While Australia’s coal sector may have the support of Prime Minister Tony Abbott, momentum seems to be building against coal in the lead-up to the UN Conference of Parties (COP21) in Paris in November.
The World Coal Association, along with the Minerals Council of Australia, has long argued that high efficiency, low emissions coal-fired generation technologies should be deployed where technically and economically feasible, as they can achieve CO2 emission reductions of up to 20% to 25% compared with the average of the existing world coal fleet.
They can also achieve up to 40% reductions compared to the oldest technology in place.
Minerals Council of Australia executive director – coal Greg Evans told the National Electricity Market Future Forum in Sydney last month that Australia lagged behind its own region in the development of ultra-supercritical power plants.
Those USC plants have their home in Japan but are also being built more widely in China, Korea and India.
“Australia is a laggard in this area with efficiency rates around average world levels but below those of Japan and Germany and well below the ultra-supercritical benchmark of new builds in countries such as China,” Evans said.
“Such is the international uptake of super-critical and now ultra-supercritical coal plants, the next coal fired plant in this country would need to be a USC plant.”
Speaking to ICN this week, Evans said while there were four supercritical coal-fired generators in Queensland – the most recent one built at Kogan Creek – Australia had no USC plants.
“Demand for electricity has plateaued due to a number of factors, including current levels of economic growth, some de-industrialisation in the economy where large energy users have moved operations offshore such as in oil refining, heavy manufacturing and car manufacturing,” he said.
“Apart from the fall-off in demand, end use efficiencies have also reduced demand, so there hasn’t been the economic backdrop that has demanded the construction of new plant, unlike in Asian countries, which are going through economic expansion, urbanisation and industrialisation.
“The demand outlook should dictate that ultra-supercritical coal-fired power plants won’t hit Australia until at least 2025, and we would hope that the next base-load power station – because it’s the most efficient and affordable energy option – is an ultra-supercritical coal-fired power station in either Queensland or New South Wales, as the most likely.
“The profile of our coal-fired plants is an ageing fleet, and we’re not achieving the average efficiency levels of many countries such as Japan, Germany or even the US.”
Evans said the relevant ministers and bureaucrats dealing with these issues were “certainly aware” of this issue, however, basic market conditions meant demand simply did not justify USC at the moment.
“While there isn’t the required demand then it’s unlikely to have ultra-supercritical plants in Australia any time soon,” he said.
“The benefit of a more efficient coal-fired fleet is that you substantially reduce emissions.
“Every 1% in efficiency gained equates to about 2%-3% reduction in CO2 emissions, and modern ultra-supercriticals coupled with other technologies can reduce not only CO2 emissions but nitrogen oxides, sulphur oxides and particulate matter.
“For example, the Isogo coal-fired power station in Yokohama – the most efficient in the world – is able to be positioned in the middle of a densely populated area, where city authorities required its efficient and clean-burning characteristics.”
Asia’s uptake of this game-changing technology is not surprising given the International Energy Agency recently forecast that the combined coal demand in the Association of South East Asian Nations would almost quadruple by 2040, overtaking the US.
Perhaps more importantly, India, which has strong diplomatic ties with ASEAN, recently mandated that by 2017 any new coal-fired power station would need to be supercritical technology or above.
“The construction of every new efficient power station in our region is good news for the Australian coal industry as it underpins long-term demand over the life of the plant and we are well placed to meet that requirement,” Evans added.
For now, coal continues to dominate the provision of baseload electricity on Australia’s eastern seaboard, with electricity generated from coal sources at 87% in NSW, 86% in Victoria and 75% in Queensland.
“We expect that will continue to be the case given the affordability and accessibility of coal-fired generation,” Evans said.