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ON A wide, flat plain in Germany's depressed north-east, one of the keys to our future has begun turning.
Beside a giant power station known as Schwarze Pumpe (Black Pump), a small plant has begun to capture the carbon released when brown coal is turned into electricity, ultimately to store it underground.
In Australia, the world's biggest coal exporter, carbon capture and storage is endlessly debated, praised and condemned.
In Germany, in a modest way, it has begun. Swedish power giant Vattenfall has invested $120 million to build the world's first pilot plant to capture and store the carbon dioxide from burning coal.
The project, just three weeks old, has huge implications for the future of Victoria's brown coal industry — and its electricity prices. Unless carbon capture and storage can work at reasonable cost, the experts say, Victoria's heavily polluting power stations will gradually shut and not be replaced.
The world has other projects that capture and store carbon dioxide, including a small one in the Otways. What makes Schwarze Pumpe unique is that it is the first to trap the emissions from a power station boiler, separate the carbon dioxide and — ultimately — bury it in a depleted gas field.
If it works, says Vattenfall's president and chief executive Lars Josefsson, one of its existing generators will be converted into a much larger demonstration plant by 2015, with the first full-scale "clean coal" power station operating by 2020.
"Coal has a future — but not the carbon dioxide emissions from it," says the chief executive of its European division, Tuomo Hatakka..
Carbon capture and storage has divided environmentalists here, as in Australia. Germany's Greens argue that projects such as Schwarze Pumpe breed false hopes that coal can be made clean, and divert funds from the urgent need to speed up development of cost-effective renewable energy, such as solar.
But others warn that the fight against global warming will be so hard that the world will need to use every option. In a recent landmark report, the International Energy Agency estimated that to halve greenhouse gas emissions by 2050, while developing countries are growing rapidly, the world will need to open a full-scale carbon capture and storage project every fortnight.
Even Schwarze Pumpe's existing power station is a stylish, state-of-the-art plant producing far less greenhouse gas than its Victorian counterparts. Vattenfall's goal is to use brown coal to produce "almost emission-free electricity" that will be commercial from 2020, as carbon prices force generators to shut down traditional coal-fired plants.
The pilot plant at full operation produces nine tonnes of carbon dioxide an hour. For now it is being sold for commercial use, but from early next year it will be trucked across Germany to be buried in the almost depleted Altmark gas field — an operation that parallels the goal of burying carbon dioxide from the Latrobe Valley plants in Esso-BHP's emptying gas fields in Bass Strait.
Many will be watching its progress with fingers crossed. If it works, it could make the world's — and Victoria's — road to stop global warming much easier.