Brown coal cops a blow

New data show total emissions continuing to drop in Australia, led by "unprecedented" softness in electricity demand. Crucially, the burden of output reduction has now shifted to Victorian brown coal generators.

The following is the latest report on Australia's energy emissions from pitt&sherry.

Total emissions continue to fall and, for the year ended September 2012, they were 2 million tonnes CO2-e lower than they were in the year ended July 2012. This is equivalent to a decrease of 0.6 per cent.

Emissions have almost returned to the lowest level reached in the last few years, which occurred in early 2011. As has been the case for more than a year, steady reductions in emissions are almost entirely driven by the dramatic fall in emissions from electricity generation. However emissions from petroleum fuel use and natural gas use also fell simultaneously in September, for the first time since a brief period in early 2009, at the height of the global financial crisis.


The fact that emissions from use of petroleum fuels fell in September, albeit by a very small amount, is symbolically important. However, detailed examination of data for individual petroleum products reveals that the fall in emissions was caused by a large fall in the consumption of heavy fuel oil.

Fuel oil is a very minor source of energy and emissions in Australia, used by some international ships and a few large mineral processing facilities. Trends in consumption of the major petroleum fuels are much more important overall. Here we see that trends noted in the last Cedex report are continuing. The rate of growth in consumption of bulk diesel, while still positive, is less than it was throughout 2011, possibly indicative of some success by large users to improve energy use efficiency.

By contrast, there is no obvious sign of any slowing of the rate of growth in consumption of either aviation fuels or light road vehicle fuels. Clearly, limiting emissions from use of petroleum fuels for transport remains a major challenge for Australian greenhouse gas emissions policy.

Natural gas

Data on the direct use of natural gas (as opposed to use for electricity generation) have only been available since 2009. Since then, consumption, on average, has declined very slightly, and this trend is continuing.

Official national energy demand statistics indicate virtually no growth for some years in the consumption of gas by manufacturing industry and only very slight growth in residential sector demand. It seems very likely that slowing manufacturing activity is a contributor to limiting growth in demand for gas. Improved energy use efficiency is likely to have also played a role in both the manufacturing and residential sectors.

National Electricity Market update

November saw a continuation of the trends in emissions from NEM generators which have dominated emission trends throughout 2012. Emissions fell by a further 0.6 million tonnes CO2-e in the year ending November 2012, compared with one month earlier.

As has been the case all year (and much of 2011 also) this fall was driven by two major trends.

-- Firstly, demand for electricity supplied by NEM generators fell, in the month of November, in every state except Tasmania (Figure 5). In Cedex, demand is measured as the quantity of electricity sent out by generators within each state, plus the net flow through the interconnectors between each state.

The overall fall, compared with the year ended November 2012, was 2.5 per cent. The fall was greatest in NSW (including the ACT) at over 5 per cent. It was around 3 per cent in SA and Tasmania, and quite small, but still a fall, in Victoria and Queensland.

-- Secondly, the quantities of electricity supplied by gas-fired generators, and by hydro and wind generators, have been increasing for most of the year, although in November the increase was very small. These generators now supply over one quarter of NEM electricity generation.

The result has been that coal-fired generators are supplying less electricity, with consequent reductions in emissions. Until recently most of the output reduction was being borne by the NSW black coal generators, but in the last few months the burden has shifted to the more emissions intensive Victorian brown coal generators. Moreover, the output reductions are happening at the three most emissions intensive power stations: Hazelwood, Yallourn and Morwell.

Perhaps the carbon price is beginning to lend the RET a hand.

State by state net supply of electricity

This issue of Cedex is the first to include net state demand for NEM electricity.

Note that NEM demand is not the same as “true” demand by electricity consumers since it excludes electricity supplied by rooftop photovoltaic installations and other forms of distributed generation “embedded” in distribution networks, such co/tri-generation facilities.

However, the increased uptake of photovoltaics has made only a small contribution to the large reduction in annual NEM demand since 2008-09. In NSW a report by AEMO on uptake of rooftop photovoltaics, published in May 2012, estimated that in 2011 they supplied 0.7 TWh, which is a small part of the total demand reduction of about 4 TWh. Corresponding figures for Victoria are 0.5 TWh from photovoltaics out of a total reduction in NEM demand of about 5 TWh.

Expressed as a percentage of demand in 2008-09, the state by state reductions in annual demand to the end of November 2012 are as follows: NSW 8 per cent, Victoria 11 per cent, Queensland 2 per cent, SA 4 per cent, and Tasmania 4 per cent.

Changes in demand of electricity on this scale are unprecedented in the entire 120 year history of the electricity supply industry in Australia. There can be little doubt that electricity consumers spurred by a combination of government energy efficiency measures, community awareness, and higher prices, are responding by taking up the many options available to increase the efficiency of electricity use and to change their energy using behaviour to reduce unnecessary consumption.

A reliable indicator

The energy sector is the largest source of Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions. The energy use covered by the Cedex accounts for about 80 per cent of Australia’s total energy combustion emissions, and 54 per cent of total emissions (excluding land use change and forestry), as reported in the National Greenhouse Gas Inventory.

Increases in energy combustion have caused more than 90 per cent of the increase in total emissions since 1990. Coal is the largest source of energy emissions, and accounts for most of the growth.

Trends in energy emissions are a reliable indicator of Australia’s ability to achieve emissions mitigation and hold the key to reducing emissions as a whole.

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