Grattan on Friday: The Coalition is trapped in its coal minefield


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

Sydney shock jock Ray Hadley was apoplectic. Home Affairs Minister
Peter Dutton, one of Hadley’s favourites, who has a regular spot on his 2GB program, had just committed blasphemy.

Dutton said he didn’t believe in the government building a new
coal-fired power station. Hadley couldn’t credit what he was hearing. “You’re toeing the [Morrison] company line”, he said accusingly.

It’s another story with Dutton’s cabinet colleague and fellow
Queenslander, Resources Minister Matt Canavan, who is part of the
Queensland Nationals’ push for support for a new power station in that state.

“Studies have come back always saying that a HELE [high-efficiency, low-emissions] or a new coal-fired power station would make a lot of sense in North Queensland,” Canavan said this week.

The two ministers’ divergent views are not surprising on the basis of where they come from. In Brisbane voters tend to share similar opinions on climate change and coal to those in the southern capitals – it’s the regions where support for coal is stronger.

What’s surprising is how the rifts at the government’s highest levels are being exposed. In these desperate days, it is every minister, every government backbencher, and each part, or sub-part, of the Coalition for themselves.

Never mind cabinet solidarity, or Coalition unity.

The most spectacular outbreak came this week from Barnaby Joyce,
declaring himself the “elected deputy prime minister” and pressing the government for a strongly pro-coal stand.

It was a slap at besieged Nationals leader Michael McCormack, after rumourmongering that McCormack might be replaced even before the election. Predictably, the NSW Nationals, fighting a difficult state election, were furious.

The Joyce outbreak was further evidence that the federal Nationals are a mess, over leadership and electorally. They have a party room of 22 – there are fears they could lose up to four House of Representatives seats as well as going down two in the Senate.




Read more:
View from The Hill: Coal turns lumpy for Scott Morrison and the Nationals


(However it’s not all gloom in the Nationals – at the election they will gain three new women, two in the Senate – Susan McDonald from Queensland and Sam McMahon from the Northern Territory – and Anne Webster in the Victorian seat of Mallee. Whatever happens to the party’s numbers overall, the women will go from two to four or five, depending on the fate of Michelle Landry, who holds the marginal seat of Capricornia. The Nationals’ NSW Senate candidate is also a woman but is unlikely to be elected.)

By mid week Joyce was back in his box, stressing that McCormack would take the party to the election. But he was still in the coal advocacy vanguard.

The coal debate and the assertiveness of the Queensland Nationals
smoked out a clutch of Liberal moderates, who question spending
government money on coal projects (although there is some confusion between building power stations and underwriting ventures).




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Queensland Nationals Barry O’Sullivan challenges Morrison over coal


The government’s policy is for underwriting “firm power” projects, on a technology-neutral basis, if they stack up commercially.

The marauding Nationals were derisive of moderate Liberals trying to protect their seats. “Trendy inner-city Liberals who want to oppose coal and the jobs it creates should consider joining the Greens,” Queensland National George Christensen said tartly on Facebook.

It was a rare appearance by the moderates, who have made a poor
showing over the last few years, True, some were crucial in achieving the same-sex marriage reform. But in general they’ve failed to push back against the right’s tightening ideological grip on the Liberal party, and the government has suffered as a result.

The week highlighted, yet again, that instead of a credible energy
policy, the government has only confusion and black holes.

With his recent announcements, Morrison has been trying to show he’s heard the electorate on climate change. But actually, these were mostly extensions of what had been done or proposed.

The Abbott government’s emissions reduction fund (renamed) is getting an injection, given it would soon be close to exhausted. And the Snowy pumped hydro scheme, announced by Malcolm Turnbull, has received the go-ahead. Didn’t we expect that? There was also modest support for a new inter-connector to transmit Tasmanian hydro power to Victoria.

The government can’t get its “big stick” legislation – aimed at
recalcitrant power companies – through parliament. It will take it to the election. But who knows what its future would be in the unlikely event of a re-elected Coalition government? It would face Senate hurdles and anyway “free market” Liberals don’t like it.

And then we come to the underwriting initiative. The government has 66 submissions seeking support, 10 of which have “identified coal as a source of generation”.

Sources say it is hoped to announce backing for some projects before the election. But this will be fraught, internally and externally, for the government.

One source hinted one project might involve coal. Even if this is
true, it won’t satisfy the Coalition’s coal spruikers, deeply unhappy that Morrison has flagged there won’t be support for a Queensland coal-fired power station. (The Queenslanders liken Morrison’s cooling on coal to Kevin Rudd’s 2010 back off from his emissions trading scheme.)

On the other hand, underwriting of any coal project would alarm
Liberals in the so-called “leafy-suburbs” electorates.

Given the proximity to the election, the government could do little more than give promises to particular projects. There is also the risk of blow back from those whose bids are unsuccessful.

There would be no obligation on a Labor government to honour any
commitments, because formal agreements would not have been finalised.

Meanwhile the government is trying to promote a scare against Labor’s climate policy, still to be fully outlined, which includes reducing emissions by an ambitious 45% by 2030 (compared with the government’s pledge of 26-28%).

But unlike, for example, the scare over the ALP’s franking credits
policy (dubbed by the government a “retirement tax”), this scare is much harder to run, except in specific regional areas.

The zeitgeist is in Labor’s favour on the climate issue, not least
after sweltering summer days and bushfires.

The public have a great deal of faith in renewables – in focus groups people don’t just like them, they romanticise them.

It seems the government can’t take a trick on climate and energy
policy – even the school children are reminding it of that.




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The Conversation


Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The Chinese coal ‘ban’ carries a significant political message


File 20190228 150688 12m2l1x.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
The market reaction to the “ban” was telling, underscoring the problem of being so reliant on a single client.
Shutterstock

Tony Walker, La Trobe University

As a standoff over Australian coal shipments through the northern Chinese port of Dalian continues, it underscores the extent of Australia’s economic dependence on China.

One-third of all Australia’s exports globally are China-bound.

Market reaction to a Chinese coal “ban” was telling and reflected concerns about an over-dependence on one client.

The Australian dollar tumbled before recovering. Coal producers were pegged back.

Initially, the decision was attributed to local customs officials, but this misunderstood the nature of the Chinese regime.

No decision to restrain imports from China’s largest supplier of raw materials would be taken without the imprimatur of the leadership in Beijing.

While the freeze on Australian coal imports through Dalian may prove to be a short, sharp shock, what China’s action does convey is a message that Beijing can turn an import spigot on and off at will.

Why it might have chosen now to remind Australia of its vulnerability to central planning decisions, arbitrarily applied, is not clear. But it’s reasonable to speculate that politics is involved.




Read more:
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What is notable about China’s action is that it does not, at this stage, affect Russian and Indonesian coal imports. Australia appears to have been singled out.

Australia is far and away the world’s largest coal exporter. It accounts for more than 20% of China’s coal imports, the bulk of it thermal coal for greedy power stations.

China’s foreign ministry has said there is no “ban” on Australian coal imports through the Dalian port. But with demurrage charges mounting on coal carriers obliged to stand offshore for 40 days or more, use of the word “ban” is moot.

If politics is a factor, then several possibilities present themselves in what has been a rocky relationship over the past several years. Beijing could be signalling its displeasure over Australia’s decision to bar the technology company Huawei from participating in the build-out of Australia’s 5G communications network.

Other possible causes of Chinese unhappiness include Canberra’s decision to deny a re-entry permit to Australia for businessman Huang Xiangmo. This follows a decision to deny Huang Australian citizenship on grounds that his links with the Chinese Communist Party render him a security risk.

Delicate late-stage negotiations between the US and China on trade could also be a factor. Beijing might regard meting out a bit of grief to one of America’s closest allies as a reminder of its ability to exact retribution if things do not go its way.

Then there are the twin issues of the South China Sea and China’s push into the southwest Pacific.

Canberra is a persistent – if low-key – critic of Beijing’s militarisation of disputed territory in waters that are subject to claims and counter-claims before international tribunals.

These waters span trade routes through which the bulk of Australia’s seaborne trade passes to its markets in north Asia, including trans-shipment points like Dalian.

Beijing will also not have overlooked a vigorous campaign against its interests being waged by elements of the Australian foreign and security policy establishment.

At the forefront of this criticism is the government-funded Australian Security Policy Institute. ASPI spokespeople have focused particularly on China’s alleged breaches of cyber security.

Sections of the Australian media, feeding off ASPI criticism of cyber breaches, will have added to Chinese displeasure.

Then there are irritants like the continued detention on security grounds of Chinese-Australian writer Yang Hengjun. Yang has been a persistent critic of the Communist Party.

While a freeze initiated by Beijing – during which no senior Australian official visited China for high-level talks for the better part of two years – has been lifted, relations remain problematic.

Foreign Minister Marise Payne went to Beijing late last year for talks with her Chinese counterpart. These were designed to “re-set” the relationship. But episodes like the “ban” on coal shipments foreshadow further difficulties in the Sino-Australia relationship as China’s power and influence grow.




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Australia and China push the ‘reset’ button on an important relationship


Other explanations offered for what appeared to be, on the face of it, arbitrary action against Australian coal shipments relate to pressures on China’s hard-pressed domestic producers.

In a slowing Chinese economy, competition from higher-quality and competitively priced imports has battered domestic coal producers.

In other words, a number of factors are likely to have been at play in China’s decision to halt Australian coal imports through Dalian, if only temporarily.




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Australian-Chinese author’s detention raises important questions about China’s motivations


These coal shipments, it should be noted, amount to a relatively small proportion of the 300 million tonnes shipped annually.

About 7 million tonnes passes through Dalian. This is coking or metallurgical coal for the steel industry, to distinguish it from thermal coal for power generation.

In 2017-19 coal exports to China were worth about A$13 billion, second only to exports of A$50 billion of iron ore and concentrates.

However, if the ban spreads to other ports Australian exporters will have cause for much deeper concern.

Uncertainties among Australian exporters are not helped by an opaque Chinese system that denies transparent explanations – unless it suits Beijing – of actions that are unfriendly to its trading partners.

China’s slowdown in imports of Australian wine last year is a case in point. The problem has eased, but the episode unnerved wine exporters whose production is geared significantly to a booming Chinese market.

Australian officials will also be concerned about action taken against Canadian nationals who have been detained in apparent retaliation for Canada’s arrest – pending extradition to the US – of the daughter of the Huawei founder.

Meng Wanzhou, Huawei’s chief financial officer, has been fighting extradition through the courts in Vancouver to prevent her removal to the US, where she has been charged with violations of sanctions against doing business with Iran.

The arrest of two Canadians – former diplomat Michael Kovrig and businessman Michael Spavor – for allegedly endangering China’s national security is widely viewed as retaliation against Canada for the arrest of Meng.

What all this tells us is that dealing with a more nationalistic, assertive and ruthless China in pursuit of what it regards as its national interests will become more, not less, difficult.

Western officials can talk about a rules-based international order until they’re blue in the face, but if the rules don’t correspond with Beijing’s own preferences, then chances are it will disregard them.

This is a reality that has taken some time to impress itself on those who might have believed that encouragement to China to live up to expectations of it becoming a “responsible stakeholder” will survive an encounter with Chinese self-interest.

In that regard, Beijing and Washington are not dissimilar in a new era in which a more nationalist US is shunning multilateral trading agreements like the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans Pacific Partnership and looking to a narrower self-interest.

The new US-China trade deal is set to be concluded next month. You can be sure that interruptions to Australian coal shipments to China will be very far from their concerns.The Conversation

Tony Walker, Adjunct Professor, School of Communications, La Trobe University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Australia: well placed to join the Moon mining race … or is it?



File 20190214 1726 alb497.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
The Moon could be mined for water.
NASA/JPL

Andrew Dempster, UNSW

It’s 50 years since man first stepped on the Moon. Now the focus is on going back to our nearest orbiting neighbour – not to leave footprints, but to mine the place.

Australia has a well-earned reputation as a mining nation. We are home to some of the largest mining companies (such as Vale, Glencore, Rio Tinto, and BHP), some of the best mine automation, and some of the best mining researchers.




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But do we have the drive and determination to be part of any mining exploration of the Moon?

To the Moon

As far as space goes, the Moon is sexy again. Within the past three months:

  • the Chinese landed a rover on the Moon’s far side

  • NASA announced it is partnering with nine companies to deliver payloads to the Moon, consistent with its new push for more Moon missions

  • the Moon Race competition has been announced, looking at entries in four themes: manufacturing, energy, resources, biology

  • the European Space Agency (ESA) announced its interest in mining the Moon for water

  • a US collaborative study was released about commercial exploitation of water from the Moon.

Not to be outdone, there is an Australian angle. We at the Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research (ACSER) announced our Wilde mission to extract water from the shaded craters at the Moon’s poles.

Australian interests

The Australian angle is important. With the establishment of Australia’s Space Agency, there is a need for us to try to establish niches in space, and it makes sense to exploit our strengths in mining to do so.

This is consistent with one of the agency’s priorities of:

… developing a strategy to position Australia as an international leader in specialised space capabilities.

As the agency’s chief executive Megan Clark told the subscription newsletter Space and Satellite AU earlier this month:

Rio Tinto is developing autonomous drilling and that’s the sort of thing you will need to do on Mars and on the Moon. While we’re drilling for iron ore in the Pilbara, on the Moon they might be looking for basic resources to survive like soils, water and oxygen.

The CSIRO has also put space resource utilisation into its space road map (which can be downloaded here). At each of the two most recent CSIRO Space 2.0 workshops, the attendees voted space resource utilisation (off-Earth mining) to be the most promising opportunity discussed.

The ultimate aim of space mining is to exploit asteroids, the most valuable – known as 511 Davida – is estimated to be worth US$27 quintillion (that’s or 27×1018 or 27 million million million dollars). Another estimate puts that value closer to US$1 trillion, which is still a lot of potential earning.

Risky business

The opportunities are enormous, but the risks are high too – risks with which mining companies are currently not familiar. The high-level processes are familiar such as exploration (prospecting), mining methods, processing, transportation, but the specifics of doing those things in such challenging conditions – vacuum, microgravity, far from Earth, and so on – are not.

The research we are proposing for the Wilde project aims to start chipping away at reducing those perceived risks, to the point where big miners are more comfortable to invest.

One of the important risks in any mining is the legal framework. Two international treaties apply quite specifically in this case: the Outer Space Treaty of 1967 (ratified by 107 countries and signed by a further 23) and the Moon Agreement (or Moon Treaty, ratified by 18 and signed by a further four) of 1979. Australia has ratified both.

When it comes to trying to determine from these treaties whether space mining is allowed, there are two problems.

First, the treaties were drafted at a time when the problems they were trying to avoid were geopolitical. Space activity was considered to be the realm of nation states and they wanted celestial bodies not to be considered property of any nation states.

Second, commercial exploitation of resources is never explicitly mentioned. (A third problem could be that the treaties have never been tested in court.)

This creates a situation in which the interpretation of the treaties can lead to strong support to both sides of the argument. For instance, Article 1 of the Outer Space Treaty says:

The exploration and use of outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, shall be carried out for the benefit and in the interests of all countries, irrespective of their degree of economic or scientific development, and shall be the province of all mankind.

This could preclude commercial development.

But the same article also states:

Outer space, including the Moon and other celestial bodies, shall be free for exploration and use by all States without discrimination of any kind, on a basis of equality and in accordance with international law, and there shall be free access to all areas of celestial bodies.

This could enshrine the right to use those same resources.

For all humanity

There are similar disputes about what exactly was meant when other articles in that treaty refer to sovereignty, appropriation, exploration and use.

The Moon Treaty deals with scientific and non-scientific use of space resources. Article 11 states that the Moon and other celestial bodies and their resources are the common heritage of all mankind (a less gender-specific phrase would be “all humanity”), and that the exploitation of resources would be governed by an international regime, not defined in the treaty. It also dictates “an equitable sharing by all States Parties in the benefits derived from those resources”.




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On the face of it, this may appear to put signatories to this agreement at a disadvantage, by constraining them as to what they can do.

Other global commons such as the high seas, Antarctica and geostationary orbit are well regulated by comparison, and given that the Moon Treaty envisages that “regime” of rules, then it may be time to define that regime, and, as a Treaty signatory with an interest in space resources, Australia has the motivation to lead that discussion.

How that initiative will evolve will depend on various factors, but the next time it gets a public airing, at the Off-Earth Mining Forum in November, we hope to have made significant progress.The Conversation

Andrew Dempster, Director, Australian Centre for Space Engineering Research; Professor, School of Electrical Engineering and Telecommunications, UNSW

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Explainer: what is energy security, and how has it changed?


Samantha Hepburn, Deakin University

The idea of energy security has been at the centre of much policy debate recently. The federal government defines energy security as the adequate supply of energy across the electricity, gas and liquid fuel sectors.

But this notion has become outdated, following the spate of electricity blackouts that have occurred in the past few years. The concept of energy security is now increasingly synonymous with resilience: responding to problems quickly and avoiding power outages.




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To be secure, the national energy market must ensure a sufficient supply of electricity at an affordable price and be able to respond to major disruptions. Being “energy secure” in this context now means having a backup plan. Unfortunately, Australia doesn’t.

All about oil

Historically, energy security was purely about oil supply. It evolved as a policy response to the 1973 Arab oil embargo. At the time, the aim was to coordinate among the industrialised countries if supply was disrupted, to avoid future supply problems and to deter exporters from using resources as a strategic weapon. Four key developments emerged from the embargo:

  • the International Energy Agency (IEA), whose members are the industrialised countries;

  • strategic stockpiles of oil, including the US Strategic Petroleum Reserve;

  • continued monitoring and analysis of energy markets and policies; and

  • energy conservation and coordinated emergency sharing of supplies in the event of a disruption.

Australia is not ‘secure’

When Australia joined the IEA in 1979, it was a net exporter of oil and was therefore exempt from the requirement to stockpile liquid fuel. Since this time, however, Australia’s oil production has peaked and is now in decline.

Reasons for this are various but include the reduction in oil refining capacity and significant increases in reliance on imported oil products.

In 2012 Australia became non-complaint with the IEA requirement that all members maintain oil stocks equivalent to at least 90 days of the previous year’s daily net oil imports.

In contrast with many other IEA members, Australia does not have a public (or government-owned) stockpile of oil and has instead relied on commercially held stocks. Currently, Australia has an aggregated fuel reserve of roughly 48 days, including about 22 days’ supply of crude oil, 59 days of LPG, 20 days of petrol, 19 days of aviation fuel, and 21 days of diesel.




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This lack makes Australia very vulnerable in a crisis – 98% of our transportation relies on liquid fuel, as do all of our major defence platforms. An extended disruption means our economy, policy force and army could cease to function.

While the federal government intends to return to compliance by 2026, our ongoing failure to understand and respond to a changing environment has resulted in us becoming, at least in the context of liquid fuel, energy “insecure”.

Are we ready for a new approach?

The modern energy landscape is complex, and energy security is a much broader and more dynamic concept than it was thirty years ago. Public expectations have also evolved. Australia must address a multitude of new challenges that include: climate change, integrating renewable energy, rising peak demand, rising domestic gas prices and a raft of new geopolitical rivalries.

In many parts of the world, mechanical and analogue systems traditionally powered by oil-products, have been replaced with automated and networked systems that run on electricity. As a result, the number of digitally connected devices has grown from 400 million in 2001 to in excess of 25 billion in 2018.

These changes make electricity and natural gas, in addition to oil, key supports of many facets of society. They ensure that the modern world is completely dependent on energy generation. Within this context, resilience is a critically important requirement.

Future energy systems, responsive to this enlarged concept of energy security will therefore look very differently. Large fossil fuel and synchronous generators will be replaced by a clean electricity system composed of small-scale, clean asynchronous generators. It will mix large renewable projects (which will mean extending the physical transmission network) with distributed energy generation (for example, from rooftop solar), and the network will require new systems to ensure coordination and stability.

Renewable energy is an important component of energy security but it works differently to fossil fuels. For example, inertia functions differently. Inertia is the capacity of a power system to respond to unexpected shocks, and its ability to react and stabilise the system’s balance.

Inertia slows down the rate at which frequency changes after a disruption in the grid, such as the failure of a power plant or a transmission line. Inertia has traditionally been provided by fossil fuel generators. However, within a mixed energy framework, renewables will provide synthetic inertia. For example, modern wind turbines can use the kinetic energy stored in the generator and blades to be responsive during grid stress. This can provide an efficient injection of power into the grid where it is required, and the delivery can be flexibly controlled to suit regional grid conditions. New storage technologies will, however, need to be incorporated into networks early so their application in practice can be understood.

These are all responses to a new understanding of energy security. Today, what is essential to the definition of energy security is not just an adequate supply of energy at an appropriate price but an adequate supply of sustainable, resilient energy at an appropriate price, which is responsive to the demands of a decarbonising economy.




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In light of this, energy security is perhaps even more crucial in our modern world than it was back in 1973. Understanding the evolving meaning of energy security means we are better equipped to comprehend the different ways in which our global interconnection can make us vulnerable.

We need to minimise risk and reduce exposure. We need to imagine what a secure energy framework of the future looks like. We need energy policy that is more responsive to the social, economic and environmental demands of modern Australia.The Conversation

Samantha Hepburn, Director of the Centre for Energy and Natural Resources Law, Deakin Law School, Deakin University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Coal does not have an economic future in Australia


Frank Jotzo, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University and Salim Mazouz, Australian National University

Renewables are stealing the march over coal in Australia, and the international outlook is for lower coal demand. Today the international Coal Transitions project released its findings, based on global coal scenarios and detailed case studies by teams in China, India, South Africa, Australia, Poland and Germany.

Our research on Australian coal transition – based on contributions by researchers at the Australian National University and the University of Melbourne – looks into the prospects for coal use in Australia and for exports, and the experiences with local transition in the case of the Hazelwood power station closure.




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Hazelwood closure: what it means for electricity prices and blackouts


Coal exports

Coal production in Australia is likely to be on a long term declining trajectory. Almost all coking coal (coal used for making steel) mined in Australia is exported, as is around 70% of steam coal (for electricity generation). Australia supplies about a fifth of the global steam coal trade.

A question mark hangs over the future of steam coal exports. Economic, technological and policy developments in other countries all point to likely falling coal use over time. The international coal transitions synthesis report expects that global coal consumption will go into reverse by the early 2020s.

In most industrialising countries, there are big concerns about local air pollution, and renewable power alternatives are becoming cost-competitive with coal. Add to that the pressure to meet Paris emissions targets.

China and India, on which much of the hopes of Australia’s coal export industry are pinned, mine coal themselves. When overall coal use in these countries falls, imports may be curbed, if only because of pressures to prop up domestic coal mining.

Coal in Australia’s power sector

Most coal used in Australia is for power generation. We are at the start of a fundamental change in the system, where coal power will be replaced by renewables, with energy storage and flexible demand-side response to firm up the system.




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This change now reflects market economics. New wind farms and solar parks can now provide energy at much lower cost than any new fossil fuel powered generators. A new coal fired power plant would need subsidies, take a long time to build, and suffer exposure to future carbon policy.

The competition is now between renewables and existing coal fired power stations. Wind and solar power cost next to nothing to run once built, so they are dispatched first on the grid and tend to bring wholesale market prices down. In turn, the economics of coal power plants deteriorates. They will not be able to sell as much power, and get lower prices on average for every megawatt-hour of electricity produced. New wind and solar is now contracted at prices close to the operating cost of some existing coal plants, and renewables costs are falling further.

Coal plants will be less and less profitable. They will tend to be shut down earlier, typically when major repairs or overhauls are due. Major refurbishments will tend to become unattractive. And the system does not need coal plants to run reliably. A combination of regionally dispersed renewables, pumped hydro and battery storage, gas plants and demand response will do the job.

It is difficult to predict just when coal plants will shut down. The following graphic illustrates the difference between a flat 50-year retirement pattern (as used for example by the Australian Energy Market Operator), with plants retiring at 40 years of age, in line with the average retirement age of plants over the past decade, and two illustrative scenarios that capture the fact that coal plants will come under increasing economic pressure.

In our “moderate” scenario, remaining coal plants retire at 55 years in 2017 and progressively retire younger until they exit at age 30 by 2050. In our “faster” scenario, plants exit at 50 years now, then progressively younger until they exit at age 30 by 2030.

Coal closure scenarios from Coal Transitions Australia report.

Even more rapid closure scenarios are plausible if the cost of renewables and storage continue on their recent trends. We do not present them here, instead opting for relatively conservative assumptions.

The pace of closure makes a big difference to emissions. In the “moderate” scenario, cumulative emissions from coal use are around 2.6 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide (GtCO₂) during 2020-50, and in the “faster” scenario around 1.8 GtCO₂.

As a reference point, a “2 degree compatible” emissions budget for Australia proposed by Australia’s Climate Change Authority has a total national emissions budget of around 5.8 GtCO₂ from 2020-50. Our “moderate” scenario has coal emissions take up around 44% of that cumulative emissions budget, while the “faster” scenario takes up around 32%. By comparison, coal currently makes up around 30% of Australia’s annual net emissions.

It is no longer true that reducing emissions in the electricity sector necessarily means higher prices. These days, and in the future, having policy to guide the replacement of ageing coal capacity with cheap renewables is a win-win for consumers and the environment.

We had better get ready

We better put our efforts in preparing for the transition, rather than trying to stem the tide. That includes a meaningful policy treatment of carbon emissions, and mechanisms to allow more predictable exit pathways. The relatively sudden closures of the Hazelwood power station is an example of how not to manage the transition.

Wholesale prices jumped up because the replacement investment takes time, and governments scrambled to provide support to the local community after the fact.

We can do much better. Australia is well placed for a future built on renewable energy. The change can be painful if it’s not well managed, but the future looks bright.




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The Conversation


Frank Jotzo, Director, Centre for Climate Economics and Policy, Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University and Salim Mazouz, Research Manager, Crawford School of Public Policy; and Principal at NCEconomics, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The pro-coal ‘Monash Forum’ may do little but blacken the name of a revered Australian


Marc Hudson, University of Manchester

The coal industry has a new voice in parliament, in the form of the so-called Monash Forum – an informal government faction featuring former prime minister Tony Abbott and backbench energy committee chair Craig Kelly.

The group, which also reportedly contains former deputy prime minister Barnaby Joyce alongside as many as 11 of his Nationals colleagues, is agitating for the government to go beyond its current energy policy and build a taxpayer-funded coal power station.

As several commentators have pointed out, the move is a calculated push by the usual backbench suspects to put pressure on Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, two weeks ahead of crucial talks with state and territory leaders over the design of the National Energy Guarantee (NEG).




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Perversely, the Monash Forum’s members want the NEG to prove its “technology neutral” credentials by including coal as well as renewables. And let’s not forget that the NEG policy was cooked up when it became clear that Chief Scientist Alan Finkel’s Clean Energy Target was unpalatable to Coalition MPs (but not economists).

What’s in a name?

In choosing to form a group like this, opponents of action on climate change are trying to give themselves gravitas, in three possible ways.

First and foremost, they are aiming for the “halo effect” of taking a known public figure and claiming some of his (and it’s usually a he) intellectual cachet. First and foremost here are groups named after scientific figures.

In 2000, a group of climate deniers, including the late Ray Evans and former Labor finance minister Peter Walsh, set up the grandly named Lavoisier Group to undermine progress towards Australian ratification of the Kyoto Protocol and a domestic emissions trading scheme. Economist John Quiggin probably said it best when he wrote that the group was “devoted to the proposition that basic principles of physics discovered by, among others, the famous French scientist Antoine Lavoisier, cease to apply when they come into conflict with the interests of the Australian coal industry”.

Then in 2011, opponents of Julia Gillard’s carbon pricing scheme created the Galileo Movement – casting themselves, like their Renaissance namesake, as heroic dissidents to an unthinking orthodoxy.

The second aim is to create a name that implies a stolid, no-nonsense approach to policy. One example is the now defunct Tasman Institute, which was an influential voice against climate action and in favour of electricity privatisation in the 1990s.

The third tactic takes this approach a step further, by creating a name that sounds impartial or even pro-environmental, thus obfuscating the group’s true intent, which is to stymie climate policy. Previous examples include the Australian Industry Greenhouse Network, the Global Climate Coalition, the Australian Climate Science Coalition, and the Australian Environment Foundation, launched in 2005 to the chagrin of the existing Australian Conservation Foundation.

The Monash Forum – with its implied connotations of nation-building and high-minded political debate – is perhaps trying to achieve all three of these goals, this time from within parliament itself rather than the surrounding policy development bubble.

Monash on the march

For the younger readers among us, John Monash was arguably Australia’s most revered soldier, described by British war historian AJP Taylor as “the only general of creative originality produced by the First World War”.

The Monash Forum’s founders also hark back to his role in helping kick-start the exploitation of Victoria’s enormous brown coal reserves in the 1920s.

But the Returned and Services League is not impressed that this former serviceman has been pressed into political service, declaring that “Monash’s name is sacrosanct and should be above this form of political posturing”.

What’s more, the name is bound to create confusion over whether it is affiliated in some way with Monash University (it isn’t), and there will doubtless be some unhappy faces at the Economic Society of Australia’s ESA Monash Forum (which is).

Will coal really make a comeback?

In seeking to deliver new coal-fired power stations, the new Monash Forum is attempting to mine a seam that has already been extensively excavated.

The Minerals Council of Australia, which [merged with the Australian Coal Association in 2013], has been trying for years to kickstart public support for coal. Who could forget the “Australians for Coal” and “Little Black Rock” campaigns, or last year’s “Coal: Making the future possible”?

But the council’s latest energy and climate policy statement refers to coal only once, prompting headlines that it has gone cold on coal. BHP has considered quitting the council over its pugnacious stance, while Rio Tinto is selling off Australian coal assets. The mining lobby may soon have to recalibrate its priorities – lithium, anyone?

The problem for coal’s proponents is that most Australians are keen to see the back of it. The promised global wave of “High Efficiency, Low Emission” coal plants has failed to materialise. And stunts such as Treasurer Scott Morrison waving a lump of coal in parliament are derided by a public who are far more energised by the prospect of renewables.




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When he was prime minister, Abbott tried to sabotage investment in large-scale renewables so as to keep the way clear for fossil fuels. But tellingly, he left subsidies for rooftop solar panels largely untouched, presumably realising that voters saw renewable energy as sensible and viable, on a small scale at least.

The problem for advocates of renewables, and climate action more broadly, is that winning slowly on climate change is the same as losing, as Bill McKibben noted last year.

The ConversationPerhaps that is the ultimate aim of the Monash Forum and those who share its goals. Renewable energy may win in the end, but it will win slowly enough that coal can earn one last payday.

Marc Hudson, PhD Candidate, Sustainable Consumption Institute, University of Manchester

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Shorten goes colder on Adani coal mine as the battle for Batman begins


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Bill Shorten said he had become increasingly sceptical of Adani in recent months.
AAP/David Crosling

Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

Opposition Leader Bill Shorten has taken a further step toward opposing the proposed Queensland Adani coal mine as he starts campaigning for the Batman byelection, where Labor is fighting off a strong challenge from the Greens.

Shorten was appearing with Labor’s candidate Ged Kearney, who on Friday resigned as ACTU president to contest the byelection.

Shorten seized on a Guardian Australia report that said Adani put in “an altered laboratory report” when appealing a fine for contamination of wetlands near the Great Barrier Reef.

Shorten said he had become increasingly sceptical of Adani in recent months.

If Adani was “relying on false information, that mine does not deserve to go ahead”.

He called on the government to investigate the claim, and said that if it didn’t, Labor in government would do so.

Kearney said she did not see the mine going ahead. “I know Adani are not good employers,” she said.

Adani will be a big issue in the byelection, with the Greens running hard on it and a grassroots campaign underway. Directly behind Shorten at his news conference demonstrators held up “Stop Adani” signs. A big protest is planned in Canberra when parliament resumes next week.

Earlier this week, Shorten hardened his position on the mine, telling the National Press Club: “We’re certainly looking at the Adani matter very closely. If it doesn’t stack up commercially or if it doesn’t stack up environmentally it will absolutely not receive our support.”

Last year, Shorten was looking on the positive side of the project. In May he said: “There’s no point having a giant coal mine if you wreck the reef but, on the other hand, if the deal does stack up, if the science safeguards are there, if the experts are satisfied, then all well and good and there’ll be jobs created.”

But he did not support the government giving a loan subsidy for the railway that would support the mine.

Greens leader Richard Di Natale tweeted on Friday:

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Meanwhile, the Greens moved to up the ante for Labor on the issue of power, releasing a policy calling for the return of the national electricity grid into public ownership, beginning with the acquisition of the interconnectors between regions.

It said the cost of acquiring the five privately owned interconnectors would be A$2.8 billion. “A return to complete public ownership can ensure investment decisions are made in the public interest, not in the interests of profit,” the policy says.

The ConversationKearney said renationalisation was worthy of consideration but Shorten was dismissive, saying it was not going to happen.

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Biomining the elements of the future



File 20180124 72597 1twk9y1.png?ixlib=rb 1.1

Joey Kyber/Pixels, CC BY-SA

Marcos Voutsinos, University of Melbourne

Biomining is the kind of technique promised by science fiction: a vast tank filled with microorganisms that leach metal from ore, old mobile phones and hard drives.

It sounds futuristic, but it’s currently used to produce about 5% of the world’s gold and 20% of the world’s copper. It’s also used to a lesser extent to extract nickel, zinc, cobalt and rare earth elements. But perhaps it’s most exciting potential is extracting rare earth elements, which are crucial in everything from mobile phones to renewable energy technology.




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The Mary Kathleen mine, an exhausted uranium mine in northwest Queensland, contains an estimated A$4 billion in rare earth elements. Biomining offers a cost-effective and environmentally friendly option for getting it out.

Biomining is so versatile that it can be used on other planetary bodies. Bioleaching studies on the international space station have shown microorganisms from extreme environments on Earth can leach a large variety of important minerals and metals from rocks when exposed to the cold, heat, radiation and vacuum of space.

Some scientists even believe we cannot colonise other planets without the help of biomining technologies.

How does it work?

Microorgaisms in tanks leach the minerals from any source material.
Courtesy of Pacific Northwest National Laboratory.

Biomining takes place within large, closed, stirred-tank reactors (bioreactors). These devices generally contain water, microorganisms (bacteria, archaea, or fungi), ore material, and a source of energy for the microbes.

The source of energy required depends on the specific microbe necessary for the job. For example, gold and copper are biologically “leached” from sulfidic ores using microorganisms that can derive energy from inorganic sources, via the oxidation of sulfur and iron.

However, rare earth elements are bioleached from non-sulfidic ores using microorganisms that require an organic carbon source, because these ores do not contain a usable energy source. In this case, sugars are added to allow the microbes to grow.

All living organisms need metals to carry out basic enzyme reactions. Humans get their metals from the trace concentrations in their food. Microbes, however, obtain metals by dissolving them from the minerals in their environment. They do this by producing organic acids and metal-binding compounds. Scientists exploit these traits by mixing microbes in solution with ores and collecting the metal as it floats to the top.

The temperature, sugars, the rate at which the tank is stirred, acidity, carbon dioxide and oxygen levels all need to be monitored and fine-tuned to provide optimal working conditions

The benefits of biomining

Traditional mining methods require harsh chemicals, lots of energy and produce many pollutants. In contrast, biomining uses little energy and produces few microbial by-products such as organic acids and gases.

Because it’s cheap and simple, biomining can effectively exploit low grade sources of metals (such as mine tailings) that would otherwise be uneconomical using traditional methods.

Countries are increasingly turning to biomining such as Finland, Chile and Uganda. Chile has exhausted much of its copper rich ores and now utilises biomining, while Uganda has been extracting cobalt from copper mine tailings for over a decade.




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Why do we need rare earth elements?

The rare earth elements include the group of 15 lanthanides near the bottom of the periodic table, plus scandium and yttrium. They are widely used in just about all electronics and are increasingly sought after by the electric vehicle and renewable energy industries.

The unique atomic properties of these elements make them useful as magnets and phosphors. They’re used as strong lightweight magnets in electric vehicles, wind turbines, hard disc drives, medical equipment and as phosphors in energy efficiency lighting and in the LEDs of mobile phones, televisions and laptops.

Despite their name, rare earth elements are not rare and some are in fact more abundant than copper, nickel and lead in the Earth’s crust. However, unlike these primary metals which form ores (a naturally occurring mineral or rock from which a useful substance can be easily extracted), rare earth elements are widely dispersed. Thus to be economically feasible they are generally mined as secondary products alongside primary metals such as iron and copper.

Over 90% of the world’s rare earth elements come from China where production monopolies, trade restrictions and illegal mining have caused prices to fluctuate dramatically over the years.

Most renewable energy technologies depend on rare earth metals.
Pixabay

Reports from the US Department of Energy, European Union, and the US intelligence commission have labelled several rare earth elements as critical materials, based on their importance to clean energy, high supply risk, and lack of substitutes.

These reports encourage research and development into alternative mining methods such as biomining as a potential mitigation strategy.

Heeding these calls, laboratories in Curtin, and Berkeley Universities have used microorganisms to dissolve common rare-earth-element-bearing minerals. These pilot scale studies have shown promising results, with extraction rates growing closer to those of conventional mining methods.




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Because most electronics have a notoriously short lifespan and poor recyclability, laboratories are experimenting with “urban” biomining. For example, bioleaching studies have seen success in extracting rare earth elements from the phosphor powder lining fluorescent globes, and the use of microorganisms to recycle rare earth elements from electronic wastes such as hard drive magnets.

The ConversationThe rare earth elements are critical for the future of our technology. Biomining offers a way to obtain these valuable resources in a way that is both environmentally sustainable and economically feasible.

Marcos Voutsinos, PhD Candidate, Geomicrobiology, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.