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IT IS technology vital to the Government's hopes of cutting greenhouse emissions from Australia's huge coal-fired power stations: capturing carbon dioxide from the polluting stations and burying it deep underground.
Australia's first trial of geosequestration in the Otways reached its first milestone last week — 10,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide was successfully stored two kilometres underground in a depleted natural gas field.
Scientists from the Co-operative Research Centre for Greenhouse Gas Technologies hope to increase that to 100,000 tonnes next year, while continuing to monitor the local geology.
The centre's chief executive, Dr Peter Cook, who is overseeing the $40 million project, is confident that the day will come when much of the carbon dioxide produced from large industrial sources can be buried.
He is hopeful that large-scale capture and storage, with at least one major power station using the technology, can be achieved within 10 years.
"I think within the decade we've got to aim for large-scale capture and storage, where we're talking millions of tonnes, not thousands of tonnes (being stored)," Dr Cook said.
Winning the confidence of the community about the technology's viability and keeping costs down are among the challenges, he said.
In releasing his landmark report on Australia's climate-change challenge on Friday, Professor Ross Garnaut said 20% of revenue from the sale of permits in emissions trading schemes should fund research and commercialisation of low-emissions technologies — including clean coal or "near-zero emissions coal" projects.
It is an investment Dr Cook and the Climate Institute support.
The institute backs the Coal Association's target of bringing three small coal-fired plants with carbon capture and storage online by 2020.
"It should go to a range of technologies," Climate Institute chief executive John Connor said yesterday.
"But also for coal, it's very important to say that the coal industry, and indeed the generators, should also be investing heavily in their own future."
Monash University climate scientist Graeme Pearman also backs investment in such technologies. He said the immediate focus should be on viable renewable energy alternatives and better energy efficiency for households and industry.
Melbourne University climate scientist Professor David Karoly, lead author for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, said yesterday that clean coal technology was only one part of the equation, and that some of the timeframes cited for its commercialisation were "overly optimistic."
New investment in research and development needed to include renewables capable of delivering baseload power like geothermal and tidal energy.
Dr Cook agreed that carbon capture and storage wasn't the "silver bullet".
It was part of the solution so long as Australia continued to use fossil fuels.
"I don't believe it when people say 2025," he said. "We've got to take significant action before then."