Coal has started a new game. This is how they CAN win...and how we can stop them

Have you felt it? That change in the air? That shift in the landscape?

It feels suitably, subtly seismic, because it’s the feeling of the giant Australian coal sector on the move.

They prevented the Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme. They saw off the carbon pricing mechanism. They have nearly outlived the Renewable Energy Target, watching calmly as it delivered problems to an energy market that was never designed with weather-driven supply in mind.

Lumps of coal being fondled in parliament. Proposed changes to funding energy funding schemes. New ads on Australian television and new generations of hungry executives.

The lost decade of energy policy has been painful for nearly all players, but as the giant incumbent, coal has been more-than-able to absorb that pain and bide its time. That time, clearly, is now.

It’s so easy, it’s so tempting for Australian environmentalists to sit in an information bubble and tell ourselves “this is impossible. Coal is on the nose…banks won’t finance…divestment movement…solar and wind, solar and wind, solar and wind…storage…".

It’s so easy and so dangerous because this is possible. They can win. They know it or they wouldn’t have launched the game.

Never forget… Australia negotiated an increase  in greenhouse gas emissions in the Kyoto Protocol and then bragged about meeting its targets. That should not have been possible and you better believe it happened. Scoffing at the Australian coal industry today is like scoffing at the prospects of Donald Trump during 2016: internally satisfying perhaps and unbelievably foolish.

The coal lobby goes into the game with massive advantages.

Firstly, their opposition is divided. Those who want an urgent departure from fossil fuels are predominantly in two camps: those who insist upon renewables-only and those who insist on including nuclear technologies in a technology-agnostic policy setting. We fight each other, consuming resources and public goodwill that might otherwise present a loud voice against a new generation of coal.

Bright New World is in the nuclear supporting technology-agnostic policy camp. We want a strong and united ENGO voice against coal and we don’t need our fellows to give up anything, only accept something new in the fold. We don’t need them to campaign for nuclear, we just need them to park that battle, join us in the urgent task at hand and then see their preferred technologies thrive in a strong policy environment. Several renewable technoloigies most certainly will.

Secondly, the prospect of serious competition to coal, being a nuclear sector, is hopelessly gagged and conflicted to the extent that it exists at all. Australia’s uranium industry advocates exist under the Minerals Council of Australia . There is and will be no assertive suggestion from the uranium lobby that nuclear technology has a vital role in displacing Australian coal even though they know it could. Meanwhile Australia’s nuclear industry professionals in ANSTO, ARPANSA and ANSO exist in a permanently apolitical status. Best informed to tell us how a nuclear sector might fit into the Australia economy, they cannot and will not advocate. The existing Federal prohibition on nuclear technologies ensures no nuclear vendor will put in the time or effort either.

The field is clear with the exception of the renewables lobbies. But that doesn’t worry them. Remember, the Australian coal lobby told us what could shut them down seven years ago and it isn’t wind and solar. It’s nuclear. Up for grabs today is a renewal of the electricity sector that will include a lot more renewables AND a brand new coal sector because of what the renewables can't do. Renewables are not a threat to Australia coal. They make a lovely little vehicle.


That’s where we find the next part of the coal game unfolding: the total exclusion and outright denial of nuclear technologies in the current National Electricity Market review. It has, astoundingly, pretended that nuclear technologies do not even exist while giving ample coverage to intermittent renewables.


But then, is this so outrageous? Our environmental NGO sector, in this case The Climate Council, does exactly the same thing.


Climate Council denial.jpg

One of the consultation questions in the NEM Review should give every environmentalist in Australia a cold shudder:

3.5 What is the role for low emissions coal technologies, such as ultra-supercritical combustion?

The premise of this questions is fallacious. It’s clearly part of a longer-term attempt to infiltrate the Australian psyche with the notion that ultra-supercritical coal is “low emissions”. Here at Bright New World we are having none of it.

Appendix B of the preliminary report lists ultra-super critical combustion of brown and black coal as responsible for 845 g and 700 g CO2-e kWh-1 respectively. The labelling of such processes as “low-emissions” is fallacious. We call upon this review to cease assigning that label to these technologies. 

A review such as this should be serving the national public interest. As we stated in no uncertain terms, there would be no public interest in ultra-supercritical coal were nuclear technologies on the table.

Under existing analyses, ultra-super critical coal technologies deliver inferior economic outcomes than nuclear technologies [2, 3].
Under no conceivable analysis could ultra-super critical coal technologies deliver better environmental performance than nuclear technologies in terms of greenhouse gas and particulate and other air pollution.
Ultra-supercritical coal technologies would be expected to deliver similar or inferior reliability than new nuclear reactors (ten-year average energy availability factor (2005-2015) for the ~100 GW US nuclear sector of > 0.91)  . 
There is no reason why the development of these technologies, over and above the development of a domestic nuclear power sector would be in the public interest. 
It is only the absence of nuclear technologies that suggests supercritical coal technologies could be considered to have any role whatsoever in Australia’s future electricity mix.

The new coal game has started and Australia’s environmental movement is divided and behind the play. Every time the environmental movement ignores or attacks nuclear technologies and insists the world will run on renewables alone, a segment of perfectly intelligent and attentive Australia inches toward the coal lobby. That is how they can and quite possibly will win. 

If you are a member of one of Australia’s environmental NGOs please, do one of two things.

Contact them and ask them to form a policy that has a fighting chance of beating coal.

Failing that, join and support the NGO that already does.  

Ben Heard