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Backing new coal power like “defibrillating a corpse”

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As the Turnbull government continues its push for new coal power generation in Australia, renowned US scientist and renewable energy advocate Amory Lovins has described the current coal power development pipeline as “pre-stranded assets” and compared attempts to revive the flagging industry to “defibrillating a corpse.”

“Attempting to revive coal or nuclear is like defibrillating a corpse: it will jump but it won’t revive,” Lovins said in an interview with Bloomberg New Energy Finance. “The economic fundamentals are bleak.”

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Lovins – whose well respected think-tank, the Rocky Mountain Institute, merged with the Richard Branson co-founded Carbon War Room in 2014 – also argues it is possible to transition nations to 100 per cent renewable energy, even without the addition of storage.

“A portfolio of variable renewables, properly designed and run, probably requires less storage and backup than utilities have already bought and installed to manage the intermittency of their big thermal units,” Lovins told BNEF.

Interestingly, Lovins is currently advising the Indian government on its strategy for 100 per cent vehicle electrification by 2030, which he says is exploring not just electrification pathways but an integrated transformation of mobility services.

“It encompasses everything from urban planning through to manufacturing of electric vehicles – two-, three-, and four-wheelers – to the smart grid integration of electric vehicle charging and the accompanying regulatory and business model changes,” he said.

“It will also take advantage of India’s mastery of the infotech sector. Integrating these innovations is a high priority for India’s government under Prime Minster Narendra Modi.”

Australia’s Prime Minister, also a self-proclaimed fan of innovation, visited India – and Modi – just last week, but drew criticism from various quarters back home for courting coal magnate, Gautam Adani, during his three-day stay.

“India has a massive program of expanding electrification across the country and Australian coal has a very big role to play in that,” Turnbull said of his meeting with Adani, which is currently deliberating its final investment decision on the $21-billion Carmichael coal mine in Queensland’s Galilee basin – Australia’s largest, if built.

The comments – and meeting – caused dismay in Australian environmental circles, who say the PM is putting Australian coal exports ahead of the health of one of the nations greatest natural assets, the Great Barrier Reef, which is already believed to be in terminal decline due to pollution and global warming.

Others, like Lovins, argue that the mine will wind up a stranded asset, as countries like India shift away from coal power to cheaper, and smarter, technology and resources.  

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  • George Darroch

    That would explain the preponderance of zombies in Australia.

    • Miles Harding

      Defibrillating a corpse!

      I was thinking more along the lines of “Throw the sweetch, Igor!
      And what a wonderful creation it will be — Doctor F.

  • Ren Stimpy

    When we have plain speaking geniuses like Amory Lovins saying that energy generation is going to be eroded from below (efficiency), and other plain speaking geniuses like Tony Seba saying energy generation is going to be disrupted from above (cost reductions in renewables and storage), a set-in-concrete 40 year investment in fossil fuel energy generation doesn’t make an ounce of sense.

    • Ian

      Since when did the term ‘electricity’ get replaced with the term ‘energy’? Electricity generation is one thing, but we still have major issues with industrial heat. Unless people have had their head in a vacuum, fuel for thermal energy is increasing exponentially as supply is withdrawn and industrial customers fight over the scraps.

      • Ren Stimpy

        It’s not an easy problem to solve, along with aviation, livestock, deforestation, etc. Luckily the two biggest ones are also the easiest to solve – electricity generation and electrification of transport. Once we solve those then we can worry about the harder problems I reckon, and I suspect efficiency will play a major role in solving a few of those.

        • Ian

          And we’ll see you in the unemployment queues from the impact of stupidly high fuel prices. Industry disrupted.

          • Ren Stimpy

            Oil is a high cost but it is now at ridiculously LOW prices in historical terms, and yet it is still being disrupted.

            Gas is disrupting itself (here) with its high cost.

            Coal is at the mercy of gas prices – it can’t compete with renewable energy in this “highest successful bidder (gas) sets the price” style of power market.

            Long story short – all of the above are significant FUEL costs. Renewables don’t require fuel. They have no fuel costs.

            The plummeting cost of renewable electricity as well as storage will disrupt “fuels” in the two largest sources of climate change.

          • Ian

            Not quite. For electricity, the cleaning and maintenance costs can be improved with robotics. For high grade industrial heat gaseous fuel is being robbed to fuel gas fired backup generation. Gaseous fuels for high grade heating have high input costs unless you have a waste stream like a sawmill or a WWTP. Even a sawmill has to weigh up whether they invest into sawdust heating or upgrade the waste using techniques such as the 3 Wood process. Then we get back to the same situation for everyone else.

          • Ren Stimpy

            Gaseous fuel for industry AND gas-fired backup generation for electricity are both being robbed to supply the foreign/export gas market, driving fuel prices higher. The sooner we take “fuel” out of the equation the better – at least for electricity generation.

      • Ian

        This is a good point: industrial process heating. This would be the use of gas or coal to directly create heat. Much of this heating requirement is for low grade heat,Hot water or steam, which could be produced using solar resources, how much would be for higher temperature applications such as foundries, or metal smelting etc, which may not be so amenable to substitution?

  • Joe

    Quick, can we / Australia give Mr Adani that $1 Billion loan so that we can pile into that ‘pre stranded asset’, the Adani / Carmichael mega coalmine. We wouldn’t want to let this opportunity get away from us….coal is the future, Australian clean coal will power the world for …not very long!

    • Ren Stimpy

      No you can’t, dickhead. Suck it it up and read the rest of this post, moron!

    • Chris Fraser

      I was hoping the new train line could assist with packaged rail tourist holidays to central Queensland … yeah nah.

    • Ren Stimpy

      got my irony detection unit back from the repair shop today

  • onesecond

    Lol. Very precise description of the situation. I hope some day the voters will see some sense and vote out the leaders of the bouncing corpses before their festering diseases spread any further.

  • Ian

    Sophie and Giles, can we have some stories about home solar and storage, and more about electricity storage in all its forms.

    On the face of it this article seems more related to energy battles elsewhere but we can draw some nice lessons from it for our own situation:

    There are huge financial and political headwinds to renewables transformation and we need influential people equal to this task like Branson, Bloomberg , and Lovins (as given as examples in this article) to champion the renewables cause.

    A large honey-pot like the Galilee Basin is just too much temptation, and as Lovins says (with a certain amount of wishful thinking, and pre-battle rhetoric) coal is (or at least hopefully is) a stranded asset. I hope he is right, but there is still much work to be done before this is permanently true.

    Hard to see this as a coal corpse: Adani’s mine 3.5 billion tonnes of coal with a potential market of 1.25 billion Indians. That’s only 2.8 tonnes per Indian.

    • Coley

      And how many Australians have their livelihoods in coal mining, compared to those in tourism?
      Who wants to come and look at a dead grey rock, which is what the GBR will be in a few years.
      Australia is a wonderful place to visit, but for how much longer?

      • Joe

        “Our Reef”, The Great Barrier Reef, is the lifeblood of the tourism industry up there along the coast of Northern Qld. Some 60,000 jobs and annually $6Billions worth of income generation. It truly is GOLD economically not to mention its World Heritage value. And yet we have these dinosaurs in Government ( Qld State and Federal ) hanging onto ‘King Coal’ with the Adani / Carmichael mega coalmine which is an environmental abomination. Jobs, jobs, jobs is the cry. Big Mal shouted from India on his recent visit…”tens of thousands of jobs “. Adani itself in court “official count” was 1464 jobs. Now with full automation from pit to port ( Adani’s new intention ) the jobs will be less than a thousand. Let’s do the math, a living GBR 60,000 jobs vs Adani Coal less than a thousand ( with the bonus of a dead GBR !!! ). If we want to try and save what is left of The GBR then Adani has to be stopped.

      • Ian

        I don’t think Australians will be affected by employment on the Adani mine, they will import their own personnel to do the work. Even if the price of coal becomes stellar, they will not turn a profit. You don’t expect Adani to pay tax do you? We should be thanking them for relieving us of such a huge deposit of Coal and hardly involving us in the process. We could distract the tourists from actually looking at the Late Great Barrier Reef with souvenir markets selling things like Chinese made Ozzie flag thongs, Nemo soft toys and Faux- leather hats with corks. We could have museums with pictures of the reef as it was in its heyday, the sadness of the story will attract millions of disaster tourists.

      • heinbloed

        And how many Australiens have lost their livelihoods in coal mining, compared to those in tourism?

  • Joris75

    Lovins has been wrong for forty years, and today is no different…
    https://www.eia.gov/outlooks/steo/report/coal.cfm

    • Calamity_Jean

      The EIA is notorious for the poor accuracy of its RE forecasts. Take a screenshot of the page you linked to, and come back to it in a year to see what really happened. I think you’ll be surprised.

      • Joris75

        Projections are not forecasts.

        You should thanks the EIA’s projections: They are the reason why massive subsidies for renewable energy were installed, which – in turn – is why actual RE installs beat projections.

        The EIA is just doing their job: telling us where things are heading. If we don’t like what they’re telling us about where we’re heading, we need to adjust our policies. Or we can put our trust in special interests that have been wrong for 40 years.

        • Calamity_Jean

          At your link, the first subheading under “SHORT-TERM ENERGY AND SUMMER FUELS OUTLOOK” is “FORECASTS”. Since that’s what the EIA called it, that’s what I called it.

          What is it about the page you linked to that causes you to think Mr. Lovins is wrong at present?

          • Joris75

            You’re right. I corrected the word “forecasts” to “predictions”, which is what I intended.

          • Joris75

            The US is destroying it’s nuclear industry and natural gas prices are rising because they are currently below break-even price for the drillers. That leaves only coal. Hence, coal will rise, which is what the EIA is projecting.

            Providing energy 24/7 at scale can only realistically be done with coal, gas or nuclear.

          • Calamity_Jean

            “The US is destroying it’s nuclear industry….”

            The nuclear industry is destroying itself by being too freaking expensive and by taking too freaking long to construct. It’s not just the US; look at the new reactor under construction at Flamanville, in France. It’s three times over budget and almost double its original construction schedule. From 2015: http://www.world-nuclear-news.org/NN-Flamanville-EPR-timetable-and-costs-revised-0309154.html
            From February 2017: https://www.thelocal.fr/20170209/flamanville-frances-own-nuclear-nightmare

            “…natural gas prices are rising….”

            Yeah, they are. Solar and wind are the cheapest replacement.

            “Hence, coal will rise….”

            If coal rises, it will only be because renewables can’t be installed fast enough. Utility-scale photovoltaic (PV) solar takes about a year, a wind farm two or three years. An increase in coal will be like the twitch of a defibrillated corpse as referenced in the title of this article.

            “Providing energy 24/7 at scale can only realistically be done with coal, gas or nuclear.”

            Humans will transition to all-renewable energy sooner or later, one way or another. Either we install PV arrays, thermal solar generators, wind farms, and batteries thereby maintaining our civilization OR we will destroy our civilization with climate change, billions of humans will die and the survivors (if any) will be back to using renewable firewood, muscle power, and sailing ships. In the long run there are no other choices.

          • Joris75

            Nobody cares about “our civilisation”. There is no such thing. People care about cahsing their paychecks, paying their bills, and enjoying their lives. If you take the nuclear option off the table, people are just going to continue burning fossil fuels, because that will be the only way left over to get through those calm winter nights without freezing in the dark.

            I’m all for renewable energy. What I am against is the antinuclear lobby. RMI is part of that lobby.

          • Calamity_Jean

            “Nobody cares about “our civilisation”. There is no such thing.”

            There’s no such thing as “civilization”?! You’re embedded in it like a fish in water, and like a fish you would notice if it was gone.

            “…the only way left over to get through those calm winter nights….”

            A few hundred miles away it’s not calm, it’s windy. The electrical grid takes the power from the windy area and moves it to the non-windy area. A day or two later, the wind will have shifted to a new place and it will export power in it’s turn.

            “What I am against is the antinuclear lobby. “

            Look, guy, the nuclear power horse is so dead it’s starting to decompose. You can stop beating it now, it isn’t going to get up.

          • Joris75

            Look, I want civilisation to thrive and progress as much as anyone (I have two children), but I believe we need lots and lots of clean, cheap energy for everybody to do that. That’s why I support nuclear energy. RMI does NOT want us to have abundant clean energy. It’s founder Amory Lovins stated this very clearly, from the beginning:
            “It’d be a little short of disastrous for us to discover a source of clean, cheap, abundant energy because of what we would do with it. We ought to be looking for energy sources that are adequate for our needs, but that won’t give us the excesses of concentrated energy with which we could do mischief to the earth or to each other.”
            http://www.azquotes.com/quote/1303557

            That’s why RMI hates nuclear energy: because it would provide civilisation with practically unlimited amounts of clean, cheap energy.

          • Calamity_Jean

            Nuclear power is not cheap and it’s not clean, so the quote is irrelevant.

          • jamcl3

            Can I bury these spent fuel rods in your back yard? Please?

          • Joris75

            I would have no problem at all living directly above a nuclear waste repository. I have studied the technical and environmental details and there is nothing to fear.

          • jamcl3

            Solar is nuclear, let’s call it “External nuclear”. You must mean “internal nuclear”. Meaning terrestrial.

            What % of nuclear power plants have been built on budget and on schedule without financing and insurance from governments? And what % have never been completed? I stopped reading after the debacles in Washington State back in the 1970’s or so.

            Methinks thou might be “external”, so to say.

        • Erik

          Joris – I understand your position, I’ve worked in the industry for a while as well. There is technologically speaking zero doubt about the capacity to build out 100% renewable infrastructure. However to your point – timing and cost are the real issues, which at best are guesses like other predictions of future technology changes, and any experienced entrepreneur knows to take future predictions with a grain a salt.

          I’d like to counter one very important point though – subsidies. Renewables have had substantially less in “incentives” than other industries especially oil and gas, and coal – have enjoyed in the past. The numbers are multiple X – several assessments have been done and published. This is a common error – embedded incentives for fossil fuels through preferential lease agreements, permanent tax code provisions, etc, etc. are substantial, far exceed renewables, and have been around ironically for over 100 years in one of the most profitable industries on the planet. Don’t think for a second that those “traditional” industries simply came into being and continued to profit without substantial taxpayer incentives, federal support, and U.S. military protection. As a side note, that latter I personally participated in in the Persian Gulf with the U.S. Navy (proud veteran, facts notwithstanding).

          • Joris75

            There are subsidies for all energy technologies. For fossil fuels, the subsidies are much smaller than the tax revenues and royalties. The ratio is about 8:1. For every $ spent on support for the fossil fuel industry in OECD countries, the fossil fuel industry yields 8$ in tax revenues and royalties.

            https://www.oecd.org/env/49090716.pdf

            There are various reasons why humanity should move away from fossil fuels ASAP, but poor economics is not one of them. On the contrary: it is precisely the high economic value of fossil fuels that makes it so difficult for humanity to quit using them.

            The notion that fossil fuels are “subsidized” is a harmful false belief. It’s harmful because it caused complacency and conspiracy thinking, which will not help solve the climate problem.

            Concerning your point about international conflict over oil reserves: those conflicts are indeed costly, but they are fought precisely *because* the world’s oil reserves are so valuable. If we want to reduce their value, we have to develop viable alternatives to oil. That will be very difficult – even if we don’t exclude nuclear power. Alternatives for coal and natural gas are much easier to do with nuclear, and today, renewable energy is cheap enough to compete with natural gas, though not with coal (and – of course – only when the wind blows or the sun shines…).

  • Coley

    The comments – and meeting – caused dismay in Australian environmental circles, “who say the PM is putting Australian coal exports ahead of the health of one of the nations greatest natural assets, the Great Barrier Reef, which is already believed to be in terminal decline due to pollution and global warming”

    But the well stuffed brown envelopes will have presumably have been delivered some time ago, the recipients will have to at least to go ‘through the motions’
    Which they are obviously doing, irrespective of the stink they are producing.

  • solarguy

    The point I would make on the statement by Lovins, “that you can have 100% RE without storage” that could only be achieved by generating power from RE at night, by possibly over sizing wind or geothermal.
    Surely it would be cheaper to go lighter on oversizing wind say and have storage.

    • Calamity_Jean

      “Surely it would be cheaper to go lighter on oversizing wind say and have storage.”

      Depends on what battery prices are when the proportion of RE approaches 60%.

    • jamcl3

      If you put every significant load on the internet and control it based on 5 second pricing signals, the need for storage largely evaporates.

      Of course then you have to worry about Vladimir Gluten hacking your water heater and getting a cold shower in the morning…