Physical Insights

An independent scientist’s observations on society, technology, energy, science and the environment. “Modern science has been a voyage into the unknown, with a lesson in humility waiting at every stop. Many passengers would rather have stayed home.” – Carl Sagan

Switching off Victoria?

with 5 comments

I was quite impressed with myself to discover, the other day, that everybody’s favourite opinionated newspaper columnist, Andrew Bolt, had linked to and cited one of my recent posts.

That’s probably responsible, at least in part, for the significant increase in traffic I’ve seen on this blog over the last week or so – and I’m grateful for that.

Sometimes Bolt is absolutely on the money – but not always.

Here’s a recent blog post of Bolt’s which is somewhat agreeable, but still gets on my nerves a little bit. It’s worth reading, anyhow.

It’s utterly unbelievable that the Rudd Government should be contemplating making bankrupt the stations that provide more than 90 per cent of Victoria’s power:

Yes – it is extremely worthwhile and important to close down the extremely polluting and greenhouse gas emissions intensive brown coal fired power stations that provide more than 90 percent of Victoria’s electrical energy. That does not mean making the energy companies bankrupt – we still need that energy, it just has to come from a different source.

However, I too would have a hard time believing that Rudd would or could actually make it happen.

Although careful to respect the Federal Government’s process, Victorian Energy Minister Peter Batchelor appears increasingly nervous in his public comments. Asked if one of the state’s brown coal generators will be forced to close prematurely, he said: “It depends on the nature of the emissions trading scheme (introduced).”

The purpose of a GHG emissions trading scheme is to mitigate anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions from our industries. Its purpose is not to raise more government revenues or to create more paperwork – its purpose, its reason for existing, is to reduce industrial, anthropogenic emissions of carbon dioxide.

Therefore, if the “mud-burning” Latrobe Valley stations are not the very first things to close down under an emissions trading scheme, then clearly the scheme is not working.

If it’s one like Garnaut actually recommends – with no compensation to power stations for wiping billions off their value – the generators are cactus. And here is Kevin Rudd’s modus operandi writ large and destructive: process over purpose. What possible good could there be to cause such an economic catastrophe in this state?

But Rudd’s guru has a solution of the kind the Soviet Union would have suggested:

In his report, Professor Garnaut said $1 billion to $2 billion of the emissions trading scheme proceeds should be invested in clean coal technologies, matched dollar for dollar by the companies. If clean coal worked, he said, the Latrobe Valley would heave a “prosperous and expansive future”. If it didn’t, money from the scheme should be used to help retrain workers and to help the valley community survive the brave new world of zero emissions.

Hey, let the Government spend a couple of billion of taxpayers’ money, and another couple of billion of the bosses’, on a yet-to-be proved “solution” many experts say is pie in the sky. And then, $4 billion later, let’s give the unemployed some handouts.

Warning: These people now have their hands all over your jobs and paypackets.

Whilst I’m interested – and many others are interested – in seeing the coal fired plants closed down, that doesn’t mean that the electricity utilities are out of business – we still need the electricity, and we will continue to need the electricity.

Ideally, what we would see happening is the construction of new lower-emissions or zero-emissions electricity generators of an energy output comparable to the coal power plants, followed by the decommissioning of the coal-fired plants. [Of course, we don’t decommission the coal plants until after the new ones are online.]

The electricity utilities are still operating lower-emissions or zero-emissions generators, there are still people employed, and we’re still getting the energy needed to support developed civilisation. This is where we need to transition to, and where an emissions trading scheme – if it’s done right – might help us transition to.

I agree that investing many billions of dollars in CCS research and development, which is considered by many to be pie in the sky, is a grave mistake. Instead, we need to consider the energy generation technologies that are mature technologies that are available and proven right now, that can replace coal-fired power plants, generating energy at a comparable scale, for less GHG emissions.

Those options are large hydroelectricity, natural gas fired turbines, and nuclear fission.

In Australia, expanding the use of large hydroelectric installations above and beyond what we’ve already got is really not a practical proposition, so we’re left with two options that really could replace coal-fired generators in the Latrobe valley, under an emissions trading scheme – natural gas and nuclear energy. Certainly, what is absolutely not sensible at all is arbitrary, unfair and exceptional, scientifically unfounded legal prohibitions on the development of nuclear power plants by the energy companies who are willing to invest in zero-emissions replacement for coal, especially when their investments may be kick started by billions of dollars in the government’s ETS revenue, which clearly needs to be put back into these zero emissions or lower-emissions technologies.

If power plant operators wish to pursue either of these options, which will finally actually put a stop to the ever-expanding use of coal-fired generators, and finally put a real dent in GHG emissions, then they are to be wholeheartedly encouraged in doing so.

Obviously the nuclear energy option is completely superior to natural gas in terms of greenhouse gas emissions – however, in practical terms, one must grant that gas turbines are already in widespread use in Australia today, and they are more politically acceptable in some political circles than nuclear power – however that may change as concern over greenhouse gases, even at the somewhat reduced levels from natural gas generators, grows.

However, that said, given the importance of making real cuts in GHG emissions within the next 3-10 years, if the generators want to build combined-cycle natural gas turbines, technologies with which they’re more familiar, straight away, then they shouldn’t be discouraged. Natural gas could offer some benefit as a stopgap measure for last-ditch replacement for coal fired plants in the absence of nuclear power.


5 Responses

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  1. Nice writing. You are on my RSS reader now so I can read more from you down the road.

    Allen Taylor

    Allen Taylor

    July 8, 2008 at 4:01 pm

  2. 2005 data shows that Australia produced around 237 terawatt hours of electrical energy. If 90% of this is provided by coal sources, more than 200 terawatt hours will have to be replaced by new nuclear or natural gas sources. My quick calculations (which may be wrong) point to at least 30 GW capacity from these new facilities, given that Australia can adopt some form of demand regulation.

    I know that most nuclear units can provide 900MW-950MW and I have seen natural gas peaking plants range from 500 MW to 815 MW. Is Australia ready to build a portfolio that includes 15-31 nuke plants and 18-35 natural gas generating facilities?

    The anti-nuke crowd won’t be happy with one, much less 31 nuke plants and companies don’t like the sound of 35 NG plants, whose fuel costs vary wildly. Anyways, good luck.

    Kevin Schrishiphan

    July 8, 2008 at 5:53 pm

  3. Let’s go by what the Kyoto Protocol asks then shall we?
    It calls for a level of 5% lower than 1990 levels. Conservative estimates say that our levels of emissions have increased 25%, so that means we have to cut 30% of GHG emissions. That’s across the board, so if coal fired plants are to be included, then that means a 30% cut in coal fired power.
    78% of Australia’s total power is produced from coal fired sources. Effectively that means we cut around one quarter of Australia’s power.
    What this means for the big three Eastern States is this.
    NSW. Existing total power. 16,671MW nameplate capacity, of which 11,750MW is from coal. A one third cutback there means that 3,870MW needs to be replaced or in other words closing down and replacing Bayswater and Vales Point.
    Victoria. Existing total 9,353MW, of which 6,645MW comes from coal. A one third cutback here amounts to 2,190MW, or the replacement for Loy Yang A.
    Queensland. Existing total 12,266MW of which 8735MW comes from coal. A one third cutback here amounts to 2,880MW or the replacement of Stanwell and Tarong.

    So here we are closing down 5 huge baseload plants. Keeping in mind you have to replace baseload with baseload because 62% of power consumption is in the Commercial and Industrial sectors, and only 38% in the Commercial sector where peaking power plants could get by at a pinch, we need 5 large baseload plants. In the current climate, the only baseload plants other than coal are Hydro and Nuclear, both out of the question. So we’re looking at maybe combined cycle gas turbines, and the biggest of them is around 800 to 1000MW, so now we’re looking at between 8 and ten of these plants, maybe coming it at around a conservative 1 Billion each and if the ‘new coal’ plant mooted for Victoria at %750 Million for only 400MW those figures are very conservative indeed. Also combined cycle turbines are not specifically designed for baseload use, eg, constantly running for around 50 years. So then, let’s say 10 to 15 billion dollars, and even though these combined cycle plants can be brought on line in 18 months at a pinch best case scenario, you’re looking at 10 years at least, considering they’re not even on the horizon now.
    So, what we here in Australia must do to comply with Kyoto which expires in 2012 hopefully replaced by a new instrument will cost an immense fortune, that so far no one has explained where the money will magically appear because State Governments can’t afford that.
    That fortune coupled with the time taken to construct them, if they ever get off the ground at all will decrease our emissions to a level 5% lower than 1990 levels, maybe.
    However, consider this then. China is not subject to Kyoto other than to report their emissions. They are currently bringing on line one coal fired power plant every 7 to 10 days, have been for the last 5 or 6 years and will be for the next 8 to 10 years.
    The amount Australia has paid an absolute fortune for, to replace our coal fired plants, will be negated by China every 25 to 30 days. Also keep in mind China is bringing on line coal fired plants equal to every one of them in Australia (not just the replaced amount but every coal fired plant in the Country)each and every 9 months. That’s just China. When India and those other developing nations are included, that’s an extra addition of the same as for China, so one complete Australian total every 20 weeks or the amount Australia has to cut back on every 18 days.
    Remember also the erroneous per capita argument so often quoted at us. We here in Australia are in the top 5 per capita emitters and emit 6 times as much per capita as they do in China. Why is that?
    It is because only one seventh of the population of China has access to constant reliable electricity. Are we to stop those Chinese having that access to electricity. The argument is erroneously quoted by uninformed environmentalists who have no idea of that situation, and use those statistics to pursue their own agendas.
    The Kyoto Protocol calls for something that no one is aware of, and the consequences are pretty worrying indeed.
    Again I’ve taken up too much space, but no one is even considering this at all. It all sounds like doom and gloom, but there is just no easy answer.



    July 9, 2008 at 2:23 pm

  4. I agree, TonyFromOz.

    “In the current climate, the only baseload plants other than coal are Hydro and Nuclear, both out of the question.”

    That’s the main problem, I think. I don’t think it can be done without hydro and nuclear, and I don’t think that more large hydro in Australia is practical at all, ergo I don’t believe that it can happen practically for as long as nuclear power remains “out of the question”. I can’t see anything, with the exception of adoption of nuclear power, that can meaningfully change the status quo of coal, coal and more coal.

    Keep in mind in the case where you’ve considered combined cycle gas turbines that we need a lot more than that amount of capacity replaced to get the same reduction in GHG emissions, because whilst it’s a bit better than coal, the emissions are still very high.

    No matter what you do, reducing the use of coal in a meaningful way and replacing it with clean generation will cost a very large amount of money, and it will take some years – that applies to any conceivable kind of power plant, be it gas, nuclear, “clean coal”, wind, hydro, whatever.

    I agree that there is a very large base of emissions in China and other developing economies – they’re building the equivalent of one large power plant every 10 days or whatever it is, but they’re building all the nuclear power and hydro that they can as part of that – but if they need coal fired plants as well in this early stage of their industrialisation, then they will build those, too.

    Considering that energy consumption in most developed countries has usually grown faster than GDP during the early stages of industrialization, it is to China’s credit that although its GDP has grown by 9.5% per year over the last 27 years, their carbon intensity per unit of GDP has decreased during that time, rather than increasing along with the GDP. The reduction in carbon intensity for China has meant that its CO2 increase of about 5.4% per year has amounted to a little over half of its GDP increase during the same 27 years. They’re doing a far better job than was done in the industrialisation of the Western societies.

    Only one seventh of the population of China has access to constant reliable electricity. Are we to stop those Chinese having that access to electricity? They want to have a prosperous, developed, first-world standard of technologically developed society for all the Chinese people – who the hell are we to say that they shouldn’t, or can’t?

    They want to have the same oppurtunity for industrialisation that the West has had – even if that means pollution first, and clean up later, exactly like it was done in the Western societies.

    So, what to do? Is the anthropogenic forcing of climate change such a pressing, important issue that suppose we’re going to tell the Chinese, no, you’re not allowed to industrialise right now – maybe in 50 years or 100 years when everyone else has slashed their CO2 emissions? You’re joking, clearly – what are you going to do, go to war to stop them from having the same standard of living that we have?

    Or, perhaps, we can give them as much aid as possible to build clean alternatives to coal fired power plants while they’re industrialising?

    We could fully encourage and support the export of all nuclear power, wind turbine, solar, hydro, etc technologies from the Western nations into China – and, given the seriousness with which anthropogenic greenhouse forcing is viewed as a grave issue, give them as much direct financial aid as we can to build these technologies as an alternative to new coal fired power plants.

    Instead of, say, building a nuclear power plant in Australia, Germany, Italy, the US or UK or whereever to replace a coal fired power plant, we can just give the money to China and they will build them instead of coal plants – talk about emissions trading! That way, we’re making the same mitigation of greenhouse gas emissions, we’ve silenced the “It’s all China’s fault, not our problem” talk, and we’ve also dealt with the political bickering in Australia (and a few other Western countries) over acceptance of nuclear power.

    Luke Weston

    July 10, 2008 at 3:27 am

  5. Incidentally, Hydro in China.
    The three Gorges Dam project is the largest hydro scheme on the Planet. It will produce 22,500 MW nameplate capacity, approximately half of all power generated in Australia, and the equivalent of 6 Snow Hydro schemes in total power generated.
    Of the twenty largest hydro plants under construction on the Planet currently, 15 of them are in China alone amounting to 85,000MW of power, or 1.5 times Australia’s total power production from all sources.
    Somebody is constructing Hydro power at least.

    With respect to Nuclear plants, China currently has 11 of them , with six under construction, and more planned. 75% of that is for Industry alone.
    China will have an extra 50,000MW nameplate capacity by 2020, and up to as high as 160,000MW by 2030.
    As you mentioned Luke, Combined cycle are only slightly less emissions intensive than for coal fired plants, and are still only best for peaking power.

    Baseload power can still only be sourced from those two ‘unattractive’ sources.



    July 10, 2008 at 4:48 am

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