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Hunt commits to ‘cleaner’ coal, as renewables despair deepens

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Australian environment minister Greg Hunt, the man most likely to be sympathetic to renewable energy in the current conservative Coalition government, has effectively thrown his lot in with the coal industry.

coal-twitter-150x150In an interview with the Murdoch-controlled Sky News, Hunt said coal would be a fundamental part of the energy mix for decades and decades, and added algae and coal drying technologies would be the focus of the government’s emissions reduction efforts. Not so much “clean coal” as “cleaner coal”. He also said nuclear energy could provide “relatively low-cost, low emissions or zero emissions energy”, although he said it would not occur in Australia without bipartisan support.

The comments from Hunt – once considered a relative moderate in a hard right conservative Coalition government – came as the renewable energy industry reports that large-scale developments are at a standstill, with no new projects committed in Australia during the first quarter of 2014, despite the need for some 8,000MW of new capacity by 2020 to meet the renewable energy target as it now stands.

However, the industry is convinced that this target will be diluted following the completion of the current RET review headed by climate change sceptic and pro-nuclear advocate Dick Warburton.

The industry is increasingly pessimistic about its prospects. Insiders say recent meetings with various ministers and advisors have increased the gloom, with promises only made that projects already built would not be affected by any changes.

Hunt, when pressed on the issue in the Sky interview, said only that the government would be able to offer the renewables industry “certainty” – which could, of course, mean that the target will be less, with no further review for another four years.

While Australia seems destined to go backwards on renewables, the rest of the world is looking to accelerate. The IPCC report, released on Sunday, said the world needed to increase the amount of renewable energy generation three of four fold, and pointed out that this, plus other measures, would come at little additional cost.

The International Renewable Energy Agency overnight said renewable energy and energy efficiency provided the most affordable and technologically mature path to bring about the necessary change. It foreshadowed last year that renewables could provide this abatement at little or no additional cost.

“The accelerated deployment of renewable energy significantly reduces energy-related carbon dioxide emissions at a reasonable cost, and also provides other benefits, including enhanced energy security, more local jobs and value-creation, and a cleaner and healthier environment,” Adnan Amin, IRENA’s Director-General, said in a statement.

IRENA’s forthcoming report, Remap 2030, says a quadrupling of the share of renewable energy sources by 2030, will cut annual global energy related emissions by 8.6 gigatonnes, while energy efficiency could save an additional 7.3GT – lowering the forecast level of 41GT on business as usual down to 25.5GT.

“Renewable energy has entered into a virtuous circle of falling costs, increased deployment and accelerated technological progress,” Amin said.

This is a view shared now by most of the world’s investment banks. Citigroup recently pointed to the “age of renewables” and Sanford Bernstein pointed out that solar will beat oil and gas, and ultimately coal, because it is “cheap, clean, convenient, and reliable” … and “will get cheaper.”

The IPCC report was also welcomed by the US, which said it offered a huge opportunity to invest in clean technologies and accelerate emissions reductions program, and in Europe, where renewable deployment continues and the EU is considering higher emissions targets.

Hunt, among others, likes to cite Germany as an example of a government backtracking on renewable targets. But they are only rethinking their mechanisms. As this graph below shows, the short- and medium-term targets remain in place and ambitious, and continue to 65 per cent by 2035 and 80 per cent renewables by 2050. As another graph pointed out last week, Germany’s electricity prices have risen 5c/kWh over the last 7 years, as renewable generation doubles, while Australia’s average electricity price rose by 15c/kWh, thanks to unrestricted investment in networks.

germany renewable graph

Hunt, however, made it clear that Australia would take only a “step by step” approach to de-carbonisation. It would meet only its 5 per cent reduction target below 1990 levels by 2020 – despite direct advice from the Climate Change Authority that this was clearly inadequate. (The Abbott government wants to dismantle the CCA).

Hunt said once this 5 per cent target was met, the government would move to other measures – “practical technology and practical actions such as energy efficiency, cleaning up our power stations, towards further goals over the coming decades, but step by step.”

No mention of renewables – or a carbon price – despite new data (quietly) released by Hunt’s department on Tuesday showing that electricity emissions fell 5 per cent in the last calendar year – a fall no doubt due to the combined impacts of the carbon price, renewable energy and falling demand.

As this graph below shows, Australian electricity emissions are down nearly 20 per cent from their peak in 2009 (coincidentally the time that solar began booming and demand started to fall).  The big increases have come in transport (53.5 per cent) and fugitive emissions (43 per cent) from coal mines and gas extraction. (The Abbott government’s policies on these sectors are to build more roads and to “extract every molecule of gas” that it can).

australia emissions

Asked specifically about the IPCC’s recommendation of a four-fold increase in renewables, Hunt talked only about cleaning up brown coal power stations. He implicitly dismissed carbon capture and storage (CCS), but embraced coal “drying” – see this story from Crikey’s Paddy Manning for an assessment of this – and repeated his long-held fascination for algae technology, which has yet to move beyond a few small pilot projects.

“The sort of technology which we were discussing today is the combination of drying, gasification and then capture, not so much for storage, because at this stage that appears to be expensive without real prospect, but capture for reuse through things such as algal energy.

“So we can make enormous strides, whether it’s 30, 50 or 60 per cent in the reductions from our brown coal power stations. And the three great sources of emissions reduction in Australia, because there isn’t enough focus on where you clean things up, the land sector, energy efficiency and then cleaning up the great power stations.”

DAVID SPEERS:    

Sure. But it is a long way out, 2050 and then 2100, but I guess the key question here is do you think there will come a time when coal should no longer be used – coal fired power?

GREG HUNT:         

Look, my view is that coal will be a fundamental part of the world energy mix for decades and decades, if not more.

Pressed again about renewables, Hunt said “the extraordinarily prospective technology is about cleaning up the coal fired power stations and Australia is right at the forefront of this.”

Australia is also at the forefront of deploying rooftop solar, and in South Australia is at the forefront of integrating high levels of wind and solar energy into the grid. As the energy market operator and statistics have shown, not only has this reduced emissions dramatically, and lowered wholesale electricity costs, it has also forced the early closure of two of the dirtiest power stations in the country – and elsewhere too.

Asked again if renewables could reach 80 or even 100 per cent of Australia’s electricity requirements, as AEMO has said is possible, and how various energy research institutes have also pointed out would be lower cost than business as usual, Hunt said:

“Look, I don’t want to make predictions about 2100. What I do think is that we can have a dramatically lower profile for our energy sector. Now, that will be a combination of reduced cost renewables over time. I think that some areas will reduce cost, others may not. It will also be a combination of energy efficiency and then the other part here is cleaning up the existing sources.”

The protection of the Australian coal industry is now the clear policy priority of the new government. Australia’s coal-fired generators, already with nearly one-tenth of their capacity sidelined and the rest with much lower usage – have been pushing back against both the deployment of large- and small-scale renewables, and policies that encourage energy efficiency: both policies that groups from the IEA, the UN, and numerous research institutions have stated are the most cost effective.

But, as we have mentioned before, the emergence of solar as a common energy currency, and a potential voter issue means the government needs to tread carefully. As the Australian coal industry has found out to its embarrassment, campaign slogans like “Save our coal” don’t have quite the same ring as, say, “save the reef”. And, as the Guardian and others have pointed out, is open to ridicule.

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  • RobS

    Get a grip people, we know coal is now at about level with wind and solar on cost, we know adding any further technology to coal to clean it up will add substantially to the cost. We know renewable technology costs are continuing to fall whilst coal is steady or slowly rising. We know that one of the big advantages of solar is distributed behind the meter generation where it simply looks to the network like demand destruction. Nothing the government can do short of directly funding coal and directly taxing renewable generation can change any of these facts. Distributed renewables will continue to be built, some large scale projects at the stronger end of the economic spectrum will continue to be built and the efforts of these Luddite politicians will either be in vain or potentially increase the move to renewables.

    • Chris Fraser

      And not to mention the efficiency cost of CCS (consumes 40% of original energy output), costs of transporting the coal fuel around, cost of open cut coal mine rehabilitation, risks of a coal mine fire burning for weeks, the cost of a new wing of local hospital to deal with respiratory disease … etc … etc …

      • RobS

        Exactly, our Liberal emperors have no clothes and that will only become more blatantly obvious with time

    • Miles Harding

      But, the LNP plan is ‘cleaner coal’, not ‘clean coal’. This sounds like a classic political weasel to make the greenwash easier to apply later.
      The real problem:
      http://s3-ec.buzzfed.com/static/2014-03/enhanced/webdr04/26/19/enhanced-21259-1395878198-1.jpg

      source page here: http://www.buzzfeed.com/monicatan/australian-environmentalists-are-really-angry-right-now

      • RobS

        I fail to see how the distinction between cleaner and clean coal changes the point I was making. Any effort to clean up coal will add costs to a technology which solar and wind can already compete with economically. Big investments now in new fossil fuel capacity will take years to come on line by which time wind and solar will be coming on line far cheaper and the coal assets will take down their builders in a blaze of stranded assets.

      • Julie Santall

        LOL!!!!

        • Chris M

          Tassie safe though from the map (for a change!)

  • Robert Johnston

    Hunt backs clean coal – just after generators quietly scrap their CCS programs as they don’t see successful implementation. Greg, can we bet amongst each other? I like my odds.

  • Linda Eggington

    I suspect that the day will come when the rest of the world views Australia as a pariah state and deals with us accordingly. Our leaders may even take notice, then.

    • David Martin

      Here in the U.S. I was delighted to discover the uniquely Australian term “flaming drongo” and unfortunately find it often applicable to many of my State of Arizona legislators. Equally unfortunate is how well it seems to apply to those politicians who seem hellbent on achieving pariah state status for Australia as it back pedals on international commitments while gutting your entire renewable energy industry in order to protect dirty fossil fuel suppliers and users with great political influence. FLAMING DRONGOS!

  • Chris Drongers

    I feel sorry for Hunt – he has had previously to cast aside his previous beliefs in free markets as the most efficient arbiter of carbon reduction options to get a ministerial position in a backward looking government. He now has to support an industry entering prolonged decline in social acceptability and rising costs to keep his ministerial position instead of promoting an industry of increasing social acceptability and decreasing costs.

    At the end of his ministership, and at the end of his career, he will have a few smokestacks on marginally economic coal fired power stations to show for it. He may even be lined up for blame if our major trading partners decide to enforce a ‘carbon equivalence’ tariff on Australian exports.

  • Dark green

    The LNPs policies make crystal clear that it is not really pro-market or
    pro-capitalism, it is just the political flunky of established industries & wealth.

  • Ricardo

    There is no reason why Australia, or any other economy for that matter, can’t ‘go 100%’ renewable. To date, this hasn’t been technically possible due to the disruptive nature of excess renewables generation on the networks. However, with the imminent/inevitable emergence and commercialisation of large-scale energy storage technologies (batteries), the chain is now complete. Batteries solve all of the problems that renewables pose and more. If the Australian government had any sense / conviction / wisdom it could have Australia at 100% renewables within 15 years. Solar panels are incredibly affordable (just look at how Australians are taking them up without any govt intervention – note: ‘Solar’ is NOT mentioned once in the govt’s Energy and Resources policy which is beyond a farce given this country’s solar potential (possibly the highest in the world). Also note that wind is only mentioned once with regard to ‘investigating the health effects of wind on nearby communities’) and are only going to get cheaper. Large scale batteries are taking off in countries with forward thinking leaders like California, Germany, and Japan. Battery technology costs are plummeting thanks to Tesla motors and other companies. The slow rollout of smart meters / grids and appliances are helping users manage their demand. The dawn of a new revolution in energy generation, transport and consumption is taking place. The current utility business model is doomed and utilities are suddenly coming to realise it and desperately trying to do something about it. And all this is happening largely independently of any climate change debate (can’t really dismiss those emissions targets) because it is now economical. And because it is economical it is inevitable… so long as the market is allowed to function. And the Australian govt doesn’t have a clue what is going.