New Generation Coal – Coal Industry Desperation?

In an attempt to clean up its reputation, Big Coal in Australia has been seeking a new look with “NewGenCoal”, aka New Generation Coal, via its companion web site which is funded by the Australian Coal Association (ACA); an industry body representing Australia’s coal producers.

The NewGenCoal site is dedicated to showcasing new technologies that the coal industry claims will decrease CO2 emissions from coal-fired electricity generation by as much as 90%. The claims have met with a great deal of criticism, with some stating that clean coal is an oxymoron and “less black isn’t green”; particularly with cleaner sources such as wind energy and solar power available.

One of New Generation Coal’s most vocal critics, Australian Greens Senator Christine Milne has described the New Gen Coal concept as “on the nose”  and clean coal generally as “fool’s coal”. Senator Milne has also been critical of the Federal Government’s support of the coal industry, stating today that Prime Minister Rudd “cannot hold back the tide of green energy that is rolling across the planet because Australia happens to be currently focussed on coal.”

Two of the technologies the coal industry is pinning its hopes on is carbon sequestration and low-emissions systems. Carbon sequestration technology, also known as called Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS)  is largely untested and its long term viability and safety hotly debated, with spectres of the Lake Nyos disaster looming in relation to possible leakages. Additionally, transporting the liquefied CO2 is hugely expensive and the amount of energy needed in liquefaction is substantial. CCS doesn’t reduce carbon emissions as such – it could be described in most simplistic terms somewhat like landfill or sweeping dirt under a rug. The waste is being buried. GreenPeace has called CCS “a dangerous distraction”.

A House of Representatives Committee has endorsed the draft laws allowing CCS, but in those laws the Australian government, and ultimately the taxpayer, will assume legal liability if a disaster should occur. This taxpayer liability is something that Senator Milne has strongly objected to, stating that the coal companies should carry the full responsibility.

Low emissions technologies heralded by New Generation Coal are not no-emissions answers, rather an attempt at harm minimisation. For example, Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle (IGCC) and scrubbing technologies will not remove mercury totally from emissions. Additionally, strip mining for coal is incredibly energy intensive and environmentally damaging. Between IGCC, scrubbing and sequestration, the additional costs would need to be borne by the consumer, which would make renewable energy such as wind and solar even more competitive – and these are by their very nature cleaner by a great margin. It’s for this reason that some say the future of New Gen Coal and clean coal concepts generally should be seen as a phase out strategy rather than a continuing and long term proposition and more focus should be placed on clean and green energy sources.

In what could be a further sign of desperation from the Australian coal industry, renewable energy commentators have also noted that NewGenCoal appears to have been spending a good deal of money on bidding for keywords such as “solar power” and other totally non-coal related renewable energy terms on some major search engines in order to display advertising; presumably to divert the attention of a public that’s becoming increasingly receptive to energy generation technologies less polluting than coal.