Australia’s Desire for Cleaner Coal Falls Prey to High Costs

BRISBANE, Australia — Environmental groups sounded the alarm when the government of the northeastern state of Queensland announced it would stop funding a zero-emissions power plant.

In those circles, rumors had been floating for weeks before the Dec. 19 decision that Queensland’s budget deficit-conscious premier and the coal companies were ready to pull the plug on the $4 billion ZeroGen plant.

„Unless you commercialize it, it’s not going to contribute,” Kellie Caught of the World Wildlife Fund-Australia said about carbon capture technology needed to reduce coal plant emissions.

Cutting power plant emissions that contribute to climate change is an uphill climb unless carbon capture and storage (CCS) technology can be made cheap enough for electric utilities to buy and use.

„Without CCS, the IEA projects that the cost of reducing global emissions will be around 70 percent higher,” said a November report by Australia’s National Low Emissions Coal Council.

Australia’s experience with CCS mirrors technical, financial and political hurdles experienced in the United States. Public-private partnerships in both countries have struggled to secure financing for zero-emissions power plant demonstration projects, but energy agencies in both nations are mapping out and testing sites for storing carbon emissions.

And, advocates say, power plant operators and electricity regulators simply don’t have the economic incentive to increase the capacity to squelch carbon emissions unless the federal government places a high price on carbon pollution.

„The aspirational 2015 target for an integrated commercial-scale project now proves unrealistic,” Ralph Hillman, president of the Australian Coal Association, told researchers and CCS program directors meeting in Melbourne in late November.

„In order to get the CCS deployed, ultimately you’re going to need a carbon price,” said Nick Otter, chief executive of the Global CCS Institute, based in Canberra. „In the end, the big driver will be a good, strong carbon price.”

The National Low Emissions Coal Council, which advises Australia’s ministries, in its recent progress report said the cost of climate measures „is increasingly being built into companies’ investment planning decisions.”

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