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Dr Topper in Australia (part 2)

Posted: 7 November 2013 By: Dr John Topper

The visits in Australia had distinct differences in character. First, in Melbourne I visited the Victorian government team putting together next April’s 3rd Low Rank Coal Symposium. We went through the draft programme and particularly which international guests to invite and what they should cover. Andrew Minchener will be there to represent IEA CCC and to give a keynote address. There is an associated Young Energy Professionals (YEP) programme for the under 35’s. Basic expenses for these attendees will be covered. Details about application to be a YEP will be on the Symposium website shortly.
I also visited Dr Phil Gurney who runs the Brown Coal Innovation Australia (BCIA) programme to discuss the importance of continued R&D into options for using the large brown coal resource that they have in the Latrobe Valley.
The impression is one of being at a cross roads regarding Victorian brown coal. It has 50-60% water content and it has been used overwhelmingly in power stations adjacent to the open cast mines; cheap to mine, straight into the power plant producing some of the cheapest power in the world. The youngest of these stations is over 30 years old, operating with efficiencies of less than 30% (best obtainable on similar fuel in Germany is around 43-44%!) Following privatisation around 20 years ago the industry is characterised by small utilities with relatively small balance sheets. So, finding the cash for building new replacement plant is not proceeding satisfactorily against a background of uncertainty about carbon mitigation. This has led to serious consideration being given to coal conversion via gasification to produce a range of chemical feedstocks.  We know from experience in USA, South Africa and China that this is technically possible. But to do it at a scale appropriate to Victoria’s resource requires billions of $ investment which will take a significant time to mature into profitable returns. This is not a situation conducive to solo efforts by industry. I believe that to get such a project moving requires significant government underwriting. Alongside such support it is necessary to develop the human capital by supporting appropriate R&D; at least be a knowledgeable buyer/leaser. Few want to see a huge stranded asset in Victoria so I hope that financial support is forthcoming. I understand that serious discussions on some form of exploitation have taken place with both Japanese and Chinese organisations and superficially this does seem sensible.
Unsurprisingly, in Canberra, the presentation and discussions with Commonwealth government officers was a little more orientated towards CCS. My presentation did not review technical progress as I believe that has been so good in the past decade that the non-technical issues of finance/incentives, regulation and public perception (not such an issue in Australia as in Europe for instance) are the important areas. I did use the opportunity to talk about high efficiency low emissions coal fired power technologies and our view on how these assist the case for CCS in OECD countries and may be a necessary precursor in key non-OECD countries.
The meeting in Brisbane had the best turnout with many of the attendees being old friends. This was also the liveliest meeting with frequent questions and comment. Being populated with hard coal industry people for whom export is the major objective, the messages about the role and importance of high efficiency were well received. If your major markets are in developing Asia where security of supply and economic growth trump other factors this was no surprise. On our recent IEA CCC study list is one the Bangkok ExCo selected on preparation of micronized coal as an adapted marine diesel engine feed fuel. This idea has been around for a long time with previous attempts at development notably in Japan. An Australian group has been re-inventing the approach for a few years (ExCo members will remember a presentation by Louis Wibberley in London several meetings ago). The domestic interest is in providing power at around the 50MWe unit size to remote industrial operations with mining activities at the head of the list. If they get to the point of completing large scale long engine runs without undue erosion problems then we have something with ultimately much wider potential application than mining operations in Australia. There are 1.3 or 1.4 billion people, mostly in sub-Saharan Africa and the Indian sub-continent without so much as a light bulb. But a significant number of these regions do have coal reserves.  Coal and energy poverty alleviation could go hand in hand if the economics look sufficiently encouraging.
The UCG workshop  on 7-8 November was attended by over 50 people with a series of really good presentations. There will be a separate blog about this by John Kessels.


About the Author

John Topper is CEO of IEA EPL Ltd



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