Time to cease the 'clean coal' crock

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There is no such thing as 'clean coal' writes Lachlan Barker, just 'cleaner coal', which is still a highly polluting source of energy and not commercially viable anyway.

BRILLIANT ARTIST John Graham recently published one of his great cartoons on IA (pictured right), in which you see Tony Abbott standing on a huge pile of coal. When I saw that, suddenly something clicked in my mind like never before and the Federal Government’s plans were shown clearly, in sharp relief.

The Abbott Government are jiggling around like a worm on a hook trying to find a way to do nothing about global warming until they have sold all of Australia’s coal and made as much money from it as they can.

The image explains the Federal Environment Minister Greg Hunt’s bizarre lone-stand pushing of so-called "clean coal".

The problem is, now and forever, "clean coal" simply does not exist — the closest possible is "cleaner coal", as ABC Fact Check points out.

In addition, a piece by Graham Readfearn on DeSmogBlog, republished here on IA, tells of Peabody, the world’s largest coal company, being been criticised by UK advertising watchdogs for the 'misleading' use of the phrase 'clean coal'.

So what is "cleaner coal"? ‘Cleaner coal’ is a misnomer really, the term refers to burning eternally dirty coal, using more efficient methods to cut emissions.

Kieran Cooke of the Climate News Network, in an article here on IA, made reference to the first problem with coal emissions — acid rain. The burning of coal releases sulphur dioxide and nitrogen oxide, which coalesce in the upper atmosphere to form sulphuric and nitric acid rain. Just for that reason, acid rain, not burning coal is a good idea — but that is, of course, only a small part of the emission problem.

The other big issue is, of course, carbon dioxide, the source of so much of our global warming.

The first gesture toward ‘cleaner coal’, which releases less carbon dioxide, is the ultra-supercritical (USC) power station. Older, less efficient, power stations are referred to as sub-critical and waste 65% of the coal that is burned. USC power stations run at 46% efficiency, and have 40% less emissions — so if you are going to burn coal, these are the plants to have.

There is no point building one of these in Australia, as our demand for power is dropping due, largely, to the Australian people's rhino-like rush to install solar on their roofs. Thus, more coal burning power generation is unnecessary.

What’s more, the CSIRO have gone supercritical with solar alone. The team of researchers at CSIRO’s energy centre at Newcastle have produced steam at 570°c – double the heat of your oven – and at 23.5 megapascals of pressure (100 times the pressure in your car tyres) from their array of heliostat reflectors. As they describe it, it’s the solar equivalent of Chuck Yeager’s breaking of the sound barrier.

As it says on the CSIRO web page:

‘While the technology may be a fair way off commercial development, this achievement is a big step in paving the way for a low cost, low emission energy future.’

The point is – Greg Hunt, please note – why bother to invest in even a USC coal-fired plant when solar is already there at an experimental level?

To compare prices, the Yuhuan USC plant in China cost €900 million (A$1.3 billion), while the CSIRO’s Newcastle experimental solar supercritical research program cost A$5.68 million. Additionally, the Yuhuan plant needs to be fed with coal, costing a mint in operating costs. Once built, a supercritical solar plant has no input costs, using free power from the sun.

And further to that, if you really want to talk about stupid investments that make even ‘silly’ an underwhelming descriptor, then the DICE – another strand of Greg Hunt’s quest for ‘clean coal’ – is most certainly that.

DICE stands for Direct Injection Carbon Engine and it works by burning a slurry of water and coal. Greg Hunt really, really, wants the DICE to work, as it can be retrofitted to a power station and make even a sub-critical station more efficient.

That’s the theory anyway.

However, the coal for the DICE engine has to be pulverised to a fine grade, then added to water which is poured into the engine and ignition is begun.

It even sounds doubtful on paper, such as: why add water, which is clearly a retardant to ignition? Why not just burn the raw coal? Oh yes, we already have that — it’s called a coal fired power station.

I advise anyone who wishes for a fuller readout on the topic of what a ludicrously dud idea DICE is, please read Paddy Manning’s article on Crikey. Manning also prepared ABC's Background Briefing episode on this topic: The search for the clean coal holy grail — likewise superb.

I’ll just distill the main bits here. The coal industry have been flogging this dead horse of an idea, DICE, for nearly 25 years and we are still no closer to a commercially viable power plant.

Greg Hunt said this recently:

“DICE, the subject of a major research project at the CSIRO, can cut emissions from a coal station by up to half but is still at least five years from being ready to roll out.”

However, Manning wrote:

‘DICE is not a “major CSIRO research project”. There is a small team of two to four well-intentioned scientists and engineers working out of the CSIRO’s energy labs in Newcastle, running a 4-litre, single-cylinder diesel engine on coal, on a shoestring budget, struggling to find industry partners.’

I did check with the CSIRO to ask them if the budget for the DICE project is being increased, decreased, or staying the same, but they hadn’t responded at time of submission. However, we can probably assume that more money will pour into the hopeless chase for a functioning DICE from the government’s laughable 'Direct Action' scheme.

The main mechanical problem, by the way, with the DICE engine is that it’s supposed to work on a diesel engine — powering that with the coal slurry. But diesel is a smooth, oily fuel, while the DICE slurry is particulate and so the impact of these tiny particles on the steel pistons is considerable and, of course, in short order wrecks the engine. In effect, the DICE slurry quickly wrecks the engine, gumming up the injector nozzles, with the ash content of the coal pitting the internal steel with constant impacts.

Even more ridiculous, if that is possible, than the DICE is the quest for carbon capture and storage (CCS).

That topic is really worth a whole article, but here’s some bald facts, with thanks to Rod Campbell, economist at the Australia Institute, who produced this fact check.

In 2011, there were around 60 proposals to build CCS projects, but this has declined to 38 in 2014. The Global Carbon Capture and Storage Institute says that, at best, CCS could capture 115 million tonnes per year by 2020. Considering that CO2 emissions are projected to be 40 billion tonnes in 2014, that would mean, even using the optimistic 115 million tonnes captured, would be 0.28% of the world’s emissions. Which, when you consider the multiple millions of dollars spent on CCS to get this piffling amount, it shows again the beyond ludicrous nature of seeking ‘clean coal’.

This page, listing CCS projects in Australia lists close to half a billion Australian dollars having been spent already on this quixotic quest.

So, in the end, we come back to the same question: why does the Federal Government keep pushing these hopelessly high-tech, high cost, economically unviable ‘solutions’ to allow continued coal burning? Well that, of course, takes us back to John Graham’s graphic.

While there is still coal in the ground, available for the making of money, the Abbott Government will keep doing whatever it takes to rip it out of the ground and sell it.

Lachlan Barker blogs at You can follow him on Twitter @cyclonecharlie8.

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