Increasing prices to drive coal technologies

Increasing global oil and gas prices will be the key driver of alternative brown coal technologies taking root in the Latrobe Valley, according to a government-founded research and development company.

Acknowledging widespread scepticism towards new coal projects becoming a viable employment base for the Valley’s future, Brown Coal Innovation Australia chief executive Dr Phil Gurney said the rate at which new technologies were released would be largely dictated by macro-economics.

“It’s not a matter of ‘if’ but ‘when’,” Dr Gurney said.

“When the price of oil changed in the 70s, there was significant interest in (alternative) coal, and when gas and oil prices go up in future, we will see that again; it’s the amount at the (fuel) pump that will drive this. South Africa and China are already converting coal to liquid for their energy security needs, but that’s not a driver here, and because of the cost of the majority of these projects are in the hundreds of millions, sometimes billions, it’s going to be those large-scale economics which drive the commercial deployment of these projects.”

With 20 separate brown coal innovation projects under its portfolio, Dr Gurney said BCIA’s R&D breakthroughs would help drive down the cost of project development.

Dr Gurney pointed to a recent “high level outcome” in Direct Injection Carbon Engine technology, a form of power generation through which large diesel generators are retrofitted to combust with coal/water slurry fuel stocks, emitting 50 per cent less carbon emissions than current brown coal-fired power stations.

He said DICE testing at CSIRO’s Newcastle laboratories had delivered “exciting” results, showing the high reactivity of brown coal made Gippsland’s lignite best suited to the technology.

“With this particular power generation project, these large stationary diesel engines can be ramped up and ramped down quickly, acting as a peak power plant, which could match the loads from intermittent sources when we have increasing amounts of renewable in the grid,” Dr Gurney said.

He said a consortium of 13 companies were taking the research to develop a larger scale version of the technology in Japan.

Dr Gurney spoke to The Express after holding a public update on BCIA’s activities in Traralgon on Thursday, attended by about 60 people, where a key concern voiced was whether alternative brown coal technologies could be relied upon to play a role in the region’s future prosperity.