to be retrofitted with CCS.
“I particularly mentioned the Latrobe Valley because that is where the major source of electricity for South Australia (is) and also an area adjacent to one of the best storage areas not just in Australia but in the world in the Gippsland Basin,’’ he says. “But we don’t have the policy settings at the moment that would enable us to go ahead with that,” he says.
Queensland has identified and is testing several basins.
A state-commissioned report has identified several multi-million-tonne storage sites across Queensland.
NSW is testing one basin, the Darling Basin, in the west of the state.
Iain MacGill, an associate professor in the University of NSW school of engineering, says there had so far been insufficient adoption of CCS in the power sector to gauge the role it could play.
The global rollout of CCS projects has been slow and many have been abandoned.
The most high-profile project is the Boundary Dam power station in Canada. Captured CO2 from the Boundary Dam project is injected into nearby oil wells to enhance recovery.
Supporters of CCS say the slow rollout reflects the high capital costs, risk and lack of government support compared with subsidies for wind and solar.
“There is some competition out there for cleaner technologies,” MacGill says, “and wind and solar have been the standout surprises globally.
“Prices are coming down but a very important point is that for dispatchable renewables, which we can much more easily turn up and down if and as required, we haven’t seen those cost reductions.
“Part of the challenge we face is the renewable technologies where we have seen really significant cost reductions are those that are proving more challenging to integrate (into the grid).’’
MacGill says the term “technology agnostic” was an important point because there is a real sense of urgency and “we don’t have time to muck around if we are going to address climate change, and that tends to focus the mind on what works”.
CSIRO Energy research scientist Daniel Roberts says the current debate over cleaner coal technologies is significant.
The process of burning coal to produce steam is exactly the same with HELE power stations as other coal-fired facilities.
The difference is in the temperature and pressure of the steam that is raised.
“By doing that at a much higher temperature and pressure, we can get more of the energy of the coal into the steam and more into the electricity that we make,” Roberts says.
“The efficiency gains mean we don’t emit as much carbon per unit of electricity.
“Therefore we are reducing our CO2 emissions without having to capture and store.”
But Roberts says “efficiency only gets you so far, so we have to start to look at other systems”.
“It is helpful in the current discussion to move away from a binary approach to energy and start to look to a real spectrum of generation technologies which can support a high penetration of renewables in Australia.”
The CCS Institute says the ideal policy support would include effective and cost-efficient CCS law and regulation, incentivising early storage site identification, research and the development support, and development of hub and cluster arrangements.
Frydenberg says the federal government is considering its options to ensure energy security and affordability as we move to a lower emissions future.
“As the Prime Minister said in his Press Club address, the next incarnation of our national energy policy should be technology agnostic,” Frydenberg says.
“It’s security and cost that matters most.
“The act governing the Clean Energy Finance Corporation explicitly excludes carbon capture and storage despite its ability to reduce emissions by up to 90 per cent.”
Labor has accused the federal government of being conflicted, having cut funding for CCS research and development in the past.
But the federal government says Labor had cut more than $900 million from CCS and low emissions coal from 2010-13.
In total, government has invested $590m in CCS.
Projects include the National Low Emission Coal Initiative, Carbon Capture and Storage Flagships, the Low Emissions Technology Demonstration Fund and the Coal Mining Abatement Technology Support Package.
The government plans to repeal the Clean Energy Finance Corporation ban on investment in CCS, challenging Labor in parliament to vote in line with its past support for technology that cuts emissions from coal-fired power plants.
Opposition climate change spokesman Mark Butler says the federal government has previously abandoned CCS.
“If the government is now wanting to support CCS, one needs to ask why in their first budget they abolished Labor’s CCS Flagship program and $460m of funding along with it,” he says.
“It is also worth asking why the industry itself stopped supporting CCS research several years ago. If the government is serious about supporting CCS, they should not be raiding renewables programs to do so.”
It is ironic that the blue-collar Latrobe Valley is destined to become a key battleground of the nation’s energy transformation.
One pathway leads to managed decline, another to a new but controversial industry that attempts to clean up brown coal, maintain jobs and keep the lights on when the wind refuses to blow.