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The looming replacement cycle of coal-fired power

Apr 1, 2009 - Stewart Taggart - sciencealert.com.au

A massive retirement of coal-fired power plants looms around the world.

The resulting 'upgrade cycle' presents a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make real progress against climate change. Best of all, the opportunity is being offered on a silver platter. The real question is, what energy source will be ready to replace coal-fired power?

Natural gas and renewables like wind, solar and geothermal are available now. By contrast, carbon capture and storage won't be available until well after 2020. By then the 'replacement cycle' will be largely over.

Europe will be the first forced to choose a replacement, its coal-fired power capacity is rapidly reaching retirement age. An alternative will need to be found quickly, as a steep decline in energy is set to occur as plants are retired and replacements found. By 2020, this replacement cycle will be nearly half-way over. This hobbles latecomers looking to take over,like carbon capture.

Europe is also entering a huge replacement cycle Source: "An Overview of CSP in Europe and MENA," CSP Today, 2008

Australia is in much the same position. Starting in 2010, much of the country's clapped-out coal-fired plants will reach 40+ years of age. They will need replacement and carbon capture won't be ready. Another technology will have to be chosen. The only other choice is to allow old, dirty plants to continue to operate, but that could prove politically unpalatable.

Australia is entering a 'replacement cycle' of its own Source: " Uranium Mining, Processing and Nuclear Energy -- Opportunities for Australia?" Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, 2007

The United States is a bit further back in the replacement cycle. Even so, a huge number of coal-fired plants there will start hitting 40 years of age in 2010.

America's coal-fired power plant fleet is rapidly aging as well. Source: US Energy Information Service

Now, consider the potential replacements.

Renewables are on a rapid downward price curve due to innovation, aggressive investment and rapidly-accumulating experience.

Geothermal and wind energy are already cheaper than carbon capture and storage. Concentrating solar thermal power will be possible shortly. New price milestones are reached almost daily in solar photovoltaics. These cost-cuts are expected to continue, and even accelerate.

That simply isn't the case with carbon capture. It's forecast to start off expensive and only slowly decline in price.

This 'power of compounding' differential between renewables and carbon capture presents a huge handicap for coal as a cost-effective future energy source. Every month that goes by these dynamics will become more apparent, assuming the marketplace is allowed to do its work free from interference of vested interests.

Renewables are on a powerful downward price trend. Carbon capture and storage isn't Sources: IEA, ANSTO, ABARE, US NREL and others

DESERTEC-Australia recommends Australia invest in replacing coal-fired plants with renewables backed up by natural gas between now and 2020. This will provide the lowest-cost, most reliable, most environmentally-friendly, most secure combination of technologies for meeting Australia's electricity needs during the medium-term. Should carbon capture arrive as promised, it can compete on merits. But Australia shouldn't wait on a unproven technology with continually receding timelines.

Stewart Taggart is a director of Acquasol Infrastructure Ltd., a developer of environmentally-friendly power and water solutions building a municipal-scale solar desalination plant in South Australia's Upper Spencer Gulf. Stewart is also founder/administrator of DESERTEC-Australia, DESERTEC-USA and DESERTEC-China. DESERTEC promotes the concept of "Clean Power From Deserts."

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Endorsements for DESERTEC:

"It's time for Australia to begin a solar revolution, a renewable energy revolution."
Kevin Rudd,
Prime Minister Australia

"The new clean technologies like oxyfuels, carbon capture and storage and IGCC (integrated gasification combined cycle) are still unproven at scale."
Frank van Schagen,
Australian Cooperative Research Center for Coal in Sustainable Development

"(Clean coal) is a furphy, a pork pie to cover up the fact that there is no such thing as clean coal,
Karl Kruszelnicki,
science commentator

"(The) first commercial plants fitted with CSS are not expected for 10-15 years are likely to require a carbon price of at least US$25-30 per ton of C02."
Prime Ministerial Task Group on Emissions Trading, 2007

"A solar dish farm 100 miles by 100 miles in the southwestern U.S. could provide as much electricity as is needed to power the entire United States."
US National Renewable Energy Lab, 2005 "

Solar thermal can be the big gorilla on the grid. We can supply over 90 per cent of Australia's generation from this source on a continuing basis."
David Mills,
Ausra "

One kilometer square of arid land can continuously and indefinitely generate as much electricity as any conventional 50 MW coal - or gas fired power station."
"Concentrating Solar Power for the Mediterranean Region, German Aerospace Center Final Report"
German Aerospace Center, 2007

"Solar thermal technology will be on the ground, certainly in the United States and many other countries long before so-called clean coal and nuclear power"
Dr. Mark Diesendorf,

"The potential of the geothermal industry in Australia is truly staggering ... It provides clean baseload power and is potentially a very important contributor to Australia's energy mix in a carbon-constrained world,"
Martin Ferguson,
Minister for Resources, Australia "

Solar thermal technology provides a very plausible path to providing renewable energy cheaper than coal."
Larry Page,
co-founder, Google

"Concentrating solar power is a well-proven and demonstrated technology, with over 100 years of accumulated operating experience since 1984."
"Power Generation Options For Australia,"
Cooperative Center for Coal in Sustainable Development

"We believe that geothermal energy will play an increasing role in securing the world's future needs for clean energy."
Grant King,
Origin Energy