I’ve posted before on this fantasy world people are living in assuming we can somehow cheaply and efficiently lock away the output of coal burning. Sounds like I was right according to a Sydney Morning Herald article: “Hefty bill to come from clean coal power“.

The report, prepared by the Global Carbon Capture and Storage Institute, finds the cost increase to coal electricity generation if fully-fledged clean coal technology is installed will be up to 78 per cent.

78 percent! Assuming of course they can actually do it at all. To me it still smells like good old snake oil:

Premium quality clean coal snake oil. Guaranteed to prolong the inevitable.

Premium quality clean coal snake oil. Guaranteed to prolong the inevitable.

So all that bleating about “nuclear is expensive” or “solar is expensive” is garbage. The alternatives are only expensive because their manufacturing waste needs to be dealt with rather than just puffed up the chimney into the atmosphere (well, unless it is pollution in China I guess.. Then it all probably ends up in the air, land or river regardless). It’s assuming there are the magic clean coal breakthroughs that allow the long term storage of carbon dioxide such that it won’t just float back up (I wonder if the cost of developing a brand new technology factors into this figure?).

The Government will spend $2.4 billion over nine years developing two to four commercial scale carbon capture projects.

It’s money spent on what will have to be dead technology. I mean it’d be great to have some magic process for capturing the CO2 but I’d have to think the energy/resources that go into that will be so high as to be a waste of time in the long term.

I think we can do almost anything if we exert enough money, manpower and energy (hell, that’s why I want widespread renewable energy to have oodles of energy to do crazy stuff like desalination to overcome drought and remove pressure on rivers.. if you have the electricity for “free” then you can do that sort of thing AND repair the environment). But at some point you start making so little energy that it isn’t worth doing or you compromise on your original goal. I suspect coal companies will settle on a massive compromise. Like a small dick Hummer driver recycling a softdrink can and proudly proclaiming they are green, the coal industry will settle on locking away some small fraction of emissions or in such a way as to be non permanent. Perhaps it will be enough to deflect opponents sufficiently to milk another few decades.

Money spent on solar or wind generation is money on a real technology that works now and has many large scale installations worldwide. Carbon sequestration technology today (as far as I can tell) has no real viable option to long term lock away the gas. The closest we have to “capture” is pumping it into oil wells (to help squeeze more oil out). That notion of using it to help get out more carbon dioxide producing fossil fuels seems to me to not really be helping reduce overall emissions (e.g. “oh look, the coal’s emissions are buried to help us get hard to get oil which is then burnt in cars”).

The Glowing Green Green
I’d say if we’re going to have money spent on currently theoretical but likely looking: go the new generation IV reactors I reckon. We know that nuclear power generation works, because it powers big chunks of the population around the world. It’d power even more if not for the scaremongering.

Generation IV Nuclear reactor timeline.

Generation IV Nuclear reactor timeline. If we only get over demonising nuclear!

The advantage of some of these designs are that they can run off what we currently call waste, unlocking some of the large amount of remaining energy thus making use of the current stockpiles of waste from aging nuclear facilities.

But let’s get back to renewables.

Ideal “best” approach

The ideal best solution overall would be a combination:

  1. using less energy to begin with
  2. re-using things rather than endless/mindless consumption
  3. solar
  4. wind
  5. geothermal/tidal/hydro/whatever other clean energy sources there are available for the locality

I think massive amounts could be attained via the first 4 of those things which require no new technology (next gen nuclear or magical as-yet-no-working-scale carbon dioxide capturing).

The first is definitely achievable as an article today “Pull the plug, it’s socket science” says:

ALL over the world, electrical appliances are blinking away on standby – and burning so much energy they need 60 coal-fired electricity stations a year to power them, analysis by the International Energy Agency has found.

And they go on to say that “efficiency is the fastest way to cut greenhouse gas emissions” and discuss the role of legislation (since market forces aren’t usually enough):

Dr Jollands believes legal standards on energy efficiency are important where the market is failing to deliver reform and cited the example of set-top boxes for pay television, which are usually switched on all day, every day.

In most homes and offices, set-top boxes are supplied by a company that has no incentive to make them energy efficient because the electricity bills are paid by the consumer. An analysis by the energy agency found that in the United States about 150 million switched-on set-top boxes burned the equivalent of six supertankers of oil a year.

Dr Jollands said there was a cultural aversion to regulation in some parts of the world, but if the market was not working, regulations could be effective without imposing additional costs.

I agree we need legislation to push this stuff forward. History has shown that left to their own devices things do not progress past the “what ever is cheapest”. You have to put a cost or penalty on polluting in order to get things cleaner.

Consumption is not success

The second thing (reusing and cutting back on consumption) would require a major shift in how we view a successful economy. This is probably a topic that requires its own blog, the idea of banishing consumption driven measures. But basically I think that consumption should NOT be the primary measure of success as it is currently because it largely consists of rewarding inefficiency and celebrating unnecessary buying of items. Consider the reuse of something in a consumption based economic model: bad! Bad because no new products are consumed, thus no new jobs making stuff, delivering stuff, stocking shelves, retailing etc.

Consume! Consume!

Consume! Consume!

Should goods cost a bit more to be made robust, repairable and reusable? Hell no: that’s going to damage consumption down the track!

But back to clean coal: it’s no surprise the cost estimates are high because they’re just subsidised by society at large copping the pollution. Naturally when they start adhering to environmental standards they, like every other industry subject to environmental controls, will start to cost more. We already force other types of polluters to wear the costs of filtering, processing or otherwise dealing with waste: coal should have to do the same.

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