CLIMATE SPECTATOR: The great gas swindle

Big energy companies and many others are spinning the idea of 'transition gas', but it's time we realised the smartest option is to gradually replace coal with an entirely renewable rollout.

Climate Spectator

I'd much rather see a fleet of dirty old coal plants spewing out CO2 emissions than one newly built combined cycle gas plant.

'Transition Coal' should be a new uniting catch-cry of environmentalists. Transition Coal's time is now, following on from the success of Transition Gas.

Transition Gas should not be confused for an energy source. It has been dreamt up by the marketing departments of the same oil companies that have funded campaigns to deny the existence of climate change. The industry needs to come clean and admit Transition Gas is a marketing term. In its many forms – conventional; coal seam; shale; or even natural – Transition Gas is exactly the same fuel molecule by molecule as plain old fossil fuel gas. It is the same fuel that leaks significant amounts of climate-damaging methane and releases carbon dioxide when burnt.

The opportunity exists for the coal industry to sing from the oil industry’s hymn book. The coal industry can talk about using coal for the transition until the unsaid happens. The ‘unsaid’ of course is rolling out a zero emissions economy replacing all fossil fuels, as is the plan in leading OECD countries Germany and Denmark.

The Transition Gas option is underpinned by the simplistic carbon pricing regime legislated by our government and supported by major Australian environmental organisations and the oil and gas companies. It involves building, operating and maintaining dozens of combined cycle gas plants for 60 years. It also involves building gas pipelines and forward contracting from new processing plants enough gas resource to keep the plants fuelled and operating for at least the first 15 years of their life.

The electricity companies strongly support this outcome and are lobbying actively for it. This is because they are not only involved in retailing electricity, but also owners of gas infrastructure, power plant projects and, most importantly, upstream gas resources (coal seam gas mostly). It is strongly in their financial interests to build dozens of gas power plants that will crowd-out the space for any renewable energy in the next 60 years.

The emissions intensity of those gas plants over 60 years (without taking into account massive upstream fugitive emissions that are left out of officially recognised accounting) is greater than 0.5 tonnes of CO2 per megawatt-hour electrical. So in the large scale shift to gas scenario being promoted, a 60 year gas plant will produce far greater than 240 million tonnes of CO2 in its life time. Whereas an existing fleet of 19th century coal plants that run for an average of 10 years before being replaced with renewables will produce just 60 million tonnes of CO2 (when phased-out over 10 years), a saving of over 75 per cent.

While the Clean Energy Future package will prove it is a dud at doing anything meaningful on climate change as our real onshore domestic emissions keep rising (only offset by permit importation) and our emissions from offshore combustion of fossil fuel exports explode.

Today we can start the economy-transforming renewables rollout, get the cost down, slowly retire the old coal plants, and most importantly, not build any gas plants.

Under a real world scenario where renewables incrementally replace coal over 10 years, existing old coal is at least 75 per cent less emissions intensive than the governments and big old environment NGO's preferred fossil gas scenario.

And what are the alternatives to renewables for replacing ‘transition coal’, if any?

Clean coal doesn't work or exist – not one light bulb is powered by clean coal carbon capture and storage. ZeroGen, the Australian effort, was a failure, along with Futuregen in the US, which their government pulled the plug on two years ago. In the last few months we have found out that the only remaining project of size – the giant Longannet Carbon Capture and Storage project in the UK has fallen through due to cost projection blowouts. There is no clean coal, and there will not ever be clean coal. The billions of dollars in funding that has been thrown at it, with precious little result, has already proven it will never be competitive with renewables.

Nuclear power hasn't been an option for a long time. There’s the cost blowouts and years of delay in nuclear projects in the west. The reality that the Chinese-led ‘renaissance’ has only been able to build dangerous second generation plants. And lastly the disaster at Fukushima, which has shown how the clean-up from a nuclear catastrophe can run into hundreds of billions of dollars. This is reinforced by Germany’s experience that nuclear decommissioning costs per plant will exceed two billion euros.

So back to the unsaid. ‘Renewable energy’ is the unsaid and it rolls off the tongue nicely if you want to get used to it. Fortunately it is available now, commercial and off-the-shelf. Leading the pack is large scale wind turbines and rooftop photovoltaic power, which are getting installed in the leading western economies much faster than any other sources.

Backing it up, providing the dynamic power that keeps the lights on at night, with the ability to deliver baseload is concentrating solar thermal with storage. Tens of billions of dollars worth of these plants are now under construction around the world, including a massive $20 billion rollout in Spain. Pumped hydro storage is another option, where a relatively closed loop is setup between higher and lower elevation dams. Australia can rely on solar thermal with storage alone for dispatchable electricity, in conjunction with a very small amount of biomass co-firing contingency and large-scale distributed photovoltaic and wind power to power our transition from a 19th century fossil fuel economy to a 21st century renewable-powered clean tech economy.

The sad thing is that voices calling for transition gas have included:

– Greg Combet, who refuses briefings on scenarios for taking the country to 100 per cent renewables; and

– Big environmental NGOs who get funding and strategic advice from oil and electricity industry majors.

They need to take a reality check and realise that the owners of gas plants will never consider writing off their billions of dollars of investments in 15-30 years time, Instead they'll spend their time, resources and money fighting for exemptions, compensation and to rescind carbon legislation. They will threaten the lights will go out. We'll be in the same predicament in 2030 as we are in today where the coal owners have already successfully run those lines on us with regards to the carbon tax.

It would be good to see Australia’s big environmental groups break their strategic and financial ties with the fossil fuel companies, and embrace a shift to a climate safe, zero emissions economy utilising zero emissions renewable energy sources.

Matthew Wright is executive director of Beyond Zero Emissions.