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Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Coal’s Next Alibi

The Coal Industry’s Coal-fed Algae Plan

By Guy Pearse 
Cover: August 2011
August 2011Medium length read
 

Imagine a supermarket called Coal’s where everything in your trolley was made with algae fed with carbon dioxide from a large industrial facility, such as a coal-fired power station. On your way in, the smiling coalmining union boss Tony Maher might greet you from a poster, saying, as he does: “Coal … It’s organic.” There’d be meat and fish raised on coal-based algal meal, bread, pasta, cereals, biscuits, dairy products, pet food, even baby formula – all with coal-derived supplements rich in protein, carbohydrates, omega oils and essential vitamins. There’d be soap, plastic, garden fertiliser, and a Coal’s service station outside selling algal biofuel. Sounds far-fetched but it’s technically possible, because CO2 from a coal-fired smokestack makes algae grow faster than broiler chickens. Might sound uncomfortably close to eating coal but the coal industry is licking its lips.

After all, why bury CO2 when it can be sold as an indispensable ingredient? You want energy independence? Biofuel that doesn’t compromise food crops? Sustainable aviation fuel? Agriculture and aquaculture for 9 billion people? Omega-3 sources that don’t drive fish stocks to extinction? Coal-fed algae to the rescue! The hard sell is brewing. No one has found the perfect catchcry but ‘bio–carbon capture and storage’, ‘carbon capture and recycling’, ‘CO2 to energy’ and ‘harvesting sunshine’ are being bandied about. Xstrata calls it “a totally green concept”. The Australian Coal Association claims it “aligns well with the modern sustainability mantra of reduce, reuse, recycle”. Peabody Energy says “algae transform carbon dioxide and sunlight into energy so efficiently” that they can create “emissions-free biofuel”.

Politicians who inculcated us with carbon capture and storage (CCS) are retreating. Coal’s best Howard-era friend, Ian Macfarlane, told Four Corners in late 2009 that CCS “will not materialise for 20 years, and probably never”. And the Coalition’s climate change spokesman, Greg Hunt, has meekly conceded, “we are now beginning to take the view that CCS is likely to be a bit slower than we expected”. Last December, Queensland Premier Anna Bligh abandoned the flagship ZeroGen clean-coal project. Hundreds of millions of dollars in federal CCS funding are being siphoned elsewhere, and Tony Abbott flags more cuts should he win office. Though research and development continues, the world still awaits its first commercial-scale coal CCS project.

Meanwhile fossil fuel interests that spruiked CCS are quietly pairing up with algae companies. Four years ago, Beach Energy planned an outback carbon storage hub at Moomba, South Australia, which never went ahead; now it’s pushing a 1000–2000 hectare algae farm by 2015. Five years ago, Anglo Coal’s Monash Energy Project championed burying CO2 in the Gippsland Basin. This never happened either, but in 2009 Anglo bought 29% of MBD Energy; MBD is now building algal ‘display plants’ using flue gases at Tarong (Queensland), Eraring (NSW) and Loy Yang (Victoria) power stations. They should all be up and running within a year.

Politicians who previously pushed CCS are climbing aboard. Abbott says algae might “completely eliminate” the emissions of Anglo Coal worldwide and cut emissions from our largest coal-fired power stations by at least 50% within a decade. He says it’s “putting emissions to good use rather than just burying them”. Macfarlane calls such projects “the most promising [technology] for capturing carbon”. Coalition MP Ewen Jones says it could lead to “a baseload power station with zero emissions”. Labor’s Kim Carr says algae is set to “revolutionise the way we deal with greenhouse gas emissions from power stations” and “pave the way for biological carbon collection on a much larger scale”. Having said that selling CCS technology to China and India could secure Queensland’s economic future, former Premier Peter Beattie now says algae could be the solution. Both sides of politics are pledging millions of dollars, while the CSIRO suggests 100 square kilometres of algal ponds could provide all of Australia’s fuel needs. Thanks to algae, says Bligh, “Australia and the world may be about to turn an important corner on being able to set and attain significant CO2 emissions reduction targets.” It’s eerily familiar rhetoric.

If it sounds too good to be true, it should. Algae don’t absorb much CO2 in darkness, so would absorb half a coal-fired power station’s emissions at best (the US Department of Energy says 20–30% is more realistic). Almost all of that would still end up in the atmosphere – via a car exhaust or other means. So, it’s not ‘zero emissions baseload electricity’, ‘renewable’, ‘closed loop’ or ‘permanent sequestration’. The benefits, such as displacing oil, are partly eroded by the process. If land for a commercial-scale algal farm isn’t available nearby, CO2 has to be trucked or piped over long distances. Energy is required to keep the water in which the algae grow moving, nutrient rich and at the right temperature. Harvesting and processing algae require more energy still. So, says the International Energy Agency, the carbon footprint of algal biofuels can be anywhere between 60% smaller and 50% greater than the fossil fuels they replace. 

The economics are equally unclear. Some suggest algae-based jet fuel at US$1 per gallon is just around the corner; others say algae biofuels become viable when crude oil reaches US$800 per barrel. While we wait to see who’s right, vast reserves of emissions-intensive ‘unconventional oil’ sources (tar sands, oil shale and coal to liquids) several times larger than dwindling conventional oil resources are already being tapped at commercial scale. That trend will accelerate without far more ambitious carbon constraints than anything currently contemplated. Meanwhile, though there’s no denying the passion of algae enthusiasts, no commercial-scale algae biofuel plant yet operates alongside a coal-fired power station.

Ultimately, financial viability may not matter if Big Coal’s new ally is merely its next alibi. The coal industry probably isn’t serious about algae on any major scale and will use it, like CCS, as a cover for expanding production. Even if the industry is serious, it’s still unsustainable. With coal use likely to rise at least 50% by 2030, it’s hard to see coal-based algae resulting in any net emissions reduction compared to today, even in the unlikely event of it being deployed worldwide to the maximum practicable extent. The shame is that algae growth doesn’t need enriching with fossil fuel CO2 – there’s other waste CO2 sources. It can be made in arid country, with nutrients from wastewater, saline groundwater or seawater, and with renewable energy. This would maximise the environmental benefits and offer the same cornucopia of products. Same organic supermarket, only a lot more enticing than Coal’s.

About the author Guy Pearse
Guy Pearse is a research fellow at the Global Change Institute, University of Queensland, a former political adviser, lobbyist and speechwriter, and the author of High & Dry and Quarterly Essay 33, ‘Quarry Vision’.

Coalminers' world tour
Phillip Adams and Guy Pearse in conversation on Late Night Live