The COALition's 'clean coal' illusion

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Scott Morrison admires coal in Parliament (image via chaser.com.au)

The Turnbull Government's latest "clean coal" plans are unlikely to materialise, says RenewEconomy's Giles Parkinson

THE COALITION GOVERNMENT appears determined to try to force the Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC) to invest in new so-called “clean coal” plants, with both the energy minister Josh Frydenberg and finance minister Mathias Cormann saying they were prepared to re-write the CEFC investment mandate.

Frydenberg said on Sunday, in now widely reported comments:

“That is certainly one of the options that we are looking at because we have recognised that we have an obligation after what we have seen in South Australia to ensure that this does not happen across the country.” 

But simply rewriting the investment mandate may not be enough, given that it is clear that coal is a much costlier and dirtier alternative to new wind and solar farms. The Government would likely have to commit billions of dollars in indemnities and guarantees to get any such coal investment over the line.

This was the point made by outgoing CEFC chief executive Oliver Yates in his appearance before the Senate committee into Australia’s energy security in Canberra just over a week ago.

Like fossil generators, the main energy generators lobby – and all the banks – Yates pointed out that clean coal was “uninvestible” in Australia.

But then he went further:

Mr Yates: Currently, the way it stands is that, if there were an economic project which could be economic and generate emissions 50 per cent less than the grid without using carbon capture and storage, technically it might be able to fit within the definitions. But, again, we would not be able to invest in a project like that on commercial terms without indemnities from the Federal Government for a future carbon price. We would not be able to invest in it unless we had full indemnities from the Federal Government, unless they were willing to take the risk that construction could be delayed as a result of activist intervention. And we would not be able to invest in it unless they provided a very long term power price curve and a contract, because we are seeing renewable prices continuing to decline, and there is no point investing in an asset which is going to produce electricity at a higher price. So, commercially, it is seriously challenged.

Senator Urquhart: Yes, but you do not need legislative or administrative changes to allow that to occur ... to invest in USC?

Mr Yates: Technically, it is very clear underneath. It is clear from the way the CEFC Act was designed that it was not contemplated – just like we would not be financing gas, we would not necessarily be financing relatively high-emitting coal-fired power stations. If there was a technology — if coal-fired power stations could be made to be very low in their carbon emissions then, rationally, we would all be saying: "This is fantastic." But until such time as they are able to demonstrate much lower emissions, it is not really a technology that would be likely to have a long-term path. Therefore, it would again be very risky for the taxpayer to invest in.

The Coalition is keen to have a new “clean” coal fired power station built in North Queensland, with the enthusiastic support of the Minister for Resources and Northern Australia Matt Canavan, local Member for Dawson George Christensen, and the Mining Council of Australia, which wants more markets for its coal and which is launching a new pro-coal advertising campaign.

But there is a limit to what it can do. It cannot direct the CEFC to invest in carbon capture and storage because it would require a change to the Act. Labor has branded the idea an “outrageous act of vandalism” and the Greens described it as “dumb, dangerous and purely ideological”, and compared it to subsidising asbestos through the health budget. So that wouldn’t get far.

The Coalition would like to change the CEFC’s restriction on any investment to achieve more than 50 per cent emissions reduction. That limit was imposed by the board to make it clear exactly what a “clean energy” investment would be — to ensure that it is more than sticking a few solar panels on a fossil fuel plant.

Any challenge to that is likely to be subject to intense legal debate. The Coalition could, of course, wait until August when it will have the opportunity to replace most of the green bank’s board members when the current board’s five-year term expires.

The Act also makes it clear that the government is unable to direct the CEFC to make a particular investment, such as a clean coal project in an area such as North Queensland.

The CEFC is also obliged to take into account its other investments, and weigh whether an investment in new coal plants would imperil its remaining portfolio of wind and solar projects, as well as energy efficiency and storage.

In the meantime, the CEFC is looking for a new CEO to replace Yates. But while any replacement is the choice of the board, the appointment has to be made with the approval of Frydenberg and Cormann.

The finance minister on Monday was insisting that there was little risk in investing in new coal, while Frydenberg’s office was pointing to a CRC report to insist that coal was a cheaper investment than renewables.

But the CRC report is already old hat. It is based on 2015 figures and solar costs in Australia have already fallen by nearly half — to below the point the CRC thinks it will reach in 2030.

On the other hand, the Paris climate agreement has been forged, which means that on current trajectories, Australia will exhaust its emissions allowance within 16 to 18 years.

No investor will put up any money unless the Government gives it a cast-iron guarantee to protect against any carbon price — and to guarantee all payments.

This latter point is crucial, given the amount of large-scale solar that has already been committed in northern Queensland, which will help hollow out the daytime price of wholesale electricity.

It is now dawning increasingly on investors – if not conservative politicians – that renewable energy can provide, clean, local and cheap electricity that doesn’t need to carry the huge transport costs, particularly when pared with storage.

Burnt coal, on the other hand, releases dangerous gases that must be held for ever at huge expense for zero return. And it is usually burned in the wrong location.

Bloomberg New Energy Finance recently estimated that new coal plants would cost nearly twice as much as new wind or solar plants, and the Melbourne Energy Institute (MEI) has questioned whether it would actually reduce emissions by all that much.

Indeed, emissions from new ultra-supercritical coal plants are likely to exceed the current national average and will lock in those emissions for 30 to 40 years. The MEI also noted that replacing the coal fleet that will retire in the next 10 to 15 years with new coal would cost more than $60 billion.

This article was originally published in RenewEconomy and has been republished with permission. You can follow Giles on Twitter @GilesParkinson.

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