No DICE: Greg Hunt deceives the public about ‘clean’ coal project
Greg Hunt’s plan to reduce carbon emissions through cleaner coal is too little, too late.
Environment Minister Greg Hunt should be investigated for
misleading and deceptive conduct. He talks repeatedly about the
potential to clean up our coal-fired power stations, reducing their
emissions by 30-50%, by installing you-beaut Direct Injection Carbon
Engines, when the technology is drastically underfunded, unavailable at
scale, and has a colourful history of unsuccessful research sponsored
for very many years by one of ICAC’s favourite miners, Travers Duncan.
The Direct Injection Carbon Engine, or DICE, is a big diesel
of the kind used in ships, fuelled by a slurry of water and very fine
coal with most of the ash taken out. Hunt was at it again yesterday,
crowing about the passage through the Senate of legislation enabling him
to set up a $2.55 billion emissions reduction fund, the centrepiece of
the Direct Action plan, wording up reporters about the potential of DICE.
The key sentence is this: “DICE, the subject of a major
research project at the CSIRO, can cut emissions from a coal station by
up to half but is still at least five years from being ready to roll
DICE is not a “major CSIRO research project”. There is a
small team of two to four well-intentioned scientists and engineers
working out of the CSIRO’s energy labs in Newcastle, running a 4-litre,
single-cylinder diesel engine on coal, on a shoestring budget,
struggling to find industry partners. “Ready to roll out” means a
commercial-scale unit with a capacity of about 50MW — a tenth the size
of a smallish power station — might exist by 2019-20, if trials on a prototype engine prove promising. Any roll-out worthy of the term is decades away.
As readers are aware from Crikey’s investigations here and here and here and here, culminating in this Background Briefing for
ABC Radio National in July (to be re-broadcast this Sunday), DICE is
the latest iteration of a long series of attempts to get the ash out of
coal (by chemical leaching, or crushing the coal down to a fine powder
and physically separating it), mix it with water and burn it as a liquid
The key sponsor of the research over more than 25 years was
coal baron Travers Duncan, one of Australia’s richest men and chairman
of listed White Energy, who was found to have behaved corruptly by ICAC
after an investigation into its proposed acquisition of Cascade Coal,
holder of a coal tenement at Mount Penny, which would have generated
windfall gains for Cascade shareholders including Duncan and former New
South Wales politician Eddie Obeid.
Back in 1987, when chaired by the late Neville Wran, the
CSIRO partnered with Duncan and White Industries to develop an Ultra
Clean Coal (UCC) that could be used as a liquid fuel — even injected
into gas turbines or jet engines. Years of fruitless research followed,
centered on trials at a UCC plant in Cessnock, later flogged off to
Chinese miner Yancoal in 2009 and finally closed last year.
UCC had a forerunner too, a program called Supercoal, also
supported by Wran when he was NSW premier, until it was exposed as a
fraud in Parliament in 1980 by then-opposition spokesman on energy, and
qualified coal engineer Ted Pickering, a key source for the Background Briefing
program. UCC chewed up tens of millions of dollars in public and
private funds, forever holding out the promise of public benefits like
lower greenhouse gas emissions from coal and increased energy security,
which never eventuated. My Background Briefing revealed the main commercial outcome of UCC was to give White an edge when tendering for the Moolarben coal mine.
Duncan is not involved in DICE, but the long back-story
shows it would be unwise to put too much faith in the promise of clean
coal as a liquid fuel, let alone shovel more public money into it as the
federal government appears determined to do, with DICE featuring in the
Energy Green Paper and affiliated companies sharing in $20 million of
the grants made earlier this year. The most bizarre aspect of DICE is
that, even if it succeeds in every respect, energy market experts reckon
it isn’t competitive with technologies already available off the shelf.
Wind energy, for example, is cheaper to build and run than a DICE
engine and cuts greenhouse gas emissions by 100%. DICE is a glaring
example of too little, too late.
Which seems to suit Greg Hunt just fine. If we had all
century to tackle climate change, that might be OK. As the
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has again warned, we don’t.
DICE is simply not plausible at the front and centre of a national
strategy to combat climate change in 2014.