Coal: The Missing Link

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From Watts Up With That?

Originally published in the Spectator | Australia

Brian Wawn

Coal will be indispensable for electricity generation in Australia for the foreseeable future. Of its competitors, natural gas is much more expensive for base-load electricity (that is, continuous electricity); nuclear power is at least a decade away; and wind and solar energy are weather and cloud-dependent and thus unreliable. In addition, they are both proving expensive.

Nevertheless, coal is barely part of the public discussion on future energy developments. Instead, it is a discussion dominated by renewables and natural gas. This should change.

Coal: should emissions rule it out?

When it comes to coal, the first question to ask is whether or not emissions should rule it out. Reliable and low-cost, coal-fired electricity produces a higher level of greenhouse-gas emissions than electricity based on natural gas, renewables, or nuclear power. Does this matter?

Yes, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the United Nations body responsible for information on climate change. In its latest Synthesis Report (March 2023), the IPCC states:

‘Limiting human-caused global warming requires net-zero carbon-dioxide emissions … climate change is a threat to human well-being and planetary health … there is a rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future for all.’

But there are significant dissenters from this view.

For example, writing in The Australian on March 29, 2023, US climate scientist, Judith Curry, said that the IPCC’s ‘extreme scenarios’ on emissions and global warming are ‘now widely recognised as implausible’.

This ‘has rendered obsolete much of the climate impacts literature and assessments of the past decade’. These extreme scenarios are ‘still featured prominently’ in the IPCC’s latest Synthesis Report.

Furthermore (notes Professor Curry), the comments in this latest report are much more alarmist than those in the IPCC’s assessment reports, which are written (unlike the Synthesis Report) by scientists.

Steven Koonin, a prominent US physicist, author of the 2021 book, Unsettled, and former senior official in the Obama administration. says that ‘the science is insufficient to make useful projections about how the climate will change over the coming decades, much less what effect our actions will have on it’.

Professor Ian Plimer, a well-known Australian geologist and Spectator writer, says, ‘If governments, the United Nations or climate activists want to stop the normal planetary process of climate change, then they need to stop plate tectonics, stop variations in the Earth’s orbit, and stop variations in solar output.’

Professor Michael Asten (retired Professor of Geophysics at Monash University and former senior principal geophysicist at BHP) is part of an international team researching the growing area of climate science: natural cycles of climate change over the past 2,000 years.

These cycles include warm periods in Roman times up to the year 500 AD and in Medieval times between 900 and 1300 AD, followed by a cool time for 550 years. Up to 1850, global temperature variations had nothing to do with emissions.

Are natural cycles more important – and possibly much more important – than human-induced emissions? This is not yet known, and until it is known, ‘climate science should be viewed as a work-in-progress, not something settled’ in Professor Asten’s view.

In short, while scientists agree that human-induced emissions cause global warming, they do not agree on whether such emissions are the main driver of such warming.

Given that this issue is unresolved, there is no case for outlawing coal because of emissions. There may be such a case in the future – and there may not be.

Nuclear power: not a short-term option

Nuclear power is not a short-term option. Unlike coal, nuclear power is emissions-free. But nuclear power in Australia is at least 10-15 years away.

This reflects the time required for achieving sufficient political consensus to enable development of the first commercial nuclear plant, followed by regulatory changes, site selection, planning approvals (including consideration of radioactive-waste disposal), engineering design, and construction.

As a result, nuclear power will do nothing to address electricity problems of the next decade. And even when in place, it will be complemented by other forms of electricity generation (e.g. coal), possibly for decades.

Wind and solar energy: emerging problems

Meanwhile, wind and solar energy have serious emerging problems. First, wind and solar energy are proving expensive. Up to the year 2000, when coal dominated electricity generation, Australia had among the lowest electricity prices in the world.

Since then, the contribution of wind and solar energy to electricity generation has grown from almost nothing to over 20 per cent today. Australia now boasts some of the highest energy costs in the world. Reasons for this include: high transmission costs associated with wind; solar farms which are often located a long way from the main grid; the need for backup battery power; coal and gas plants forced to operate below capacity (but remain online); and the cost of maintaining frequency and stability in the grid.

Wind and solar energy are unreliable and will continue to be so, even with battery support.

Mark Mills of the Manhattan Institute explains the battery problem in relation to the US: ‘The annual output of Tesla’s Gigafactory, the world’s largest battery factory, could store three minutes’ worth of annual US electricity demand. It would require 1,000 years of production to make enough batteries for two days’ worth of US electricity demand.’ (The New Energy Economy: an Exercise in Magical Thinking)

And note that, in the US and Australia, wind and solar droughts can last more than two days.

In most countries, including Australia, relying on renewables plus batteries for base-load electricity presents seemingly-insuperable financial and logistic problems.

The prevailing political view is that the future lies with renewables. But unless these two problems are overcome, renewables may not have much future at all.

Open-up discussion of coal

In avoiding public discussion on coal, Australia is putting its head in the sand. Liberal leader, Peter Dutton, has done Australia a service this month by opening-up a discussion of nuclear power and challenging Labor’s approach to natural gas. But the Liberals are yet to face up to the importance of coal, talking much more about the importance of natural gas.

And the natural gas industry is not helping with its view that coal is its rival – that ‘by replacing higher-emitting fuels (meaning coal) with cleaner natural gas we can substantially reduce emissions.’ (Australian Petroleum & Production Exploration Association, 10 August 2021)

For those people demanding a continuing reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions, natural gas (like coal) is part of the problem, not part of the solution.

In January 1940, early in the second world war, Winston Churchill – to become British prime minister in May 1940 – said of European countries remaining neutral:

‘Each one hopes that if he feeds the crocodile enough, the crocodile will eat him last. All of them hope that the storm will pass before their turn comes to be devoured. But I fear – I fear greatly – the storm will not pass.’

Churchill was prophetic. Most of the neutral countries concerned (notably Belgium, Holland, Denmark, and Norway) were overrun by Germany a few months after his January 1940 statement.

The natural-gas industry in Australia is effectively ‘feeding the crocodile’. It should consider the possibility that, after coal, it is next on the list. And treat coal as an ally, not a rival.

The Liberals should think similarly. 

Footnote: concerning cost and other problems associated with solar energy, see the article by John Mole, Solar: a risky waste of time and money, Spectator Australia, 17 May 2023.

Brian Wawn is a director of Energy Bureau, a non-profit organization committed to stimulating discussion on climate and related energy policies.