New group says coal not a dirty word

With the Latrobe Valley’s future in the balance, several very experienced local scientists and engineers have had enough – and they’re trying to do something about it.

“We’re like-minded people who want to see the Latrobe Valley progress in a positive way,” said chemical engineer Ron Camier.

“The power industry is being dismantled, but there is a lot of misinformation about the power industry in general and the Latrobe Valley specifically.”

Their group is called Speak for the Valley and its core members are Ray Burgess, a former chemist and materials engineer with the State Electricity Commission and Dave Swainsbury, a former SEC water chemist.

Fellow member Dr Camier previously worked for the SEC, the Victorian Brown Coal Council, the Coal Corporation of Victoria, Brown Coal Liquefaction Victoria, which operated Japan’s coal-to-oil pilot plant in Morwell in the early 1980s, and HRL.

Mr Burgess, who has run the Morwell Newsagency since leaving the SEC, decided to act after customers kept pressing him about the Valley’s future.

To brush up on his knowledge, he attended an engineers’ power conference.

He soon reached the conclusion that, with the energy outlook possibly 40 per cent renewables (mainly wind and solar) and 60 per cent ‘other generation’, no engineer had an alternative to coal for baseload power.

Natural gas was too expensive and nuclear had no ‘social licence’.

“Engineers who accepted that coal was the only option were all too scared to say so – such is the power of the climate lobby over everybody,” Mr Burgess said.

Dr Camier, who now runs a tourism business, said in 2010, the Hazelwood mine was extended to 2030, so last year’s closure wasted 13 years’ infrastructure.

“Rehabilitating the mine will sterilise the mine,” he said, as well as destroying a potential huge extra resource: Driffield to the west could be an open cut mine – “the design has been done for that” – and a third deposit lay under the combined Morwell and Driffield open cuts.

Dr Camier blamed renewables for the dramatic rise in electricity prices.

Solar and wind, which mainly produce in the middle of the day, were supported by subsidies and taxes on the base load power stations.

“The coal stations have to fill in the gaps around it – that’s not how they were designed to operate,” he said.

Their economic viability was hurt as the capital intensive coal stations did not run at a full 100 per cent, and their equipment and the power system were damaged.

“Because these massive systems go up and down in load, that creates what’s called ‘thermal shock’ in the boilers – tonnes of steel work heating and cooling is literally cracking the boilers. When Hazelwood closed, it had four of its eight boilers condemned because they were so badly cracked,” he said.

Renewables were not replacing baseload, but displacing it.

There was more demand for peak load, which was mostly done with gas.

“Natural gas is replacing brown coal, rather than renewables, and it’s far more expensive,” Dr Camier said.

He said the HELE (high efficiency, low emissions) brown coal stations in Germany were lowering emissions and were a model for the Valley’s high moisture coal.

These were all improvements, but the better technology was developed in Australia by HRL – integrated drying and gasification combined cycle.

“This unique technology produces 30 per cent more electricity from the same amount of coal as conventional brown coal power station, and thus 30 per cent less CO2,” he said.

“You could combine some of the HELE improvements with the IDGCC plant as well. It’s not one or the other.”

HRL had planned to build a 600MW demonstration plant a decade ago.

The Gillard government, backed by the Greens, would only allow a 300MW plant, but HRL said that did not have economy of scale to make it work.

The subsequent requirement that 600MW of conventional power be shut down as compensation was impossible.

HRL owned the 430MW Energy Brix (Morwell) power station, but that was not enough.

“We would have had to shut down someone else’s power station, which HRL of course could not do,” he said.

Dr Camier said coal as a high-grade energy source had more energy intensity than a low-grade form of energy such as renewables.

A flame more than 1000 degrees inside a boiler was a concentrated energy source, whereas solar, with maybe 30-35 degrees, was inherently inefficient.

Similarly, a steam turbine spinning with 3600rpm and high-pressure steam was more concentrated than a wind generator.

No matter how cheap the solar panels or wind turbines, “you’ve got to concentrate the energy,” Dr Camier said.

“To compensate, you need vast areas of solar panels and wind turbines to get relatively small amounts of electricity.”

He said he still talked with former Japanese colleagues.

“Some work as consultants for companies that are very interested in brown coal, they know the value of the coal resource in Victoria and are still actively working on ways to utilise it. They don’t want to just leave it in the ground,” Dr Camier said.

“Rather than gases like hydrogen, I would opt for liquid fuel like methanol, which is very cheap to manufacture and can be converted to other fuels and chemicals, and easy to transport. They are also looking at solid fuels to transport to Japan.”