Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Divided views over 'clean coal' pilot project

Adam Morton

The Age, July 9, 2009

AUSTRALIA'S most greenhouse-intensive power station is denting its carbon footprint by 25 tonnes a day — just 0.05 per cent of its total emissions — under a pilot project described as a potential future for coal-fired electricity.

The $10 million "clean coal" demonstration at Hazelwood power station in the Latrobe Valley is the biggest carbon-capture plant yet installed in Australia. It is also expensive, with green groups estimating it costs at least $1100 for each tonne of carbon dioxide captured. Backed by more than $5 million of state and federal climate change funding, the project extracts carbon dioxide and chemically converts it into calcium carbonate.

Victorian Energy Minister Peter Batchelor yesterday hailed it as "world-leading technology". He said it was one of seven carbon-capture plants in Victoria being used to find the cheapest way of reducing emissions from coal-fired power.

"It is technology such as this that will help Victoria and its coal-fired generation meet the climate change challenge," he said.

But Environment Victoria campaigns director Mark Wakeham said taxpayer backing for a project that did little to cut emissions was perverse.

He said the quarter of Victoria's electricity generated at Hazelwood could be replaced by cleaner gas-fired power within two years.

"This project probably has more to do with attempting to maintain Hazelwood's social licence to operate than reduce emissions," he said.

Mr Batchelor responded: "To say that this is money that has not been well spent is quite clearly irresponsible; it is against the environment and it is a bit silly really."

Carbon capture and storage — most often turning greenhouse gas into a liquid and burying it deep underground — is at least a decade away from being commercially proven.

It is opposed by some green groups but backed by industry and governments as a vital part of the solution to climate change. The Federal Government's $100 million Global Carbon Capture and Storage Institute aims to set up 20 large-scale plants by 2020.

Neither Mr Batchelor nor the management of Hazelwood's majority owner, International Power, would say yesterday what the pilot project might mean for Hazelwood's lifespan.

Built in the 1960s, Hazelwood was due to be decommissioned in 2005 but controversially had its lifespan extended until 2031. It is estimated to emit 18 million tonnes of carbon dioxide a year.

International Power Australia executive director Tony Concannon said early results from the project were promising. "However, it will be some time before (the company) is in a position to determine if this technology is suitable to be rolled out to other Hazelwood generating units or, indeed, other fossil-fuel-fired power stations," he said.

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