'Clean coal' power station: at what cost?

July 12, 2008

Some unionists are angry that despite all the warnings about the climate emergency and Australia's high per capita greenhouse gas emissions, the Victorian ALP government has given the go-ahead to a $750 million 400 megawatt brown coal power station in the Latrobe Valley.

Australian Manufacturing Workers Union activist Ben Courtice, who helped organise the recent 4000-strong climate emergency rally in Melbourne, told Green Left Weekly that the new power station was "a giant leap backward" for the struggle to halt greenhouse gas emissions.

The proposed power station is a joint venture between Channel Seven boss Kerry Stokes' HRL and the Chinese corporation Harbin Power. But the Brumby government will contribute $50 million and the federal government $100 million.

Announcing the new coal plant on July 1, Victorian energy and resources minister Peter Batchelor declared that his government was "taking action to protect the environment and the future of the Latrobe Valley community and ... we are taking up the climate challenge". Construction of the new plant will provide just 300 jobs, with 36 permanent jobs when the plant is operational in 2012-13.

In 1994, then-Liberal premier Jeff Kennett sold off the State Electricity Commission (SEC), including its research arm, HRL, to a consortium including Stokes. This privatisation led to thousands of jobs disappearing — in 1989 some 11,000 workers were employed in the power industry compared to just 2500 today — and was accompanied by social devastation of the community.

The "clean coal" power station will be using the Integrated Drying Gasification Combined Cycle process, which, according to Friends of the Earth, will pump an annual 2.4–2.7 million tonnes of carbon dioxide into the air.

The government claims the production process will reduce CO2 emissions by 30% compared to "best practice" for brown coal power generation. In fact, the new HRL power station will release the equivalent amount of emissions from the so-called cleaner black coal-fired station.

Australia is the largest coal exporter in the world (30% of the global total, worth about $22.5 billion in 2006-07 according to the Australian Coal Association). Australia's reliance on coal for its energy needs means that the per capita output of greenhouse gas emissions is among the highest in the world.

Apparently, Victoria has a 500-year supply of coal. Batchelor has already made it clear that the state government intends to allocate $130 million to "clean coal" technology — its unhelpful contribution to the climate crisis.

However, according to Melissa Fyfe in the July 6 Melbourne Age, the prohibitive cost of retrofitting Victoria's dirty brown coal power stations with "clean coal" technology might well make conversion to gas, or the building of new power stations, a more viable option.

Fyfe said that none of the companies running the brown coal power stations in the Latrobe Valley have indicated support for carbon capture option. John Boshier, executive director of the National Generators Forum which represents the Latrobe Valley brown coal power plant, is not surprised. He told the Age that the companies would never do it because it would send them broke.

Luke van der Meulen, Victorian president of the Mining and Energy Division of the Construction, Forestry, Mining and Energy Union, told GLW that the privatisation of the power industry in the Latrobe valley has led to the gas-fired power stations being run down and unable to meet the increasing energy demands.

"In 1989, when power was still government-owned, the SEC investigated green energy and a reduction of power consumption", van der Meulen said. "All of this was lost with the power sell off. Private companies have an interest in people using more electricity because it makes them more profits. Had [the power industry] stayed in public hands, we could have invested in renewable energy, instead of building expensive power stations."

Close to 90% of Victoria's electricity needs are supplied by brown coal and, partly for that reason, van der Meulen doesn't see any immediate alternative to the new power station. "To meet the immediate demand of the Victorian power grid, we have to use coal. However, in the longer term, we have to get into better energy management and serious renewable energy systems", he told GLW.

Apart from the exorbitant costs of investing in unproven "clean coal" technology, Courtice told GLW that relying on coal for energy is completely incompatible with the need to reduce CO2 emissions to below 325 parts per million (ppm) as recommended by NASA climate scientist James Hanson.

"At the moment, it's more like 385 ppm, and we have to start phasing out coal now. The climate emergency is the most serious threat humanity has ever faced. We don't have decades left to avert dangerous runaway climate change."

Courtice would like to see more unionists campaign for immediate jobs-rich energy conservation measures. While he doesn't want this coal plant to proceed, he agrees with van der Meulen that the existing manufacturing capacity in the Latrobe Valley could be expanded through the injection of significant funds into infrastructure which would help the transition process away from coal-fired power to sustainable energy.

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