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Why CCS should be front & centre

Coal remains big, big news.

If you enter “world coal use” in Google News, you will find 112,000 current entries.

(Put in “Kevin Rudd” and you will get 179,000 entries versus 114,000 for Tony Abbott. On the other hand “Barack Obama” will throw up 61.3 million entries!)

A large number of the coal references revolve around the issue of whether the fuel is on the way out or the way up.

The more strident green troopers have no doubts. “Note to Australia: thermal coal is over,” trumpeted one electronic newsletter the other day.

Something of the tone of these scribblings and others appearing in green-leaning papers like those of Fairfax Media can be found in a commentary last month by Ian Lowe, president of the Australian Conservation Foundation, who likened financial institutions lending money for coal developments to someone hiring a hit-man.

“As far as the law is concerned,” mused Lowe, “funding someone to commit a crime can be as serious as the crime itself,” continuing on to argue that it is “the height of irresponsibility” to plan new coal mines and export facilities.

A rather more sober perspective can be found in “Scientific American” – see a 31 July commentary headed “Funding curbs won’t slow coal comeback” — which notes that global coal use continues to rise despite recent announcements that some development banks will (mostly) no longer fund new generation burning the fuel.

As well, the US Energy Information Administration, which publishes a comprehensive international outlook annually, says in its 2013 survey, just released, that coal will remain dominant in electricity generation globally – it will be 22 per cent higher in 2020 than in 2010 and 22 per cent higher again in 2040 than in 2020.

And the International Energy Agency has just summed up a review of the coal sector by saying: “Coal remains the main fuel for electricity generation globally and its use is forecast to continue to rise in absolute terms (while) its share of total generation is expected to fall as the share of gas rises.”

If, as a writer in the “Australian Financial Review” said yesterday, climate change policy is a key electoral battleground in the federal election – I will take a bet now that, when what drove voters to their choices is analysed post-poll, climate change will not be in the first three issues – then what contribution this country can make internationally deserves more thought.

Only two spring to my mind: promoting greater use of nuclear power and contributing more uranium to the world market – and making a much stronger contribution to the development of commercially viable carbon capture and storage, given our prominent role as exporter of coal and gas.

CCS development, of course, is anathema to the Greens, who matter in the election because of their pursuit of influence in marginal seats and a hinge role in the Senate. The mindset is exemplified by Greenpeace, which in 2012 published a commentary entitled “Dead and Buried: The Demise of Carbon Capture and Storage.”

The Greens have gone out of their way in the term of government now ending to use their influence on the Gillard cabinet to see off further support for CCS – and that regime also kept on cutting back on CCS support committed by Rudd’s first administration as it sought expenditure savings.

The latest round of fiscal juggling has seen Rudd Mark 2 propose the deferral of another $200 million on CCS support.

Judge all this against the modelling the Gillard government used to support introduction of her carbon tax – where Treasury proposed that 30 per cent of Australian power generation at mid-century would be fossil fuelled plants using CCS – and against the view of the IEA, whose ministerial oversight committee Australia chaired while Gillard was in power, reckoning that the technology will contribute almost a quarter of the 80 per cent reduction required in global greenhouse gases by 2050.

In an interview recently with the “Australian Financial Review,” Nikki Williams, CEO of the Australian Coal Association, called for a “step-change” in the national approach for CCS, arguing for a stable, long-term policy and “adequate support” for early demonstration projects.

The Greens and their supporters make much of the fact that the World Bank and the European Investment Bank have given in to pressure to strictly limit (but not drop) support for coal plant in developing nations, but nothing at all of the facts that (a) Japan’s Bank for International Co-operation has provided more than $US10 billion for overseas coal projects and (b) there is an expectation that China, which wants to export generation technology, stands ready to follow suit.

In the real world, on IEA numbers, coal has met 45 per cent of the rise in global energy demand between 2001 and 2011. It fuels 40 per cent of electricity supply today and, to quote researchers from the IEA Clean Coal Centre, “can be expected to remain the backbone of the world’s electricity generation mix regardless of climate change policy.”

If, as the “Financial Review” asserts, this policy issue is a key part of the federal election, it should follow that how we plan to support CCS development should be a prominent discussion point.

Want to bet on whether it will be?

Perhaps rather more importantly, I would like to see a clear commitment from the Coalition that, should it win the election (and one close observer of the scene has suggested to me overnight that Labor’s likely result is 65 seats in the 150-seat House of Representatives), it will give priority to examining the state-of-play with CCS.

Logically, this would be through the new energy white paper the Coalition proposes to pursue in 2014.

Finally, it needs to be stressed that CCS is not just a coal issue. It is a gas issue, too, as that Treasury modelling for 2050 makes clear.

With $60 billion a year being earned by Australia in coal and gas exports plus our expectations of the domestic generation mix, this is not a topic for the back burner in my book.

The way ahead

One thing that hasn’t changed over the past 20 years is that the three most easterly States have the lion’s share of electricity customers and power generation.

Back in 1993, the pecking order was quite clear: New South Wales by the length of the straight, then Victoria and, a somewhat distant third, Queensland.

This played to power sector politics, too, as I found when I became chief executive of the Electricity Supply Association in May 1991.

If any two of the big three utilities could make common cause on an issue, they were pretty well assured of getting what they wanted – except when it was Victoria plus Queensland versus NSW where matters often needed some careful handling.

In terms of demand and supply, things have changed and the outlook is for Queensland to possibly start to jostle NSW for pole position.

One can sketch all this with numbers.

Go back to 1993 and there were 2.6 million NSW account holders with 1.9 million in Victoria and 1.3 million in Queensland – that was 77 per cent of the national customer base.

Today (for 2011-12, the latest yearbook of the Energy Supply Association), there are 3.49 million NSW customers, 2.63 million in Victoria and just over two million in Queensland – that’s 78 per cent of the customer base Australia wide.

Back in 1993, NSW dominated consumption with 47.2 terawatt hours, trailed by Victoria with 31.6 TWh and Queensland with 23.9 TWh.

For 2011-12, NSW consumption (these days including the ACT in the yearbook) was 69.5 TWh followed by Queensland with 44 TWh and Victoria with 43.5 TWh.

Back in 1993, NSW had 11,515 megawatts of grid-connected capacity, Victoria 6,653 MW and Queensland 5,748 MW.

Today, capacity is 16,533 MW for NSW followed by 13,234 MW in Queensland and 11,284 MW in Victoria.

Back in 1993, NSW plants produced 51.5 TWh versus 35.5 TWh in Victoria and 28.6 TWh in Queensland.

In 2011-12, energy sent out was 62.6 TWh in NSW followed by 54.8 TWh in Queensland and 52.2 TWh in Victoria.

What I find interesting is ESAA’s load forecasts for 2021-22: they see system energy in NSW reaching 77.7 TWh versus 64.8 TWh in Queensland and 53.7 TWh in Victoria.

Not only does that project a changed pecking order, but it raises the question of whether Queensland, with its resources base and continuing population growth, might get rather closer to NSW, with a potentially further declined manufacturing base and the ripple effect that will have?

The other interesting set of numbers – for me – is for fossil fuel consumption.

Back in 1993, NSW burned almost 21 million tonnes of black coal versus 12.2 Mt in Queensland.

This consumption peaked in NSW in 2007-08 when black coal use was 30.2 Mt and in Queensland in 2008-09 when it reached 22.5 Mt.

A range of factors – declining demand post-GFC and in the wake of fierce price spikes, the rise of gas as a fuel and the emergence of solar PVs on household rooftops plus the impacts of energy efficiency for buildings and appliances – has seen coal-fired generation fall back north of the Murray.

ESAA records it as 25.7 Mt in NSW in 2011-12 and 20.3 Mt in Queensland.

Brown coal burning in Victoria stood at 45.2 Mt in 1993 and peaked at just over 69 Mt in 2011-12.

What comes next in these three States – in terms of demand, of the use of renewables, of the role of gas and of the impact of carbon policies – can be expected to deliver a different State-vs-State picture at the end of the decade.

But how different?

The 2019-20 data I have obtained from the Bureau of Resources & Energy Economics projects generation from black coal (including some in the West) at 99.5 TWh at the decade’s end compared with 112.8 TWh nationally in 2011-12 (ESAA).

BREE forecasts 51.2 TWh from brown coal generation in 2019-20 compared with 55.6 TWh in 2011-12.

The agency also projects 56.7 TWh of gas-fired generation at that point compared with 34.5 TWh now.

So far as the “end of the era of fossil fuels” (that’s the Greens) is concerned, it’s a bit of fizzer.

Looking out to the end of the decade, the Australian Energy Market Operator, which has struggled with its forecasts for several years in a volatile marketplace on the east coast, sees the three LNG projects at Gladstone being a big contributor to the State’s power demand momentum, especially mid-decade.

Where we will really be at by the dawning of the 2020s is a guessing game and not irrelevant to the election that Kevin Rudd has called for 7 September.

What that election can deliver in terms of the political power-holder’s ability to govern is even more a cause for speculation.

Professional judges of this stuff are suggesting privately that the Coalition will end up with a House majority of eight to 12 seats – a far cry from the Labor carnage was was expected on 14 September if Julia Gillard had stayed in office – but what will the Senate look like?

How likely, in the scenario of a relatively small Coalition majority in the House and a baulking Senate, is it that we will go back to the polls in 2015 for a double dissolution election?

Or will a Coalition government soldier on until the second half of 2016?

Senior figures in energy supply management who are simultaneously hoping for and worried by it taking 12-18 months for policy to settle may be confronted by an uncertain landscape for another three years or more.

During this period, it is reasonably certain that gas price spikes will take over the “shock,horror” role of electricity prices over the past five years.

Given the barrier the Senate may pose to the Coalition changing the carbon price legislation, the single most important steps an Abbott government could take in 2013-14 are likely to be calling an urgent review of the renewable energy target (by the Productivity Commission?) and launching a new energy white paper process with a deadline for delivery of late next year.

In government, the Coalition would also be the early beneficiary of the review of east coast gas supply (being undertaken by BREE) that Resources & Energy Minister Gary Gray launched at the end of May with an end-2013 deadline for delivery.

There’s lots to play for — and that doesn’t just apply to candidates for election.

The super issue for gas users

This is a quote that should not be allowed to escape greater attention: “The end of the fossil fuel era is not the time to start a new fossil fuel industry.”

That comes from the Greens’ Senator Larissa Waters, “lead spokesperson for the Queensland Greens and responsible for the portfolios of environment, biodiversity and natural heritage, population,the Great Barrier Reef and Coral Sea, Cape York; world heritage, tourism and mining.”

She is, of course,continuing the party’s wordy war on coal seam gas.

A more vacuous, context-free offering it would be hard to highlight.

Contrast it with this comment at around the same time from the Australian Industry Group:

“Gas plays an enormous role in the domestic economy. It fires the boilers in breweries and the furnaces in factories. It is a critical direct input in to production in the plastics and fertiliser industries and others.

“Each petajoule of gas used in domestic industry allows $255 million in industrial output – and we risk immense harm to employment and economic activity if adequate, affordable gas supply is not available.

“We shouldn’t have to wait until the brewery has no gas for its boilers before serious attention is given to this issue.”

The Greens’ senator’s comment made it to the tabloid media. The industry group’s points did not so far as I can see.

And then there is Manufacturing Australia’s chairman, Sue Morphett, who thinks the domestic gas market is “broken” and claims that the situation, left unchecked, could cost 200,000 manufacturing-reliant jobs and $28 billion in economic activity.

That is the background to the report published this week by Mary O’Kane, the New South Wales chief scientist, the first instalment, it turns out, in work commissioned by the O’Farrell government in an effort to break the coal seam gas impasse with which it has landed itself.

O’Kane’s 144-page commentary has had a fair amount of media coverage, with interested parties grabbing at bits of it to make their (conflicting) points.

I am somewhat surprised O’Kane did not include in the report some material to place NSW’s gas use – its importance to consumers and the State economy – front and centre of the fair amount of contextual notes she provides.

My point is that, like electricity, gas is not produced – as are Holden cars, vacuum cleaners or coffee beans – in the hope that someone will like the brand and choose to buy it.

Both forms of energy are only produced and sold because of consumer needs and the majority of each petajoule provided is used by business.

The industrial activities fuelled feed employment for hundreds of thousands of people – whose earnings are then spent to the benefit of many more in business, who employ thousands of people………….

In the case of NSW, 42 per cent of the gas sold in the State is used by large industrial companies, 50 per cent by households, commercial and small industrial users and eight per cent in power stations.

O’Kane states the key problem for these consumers succinctly: “Maintaining gas provision at the level of prices at present is likely to be a challenge.”

Or, to put it another way: it can’t be done.

The issue now is what is the least-cost solution available to NSW consumers; there are no low-cost answers in the time available – contracts start rolling off at the end of 2014 and are all extinguished at the end of 2017.

Contrary to the Larissa Waters’ view, “success” in seeing off CSG development in New South Wales does not mean the State will replace gas with wind power or what-not; it means that the gas needed will come from elsewhere.

In other words, NSW is high likely to continue to source 95 per cent of its gas needs from over its borders.

Ironically, a fair chunk of this could be coal seam gas delivered from Queensland’s Surat basin to the Hunter Valley via a billion dollar pipeline.

It could (and probably will) be more gas from offshore Victoria delivered by expanding existing transmission.

It may be more gas from Cooper Basin resources, in the medium term shale gas, something else the Greens hate with a passion.

Federal Resources & Energy Minister Gary Gray has piped up to welcome the O’Kane report, asserting that it “demonstrates the natural gas industry has a bright future in NSW.”

He points to the CoAG standing council of energy and mining ministers and the work on a “national harmonised regulatory framework on natural gas from coal seams,” promising that it will be finalised late this year and “provide best-practice principles to allow mining and agriculture to co-exist, including consistent and clear advice for all land users.”

This is a good idea for the long term.

However, the problem for NSW consumers is not the long term, but the short to medium term.

O’Kane says in her report words to the effect that most of those in the NSW community with enough interest in the CSG issue to pay attention do not trust the State government to oversee safe development or the industry to pursue best practice.

“Trust,” says O’Kane in contact with the media, “is the super issue.”

True.

But, right now, time is the super, super issue – and it is running out for the 1.1 million NSW consumers of gas.

The price they will pay in all probability is not a shortage of gas – although there could be peak periods when things get decidely iffy – but significant price spikes.

And the buck inescapably stops with Barry O’Farrell.

It’s his government – how does he plan to lead NSW gas consumers to a less unpromising landing in the quite near future?

The numbers game

We all know that Australian electricity generation is falling, don’t we?

Of course it is – screeds are written about this in the mainstream and sideshow media.

Except it isn’t.

Sez who? Sez BREE.

The federal Bureau of Resources & Energy Economics has not quite made its mark yet with the broader energy stakeholder group, although the professionals know all about it.

One of those folk who enjoy sharing their thoughts with the world via emailed snipes at electronic media commentaries responded today to a piece I have had published on “Business Spectator” quoting BREE data – see “The real green-black divide” on www.businessspectator.com.au – by saying tartly: “That would be ABARE?”

Sorry, friend, that it would not be.

BREE was spun off the old ABARE – which is now ABARES, the Australian Bureau of Agricultural & Resources Economics & Sciences – back in July 2011 by Martin Ferguson.

The bureau’s (ie BREE’s) energy publications are a little slice of heaven for people like me who spend far too much of their time playing with stats.

While I have my arguments with their crystal ball stuff – see past posts about their projections to 2034-35 and 2049-50 – I am an unabashed fan of their material recording where we have recently been.

The bureau has a new stash of stats about national energy matters on its website (see www.bree.gov.au) and, as the saying goes, it is chock full of nuts.

Acting executive director Bruce Wilson points out that overall energy production increased by five per cent in 2011-12 over the previous financial year thanks to strong growth in the natural gas (up eight per cent), black and brown coal (up five and six per cent) and uranium (up six per cent) production sectors and despite decreases in crude oil and LPG (down six per cent) and renewable energy (down seven per cent) sectors.

In energy content terms, adds Wilson, coal consumption fell five per cent due to the large dip in demand from the iron and steel making industries.

Why the clean energy drop?

It relates, says Wilson, to decreased hydro-electric generation associated with lower water flows in south-east Australia in 2011-12 compared with 2010-11.

Now, back to that bit about electricity generation: BREE says it rose by about half a per cent in 2011-12 over the previous financial year despite the continuing slippage in demand in the east coast market, the “NEM.”

Why?

Because off-grid generation, largely responding to growth in the mining industry, has been “increasing rapidly,” says BREE.

Now here’s the fun bit if your inclination is to poke sticks at political bloviators – no names but you may be interested to read some prime ministerial claims (both of them) about the wonderful benefits of carbon pricing.

In 2011-12, according to BREE, total generation output was 253,851 gigawatt hours – of which black coal delivered 120,302 GWh, brown coal 55,060 GWh and gas 48,892 GWh.

On the renewables side of the fence, wind farms provided 6,113 GWh and hydro-electricity 14,083 GWh.

In 2010-11, these numbers were 252,619 GWh overall production and 116,949 GWh from black coal plant, 55,298 GWh from brown coal, 48,996 GWh from gas, 5,807 GWh from wind farms and 16,807 GWh from hydro systems.

The total generation output figure for 2009-10, by the way, was 241,566 GWh, an outcome partially influenced by an unusually warm September quarter in that financial year.

If you do go back as far as 2009-10, it is notable that black coal generation delivered 124,428 GWh and brown coal 55,968 GWh.

When these stats are compared with 2011-12, brown coal output is virtually static, black coal generation is a bit down and gas-fired power (which was 36,223 GWh in 2009-10) has risen quite sharply.

The rise in output from gas generation is almost double the total production of wind farms.

How irritating that we will have to wait until well after the federal election for the official numbers for 2012-13 after the recent fuss over the alleged impact of the carbon price from 1 July last year.

From a carbon emissions point of view, you see, the number that matters is the total for the nation from grid-connected and non-grid generation.

Tapping US energy perspectives

Randa Fahmy Hudome is not a well-known name to most people in Australian energy supply circles, but that is not the story in Washington DC where she has built a government relations and strategic consulting firm on the back of her extensive Middle East knowledge, her years in George W. Bush’s administration as an associate deputy secretary in the Department of Energy and a six-year spell in the halls of the US Congress as a counsellor to Senator Spencer Abraham.

She was one of the authors of Bush’s energy policy and one of her other key roles was to serve as the DoE’s representative at the International Energy Agency in Paris – where, during her time in the Bush administration, she helped co-ordinate strategy for international oil emergencies.

Her appearances in the pages of the “Wall Street Journal” and as an expert analyst on NBC’s “Today Show”, MSNBC, Fox News, CNN and Al-Jazeera television programs ensure that she is regularly in the American public eye these days, not least in the past month when she was warning that the country could face $US4 per gallon petrol bills in the near future.

Few things capture the attention of ordinary Americans more than the thought of “expensive gas.”

Australians with an interest in energy are getting two opportunities to hear Fahmy Hudome’s views in early August – first at next Energy Exchange Series breakfast in Brisbane on 7 August and then, the following day, in Sydney, at an Energy Policy Institute of Australia lecture.

The details of the EPIA lecture are on its website at www.energypolicyinstitute.com.au.

Lyall Howard, policy director in New South Wales for the Australian Petroleum Production & Exploration Association, Sam Maresh, Rio Tinto’s NSW government relations manager, and your’s truly will provide a panel with Fahmy Hudome for a discussion after her lecture.

Her focus in Sydney will be on the geopolitics of American energy independence, what Australia can learn from the American experience in managing controversy over unconventional gas production, the implications of American LNG exports for Australia’s trade and how the US is managing integration of its energy security and climate policies.

The Energy Exchange Series breakfasts have become something of an institution in Brisbane since 2011.

Past keynote speakers have included the IEA’s Fatih Birol, Zhang Guobao, chairman of China’s National Energy Committee, and Eileen Claussen, president of the Centre for Climate and Energy Solutions in DC.

The breakfasts are always sold out, attracting 280 to 350 attendees.

They are now co-hosted by Rio Tinto and the University of Queensland via the UQ Energy Initiative.

Fahmy Hudome’s theme for the breakfast on 7 August will be “US energy independence:successes, challenges and opportunities for global energy trends.”

Both events are worthwhile additions to the efforts being made on a number of fronts to analyse and place in context the transformative energy journey on which we are engaged in Australia.

Fission for solutions

In policymaking terms, the nuclear debate in Australia goes round and round and comes out…….nowhere.

Nothing that was said in the past two days at the “Nuclear Energy for Australia?” conference staged in Sydney by the Australian Academy of Technological Sciences & Engineering is going to change this in the short term, but some of the take-out thoughts from the forum may help as time goes by.

ATSE itself wants to be clear that it was not staging a pro-nuclear event, but rather one where speakers and an audience of 200 could explore a variety of views about the prospects and need for nuclear energy and, in particular, community concerns.

The Academy is to issue a communique about the proceedings. My own brief thoughts are as follows:

Above all, I remain of the view that we should have nuclear power in the Australian generation mix but unconvinced that the long list of actions needed to bring this about will see much happen this decade or reactors on the ground before 2030.

The special usefulness of this conference is the hole that some contributors drove below the waterline of the good ship “One Hundred Per Cent Renewables.”

Put succinctly, it is clear that, if we really are to pursue 100 per cent zero emissions, we will need a goodly chunk of nuclear power as well as wind and solar power — while the jury remains out on the contributions of geothermal energy and new fossil-fuelled plants with carbon capture and storage.

The Christine Milne/Greens push for 100 per cent renewables runs well aground on some straightforward numbers, provided for the ATSE by my old friend John Sligar, once chief scientist of Pacific Power, parent of the disaggregated New South Wales generation and transmission sector.

Put simply, today we benefit from security of supply on the east coast from 50 large generators of 100 to 750 megawatts capacity, producing most of our power needs at a wholesale price of $55 per megawatt hour.

Under the Milne/Greens concept — for what Sligar called “Twenty Exty,” that is 20X0 — we would have some 10,000 generators of capacity from one megawatt to five megawatts and a wholesale cost of around $110/MWh, with the aluminium smelters (and their interruptible load, a very useful balance today) departed and other manufacturing dependent on cheap energy also gone.

We would also need about a dozen new high voltage transmission lines, but we would have hardly any carbon emissions.

“We’d go from what the critics call a gold-plated network,” said Sligar wryly, “to a platinum one.”

And we would have the cost to taxpayers of dealing with a large number of stranded assets.

The other presentation that particularly caught my attention came from Ron Cameron, the Australian who heads the development division of the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency.

“Not enough attention has been given to the longer-term costs to the total electricity system of different technologies,” said Cameron.

In fact, the Milne-led Greens, other radicals and the greenwash media give no attention to this aspect at all as they prate numbers from modelling about long-run marginal costs. (Ironically, a staple of their defence of the RET is to point to its cost in today’s power bills compared to the network charges.)

For my money, I think we may get all the way to 2020 before — in the policymaking sense — we start having a serious revision of electricity supply.

At that point, according to numbers I have elicited from the Bureau of Resources & Energy Economics, we will have what you might describe as the same but different power mix.

(BREE irritated me by leaving out the 2020 data from the power projections it published last December, opting to put up 2034-35 and 2049-50. I have badgered the agency to get the 2020 numbers and it has finally come good.)

BREE’s view of 2020 (this for generation, not consumption, remember, and nationally, not just the east coast) is as follows:

Black coal 99.5 terawatt hours, brown coal 51.2 TWh and gas 56.7 TWh.

In other words, fossil fuels will still contribute 68.6 per cent of what BREE expects output to be.

Wind power will contribute 43.9 TWh, the long-term workhorse hydro-power 17.1 TWh (which assumes Tim Flannery’s perpetual drought hasn’t happened) and rooftop solar 6.7 TWh.

Geothermal will contribute zip, bio-energy 1.7 TWh, big stand-alone solar PV 0.8 TWh and solar/gas hybrid generation 7.3 TWh.

What these BREE numbers tell me is that we will still be fishing for a radically-different approach seven years from now and I suspect that, by then, there will be enough happening globally in terms of nuclear development for fission to start being taken seriously here, too.

Cameron’s summation at ATSE appeals to me: “Nuclear energy remains the only large dispatchable source of low-carbon electricity other than hydro-power. We can expect to see increased use of nuclear power globally coupled with falling subsidies and moves away from specific binding targets for renewables.”

To which one should add the caveat that this assumes CCS won’t achieve a commercial breakthrough.

One of the ATSE speakers lamented “the lack of a quality debate based on good information.”

That has been my mantra for a long time and ATSE deserves credit for providing a forum for a quality debate — but the simple fact is that we will have much more of the same in actual power supply for the rest of this decade despite the best efforts of the wild-eyed ranters.

(The necessary caveat here is that we may still have an east coast market with depressed demand, especially if the manufacturing sector continues to have the wobbles.)

In the meantime, let us not forget, in the context of all the fretting about global warming, as the ATSE discussion threw up, that power demand in China will grow inexorably — by 2034 it will be, on current projections, higher than today’s combined demand in the US and Japan.

And they won’t be going for 100 per cent renewables.

A greener shade of black

Chance’d be a fine thing, as the idiom goes, but wouldn’t it be nice if providing context in media energy stories became the norm rather than a rarity?

There’s a good example of this in the recent media coverage of the World Bank paper on energy financing and the so-called greening of the bank that it is seen to symbolise.

The media shorthand for this paper is “World Bank cuts off funding for coal” or, as “our” ABC put it in a lengthy radio current affairs report: “World Bank to stop funding coal-fired power stations in developing countries.”

(Eventually the ABC report gets round to a caveat or two, but its main thrust is as set out above and this is what will resonate with casual listeners.)

And, of course, our greener friends see things clearly: “World Bank abandons coal: green light for clean micro-grids,” says one report.

So what’s the broader story?

Well, the bank, for a start, makes it clear it will continue to fund coal plants in countries where there is no better alternative – possibly starting with Kosovo – and it certainly not shunning fossil fuels.

Most immediately, the bank is considering a request to finance a 600 megawatt Kosovo brown coal project and its president, Jim Yong Kim, says: “The people of Kosovo face freezing to death if we don’t (do this).”

The not-to-be-ignored point (unless you have a green axe to grind) is that the World Bank’s core clientele are the 82 countries that are both poor and energy poor, home to 1.8 billion people, two-thirds of whom have little or no access to electricity.

As one US think tank, the Centre on Global Development, has put it, in commenting on the bank’s position, there are, in fact, two big issues for these countries: their health problems and the economic benefits provided by access to electricity.

Milton Catelin, CEO of the London-based World Coal Association, has harked hard on this, pointing out to America’s Fox News that the raison d’etre of the World Bank is supposed to be working towards eradicating global poverty rather than “jumping on the climate change bandwagon.”

Catelin argues that it is ridiculous to think the bank today “has anything to do with poverty eradication – it has become nothing more than another international body.”

The bank, which annually funds $US50 billion worth of infrastructure around the globe, has actually lent just $US5 billion over the past five years for coal-fired generation developments. Of this, $3 billion has gone to one project in South Africa.

While it has been loudly yelled at by green advocates for doing so, this aspect of its lending is minor when its own budgets and the overall global outlays on coal and gas plants are taken in to account.

Also germane is the fact that the bank has outlayed $US49.2 billion to support energy projects between 2007 and 2012, of which a quarter has been spent on renewable energy developments, including hydro-electric plants and biomass.

Part of the broader context in considering what the bank is saying is that there are reportedly 1,199 new coal-fired plants (with a total proposed capacity of 1,401 gigawatts) under consideration around the world at present, 75 per cent of them in China and India – and the former definitely isn’t looking for World Bank help to build its projects.

Apart from these two, the top 10 countries on the list of coal developments being planned are Russia (48 GW), Turkey (36 GW), Vietnam (34 GW), South Africa (22 GW), the US (20 GW), Ukraine (14 GW), Poland and Germany (each 12 GW).

Taken together, what this second-tier group is considering amounts to almost 10 times the existing coal generation fleet in Australia and most are not seeking bank aid.

To circle back to what I consider to be the really big issue, as the World Bank itself sets out up front in its paper, one fifth of the world’s population – 1.25 billion people or 60 times the Australian population – lives today without any access to electricity and two-fifths of the world’s population rely on solid fuels (eg wood, charcoal,dung and coal) for cooking and heating, resulting in 3.5 million people (almost the population of Melbourne) dying annually from the effects of indoor air pollution.

This is not something that gets called to mind when our Prime Minister postures for the media in North Queensland on the urgent need to ensure our children and grandchildren have access to the wonders of the Great Barrier Reef by our embracing an emissions trading scheme.

World Bank officials, briefing journalists, concede that there are “a certain amount of countries” who can’t be told they will have to wait 15 years for new renewable forms of power generation to become viable.

Their paper also indicates that a large part of the bank’s renewables focus will be on hydro-electric developments – which led “our” ABC to devote almost half of its radio report to the deep unhappiness of the more radical with large-scale hydro power.

And, yes, of course, the bank is supporting other renewable energy projects – and makes a fair bit of this in its report, pointing to wind farms in Turkey, concentrating solar power plants in North Africa and so forth.

However, the bank also says rather clearly that it will “scale up its (financing) engagement with natural gas,” committing to assisting developing countries to address barriers to on the supply chain from exploration to pipelines to power plants.

(The World Coal Association also has the irrits with the bank’s emphasis on gas at the expense of more-affordable coal when, it says, the criteria should be reducing poverty and supporting development.)

If your sole perspective as a media outlet is the need to boost the rush to certain kinds of renewable energy to “save the planet,” some of the bank paper is heresy, but, having spent the first 30 years of my life in Africa and having first-hand knowledge of the horrors of poverty for large numbers of people, it seems to me that much more context and balance are needed in assessing what the bank is really saying even as it works to paint itself a greener shade of black for political reasons in the Western developed countries.

Perhaps it also says something that the Chinese government has waved the bank paper through the consultation process; after all, what difference does it really make to what’s happening on their ground?

Behold the elephant

The more shrill the Greens and Christine Milne get in the run-up to the federal election about embracing renewable energy for most electricity production, the harder it becomes to ignore the real elephant in the halls of power: nuclear generation.

Reactors now provide 11 per cent of the world’s electricity and Australia’s sales of uranium result in some 400 million tonnes a year of carbon abatement overseas – but we still eschew this power source here for purely political reasons.

The Australian Academy of Technological Sciences & Engineering, for one, thinks it is time that we had another hard look at the nuclear issue and it is convening a two-day forum in Sydney next week to do this.

Martin Thomas, one of the organisers and the deputy chairman of the nuclear inquiry John Howard set up in the waning stages of his prime ministership, says the forum will try to provide answers to a host of questions that crop up whenever nukes are on the menu.

These include:

To what extent (and at what cost, I’d add) can nuclear plants reduce Australia’s carbon emissions?

Can nuclear power stations provide low-cost baseload electricity to charge low-emission electric vehicles at night?

Is there a role for small modular reactors in our regional and remote areas?

Is today’s regulatory environment adequate to handle nuclear energy?

Can we provide the workers skilled in engineering and technology that a nuclear power fleet will need?

One of the speakers ATSE has lined up is Ron Cameron, head of the nuclear development division of the OECD Nuclear Energy Agency, whose line of argument is that nukes remains the only large dispatchable source of low-carbon electricity, other than hydro-electric schemes, which are not readily available (including on Australia’s east coast).

However, asks Cameron, do the economics of nuclear make sense in Australia and can proponents overcome long-held public concerns?

His paper will address one of the more irritating habits of arguers for large-scale use of renewable energy: the tendency to play with plant-level costs while skipping over the costs to the electricity supply system as a whole.

As his abstract for the ATSE forum says, these impacts have become an issue of major concern due to the introduction of significant amounts of wind and solar power (eg in Germany) whose intermittency fundamentally affects the structure and the working of the power system.

Tony Owen, now a professor of energy economics in the Internation Energy Policy Institute, UCL Australia, and author of a report on the generation issues for New South Wales for the now-departed state Labor regime, is being wheeled in to talk about the fundamental question of whether federal governments should go on adding targeted measures to drive renewable investments or whether the so-called national energy market – the east coast system – needs to be reformed to allow the technology-neutral competition to decide what happens.

“Failure to do so,” his abstract warns,”may delay investment in low-carbon technology and raise the cost of decarbonising the electricity sector.”

Inherent in this approach, of course, is need for a carbon price to be part of the system, an issue Kevin Rudd is well and truly dragging back in to the election debate.

One of the more interesting ATSE papers, I think, will come from Ben Heard, who is director of ThinkClimate Consulting.

He says that it is commonly assumed Australians are anti-nuclear and therefore that achieving community support for a switch to nuclear power is perhaps unachievable.

This perception, he argues, “is substantially out of step with reality,” claiming that majority community support is “well within reach.”

In a session that I am chairing for ATSE, Michael Angwin, CEO of the Australian Uranium Association, will make a fundamental point that it is highly unlikely a nuclear power industry can emerge here unless we unscramble the mess that has been made of constraining uranium mining in a country that has some of the world’s lowest-cost deposits.

Australia, as is often asserted out by nuclear advocates, is the Saudi Arabia of uranium, with more than double the resource of the next player, Kazakhstan, and 2.6 times the deposits in Canada, number three on the ladder.

The first step to use of nuclear power, Angwin argues, is normalisation of Australian uranium mining.

Also on the speaking list is engineer and author Martin Nicholson, an indefatigable critic of the “zero carbon” campaigners, who will present a paper arguing that, by taking up the nuclear option rather than an all-out dash for renewables, capital investment out to 2050 can be reduced by $50 billion, decarbonisation can be delivered with less expensive wholesale and retail bills and 29,000 jobs can be created in the nuclear sector.

He’s not a speaker at this ATSE forum, but I think that Stephen Martin, the ex-politician who now leads the Committee for the Economic Development of Australia, has done the best recent job of setting the scene for a proper policy debate on the issue.

“If Australia is serious about mitigating the effects of climate change,” says Martin, “then nuclear power must be on the table. If we want to improve environmental outcomes, if we want to lower emissions, nuclear energy is a no-brainer.”

Maybe so, but most policymakers from all mainstream sides of politics over almost a decade since John Howard tried to bring the issue back in to the room have done their best (at least publicly) to ignore the elephant.

ATSE, to its credit, wants to change this.

More questions than answers

First an apology: This is Power blog has been off air since last Friday thanks to a problem at the IT company that is the server for this website, a substantial glitch that occurred while it was upgrading part of its system.

As a result, neither you nor I could access “TiP” until yesterday.

Meanwhile the turbulent state of the energy debate has been churning away.

Most of the current attention, quite reasonably, has been on resurrected Prime Minister Rudd’s decision to can the carbon price a year earlier than Julia Gillard planned, but I would like to go back to his National Press Club speech in Canberra and the bits in it about energy.

First of all what did Rudd actually say?

In the context of reporting on four (separate) meetings with the Business Council and the ACTU in a fortnight, he listed “seven broad areas of necessary policy work,” the first of which was energy policy.

“Australian electricity prices are too high by global standards,” he said. “This affects the competitiveness of all firms large and small. Of course, it also affects individual consumers.”

(As it happens, Energy Minister Gary Gray released in May the latest energy review of the Bureau of Resources & Energy Economics, which, using purchasing power parity modelling, shows that Australian average household electricity prices are still in the lowest quartile of a 30-nation OECD ladder. The average, of course, includes Western Australia – where prices are still well below being cost-reflective.

(The Productivity Commission, in its report on networks tabled in federal parliament in late June, see page 231, makes the point that comparisons are “somewhat sensitive” to the use of exchange rates – with one parameter {used by the major users in their lobbying efforts} they are 33 per cent higher than the EU average and with another they are on a par with the European average.)

Rudd added then that the carbon price represented less than 10 per cent of these bills but he is now spruiking a $380 savings for householders resulting from his switch to emissions trading.

This is for 2014-15 only, his Treasurer (Chris Bowen) has had to point out and it represents more than the impact of the tax on energy bills.

The tax has added about $3 a week to residential bills (just over $150 a year) and $1.10 a week to gas bills ($57).

The costs of the RET and of over-the-top rooftop solar PV “bonus schemes” remain in place.

At the Press Club Rudd also said: “The primary reason for the hike in electricity prices appears to be the current system of national electricity regulation which has allowed excessive rates of return for publicly-owned transmission and distribution utilities, which have become cash cows for various State and Territory governments.”

(To which one should respond that, yes, almost the last act of Julia Gillard’s regime was to table the very large PC report – plus a 66-page government commentary – which identifies (a) what all governments collectively did wrong with the last round of regulatory reforms that took effect as Rudd’s first government came to office, (b) the steps now being taken to ensure that future regulatory determinations deliver “moderate” price increases and (c) the gains that can be made through rolling out smart meters, introducing time-of-use charges and deregulating retail prices.

(Smart meters and ToU charges are tricky political territory – which is why Julia Gillard was never prepared to speak up strongly for them even as she attempted to pinch the cost benefits promised by the Productivity Commission post their introduction as a promise for 2014.)

Finally, Rudd said: “Reforms are needed for the supply of competitively-priced gas for Australian businesses and households.

(Two days earlier his Energy Minister had told the Committee for the Economic Development of Australia that “We know that gas prices on the east coast would be going up irrespective of the development of the LNG industry. This is due to the increasing costs of developing natural gas, whether that be onshore or offshore. A gas reservation policy could not lead to lower gas prices or more gas. Calls for intervention in the market only serve to dampen any appetite for the very investment needed to bring on new supplies. What is needed is not intervention but the removal of impediments to getting gas out of the ground.”)

Looking at media coverage of the speech, I see the chief political correspondent of the “Australian Financial Review” believes that “the push to boost coal seam gas” will include “less environmental regulation, pushing New South Wales to fast-track approval of two major projects and leaning on the Victorian government to lift a CSG exploration moratorium.”

One doesn’t have to wonder how the Greens will react to this.

Pushing NSW and Queensland Coalition governments to privatise their networks is also being touted as step along the path to lowering prices – and both governments have made it clear that they will not act in this area without a mandate from their voters at the next State elections.

The Energy Supply Association bobbed up to remind the Rudd government – and, one would think, specifically the reincarnated Prime Minister – that “the ultimate solution to lower energy bills is continued reform of markets to increase competition and empower consumers with more choice and better incentives to be smarter in the way they use energy.”

This is true, but it won’t alter the fact that there is an ongoing need for the replacement of ageing network infrastructure – outbursts on prices are nothing compared to outbursts on blackouts – and that no government is going to leap to undo reliability standards, even though the ones now in place are though to be more than is really required.

As for “gouging” of customers by NSW and Queensland taking about $2 billion a year in tax equivalent payments and dividends from networks, what is the Prime Minister’s solution for income to be foregone?

The money is spent on other community services – and, in the case of Queensland, partly in funding the expensive arrangement to keep power bills the same in the rural and regional areas of his home State as they are in the south-east corner where he lives.

The Queensland outlay on this will cost about $2 billion cumulatively from this financial year to 2015-16.

The Press Club speech raises an interesting question: is Rudd prepared to step up to the plate laid down by the Productivity Commission and commit to working with the States to drive the east coast roll-out of new metering technology, new tariffs, the necessary assistance for low-income people who will be hurt by ToU arrangements and full-scale retail price deregulation?

If not, he lays himself open to the Coalition’s charge that his Press Club appearance was “more flim-flam.”

As for coal seam gas development, Gary Gray has already provided the government’s get-out-of-jail card for the election campaign in the shape of the BREE report on east coast gas that is not required to be delivered until the year-end.

All in all, it seems to me that Rudd at the Press Club raised far more questions on energy issues than he provided answers, even taking in to account his subsequent step on the carbon price.

Doing it by numbers

One of the more eagerly awaited business happenings of my year is the appearance of “Electricity Gas Australia,” the yearbook of the Energy Supply Association – and the new version was published late today.

Now call it cupboard love – I was responsible for the Electricity Supply Association version from 1991 to 2003 – but I think this volume is in a league of its own when it comes to energy data, and each year’s issue is never far from my elbow as I write for the Coolibah website, the OnPower website and “Business Spectator.”

The key message that ESAA wants to convey this year – the media statement is on their website – is that a shift in greenhouse gas emissions from power generation began as far away as 2007.

Chief executive Matthew Warren also wants to drive home the point that a substantial increase in renewable generation in an east coast market where demand has been steadily diminishing has shrunk sales values by 40 per cent in four years – to the tune of $4 billion.

However, he warns, low wholesale electricity prices are not necessarily a good thing. “They make life tougher for all suppliers,” he says,” including renewable energy generators – and they could have long-term effects on reliability and stability in the NEM.”

My first port of call in the yearbook is almost always the rolling 10 year load forecast. This has proved to be remarkably accurate over a period of at least 25 years but it has never had to cope with a down-trending demand line in the past.

One snapshot will suffice to show how the ESAA members’ mindset has changed over the past year as it has become only too apparent that the slide is a trend not a blip.

Last year, looking to 2015-16, the yearbook forecast that east coast market system energy (that’s the electricity sent out from power stations, not consumption) would reach 225,589 gigawatt hours.

This year, the annual’s projection for 2015-16 is for 205,053 GWh – that’s a nine per cent reduction in the outlook.

The other numbers I have seized on tonight with a certain amount of amusement are the data for consumption of black coal in New South Wales and Queensland.

Now you can hardly have missed the federal government and various persons of green persuasion carolling in the recent days about how the implementation of Julia Gillard’s carbon price on 1 July 2012 has led to an impressive decline in greenhouse gas emissions.

The rather large fly in this ointment is to be found in the fact that coal-burning in the two States peaked at more than 52 million tonnes a year in 2007-08 and 2008-09 and had dropped, according to ESAA, to just over 46 million tonnes in 2011-12. It’s a remarkable tax measure that can have such an effect before it is even applied.

The brown coal numbers (for Victoria and South Australia) went the other way: up from just over 69 million tonnes in 2007-08 to almost 72 million tonnes in 2011-12. One will expect to see them lower for 2012-13.

The other early data to which I gravitate are the figures for consumption.

What the new yearbook shows, in brief, is this:

East coast residential demand in 2011-12 was 6.9 per cent down on the total for the previous financial year – 50,028 gigawatt hours versus 53,745 GWh – with the big drop in Queensland, home of the biggest rush to rooftop solar power, where household consumption fell 10.3 per cent.

Business demand overall, on the other hand, was slightly higher in 2011-12 compared with the previous financial year, although it dropped in NSW.

The “NEM” totals are 128,857 GWh (2011-12) versus 127,908 GWh.

Demand dropped only in NSW (down more than two per cent) and Tasmania (down 2.6 per cent). In Queensland, the rise was 5.5 per cent, reflecting perhaps an improvement after the floods.

Finally, here’s a set of numbers from this preliminary surf through the statistics that’s rather interesting.

A year ago, ESAA was still forecasting that national power generation demand for gas would rise from 343 petajoules in 2010-11 to 446 PJ in 2015-16 and 558 PJ at the decade’s end.

The new yearbook forecasts a reduction in generation demand for gas Australia-wide from 332 PJ in 2011-12 to 260 PJ in 2016-17 and only 271 PJ at the decade’s end.

Faced by forced use of renewable energy (mostly wind power) through the RET, a continuing rise of solar PV use, projections of significantly higher east coast prices and an overall slump in “NEM” demand, the dash for gas has run out of puff.

What will make a lot of politicians frown is that these projections also show a marked decline in manufacturing demand for gas – tumbling from 368 PJ in 2010-11 to a projected 300 PJ in 2016-17 and 271 PJ in 2020-21.