July 2008


In the dark?

By John Birmingham
In the dark?

Sydney power station, 1930. © Hoppé - Corbis.

The same dirty old energy

It might seem odd to anyone who's endured more than five minutes of a grey, wet winter's day in Canberra, but the national capital enjoys more sunshine than any of Australia's other major cities. It is also an earnestly middle-class place, home to a high proportion of well-meaning, tertiary-educated latte sippers: exactly the sort of people who were, until 13 May this year, the perfect demographic for Phil May and Sophia Moody's small business.

The Mays own and run Solartec, a boutique renewable-energy company specialising in solar panels. Phil May, a country boy, didn't start out as a "tree-hugging type", according to the company's homey, avuncular website. He more or less blundered into renewable energy as a business after buying a rural property that came with the promise of free electricity from a pre-installed solar-panel system. Within six months, May understood "why solar power often gets a bad rap from some people". The tiny panel array, a couple of second-hand batteries and a clunky 600-watt inverter weren't good for much beyond running a few lights and a small TV for a couple of hours a night.

May persevered, though, and taught himself all about photovoltaic arrays, battery banks, current shunts and regulators. A fitter machinist and licensed electrician, he became so enamoured of the technology that he and his wife set up Solartec, and began changing the roofline of Canberra and its surrounds. They also sell and install wind turbines, solar pumps, deep-cycle batteries and lighting systems. But the big, rectangular midnight-blue modules, the ones that generate electricity from the sun and allow you to sell the excess back into the grid: those were their bread and butter. Until the evening of 13 May. That night, when Treasurer Wayne Swan decreed that the $8000 rebate for installing such systems was being abolished immediately for anyone whose family income exceeded $100,000, he also abolished the May family's business model. Orders collapsed, as they did for solar-panel installers large and small all over the country.

The industry had no idea this was coming. Given the Labor Party's courting of the green vote, there had been no reason to suspect anything untoward might happen. Rodger Meads, the managing director of Conergy, a European solar giant that moved into Australia in 2005, was stunned. There was no warning, he says. No consultation, no plan to phase out the assistance package. The industry simply got it in the neck. "We met with one of Peter Garrett's advisers, and demanded to see Garrett. We wanted to put our position forward. We needed them to understand the urgency of this. It wasn't just me; it was everyone. All my competitors in the industry. We got a group of people together as quickly as possible. We had Garrett, one of his advisers and two public servants there. The upshot was, they were polite, they listened, they said they'd observe and see what happened ... and that's all."

On 11 June, Garret reportedly said that the means test might be abolished "if it causes a dramatic fall in sales", but on closer examination he wasn't promising to do much more than he'd told the industry in private, weeks earlier. According to the Age, he said: "Let's monitor demand so that we have accurate figures ... on the basis of accurate information we'll consider what the right action ought to be."

Of everyone in the industry, Phil May arguably had most reason to feel aggrieved, even betrayed. A lifelong conservative, he had hosted Kevin Rudd and Peter Garrett at his business during the 2007 election campaign. Rudd's soundbite for the day? "Solar energy is part of our future response to climate change. Therefore, let's make Labor's solar-home plan one within practical reach of families across the country."

"I told Mr Rudd and Mr Garrett that I never voted Labor in my life before, and if they were going to support renewables I would support them," May said on Canberra's Stateline, three days after the budget. "I did support them and now I feel very disappointed with the outcome ... It's going to do my business a great deal of harm and we will have to put people off if we don't keep getting jobs in. We are going to have to put people off." And eventually he did.

"Phil's was a small, five-person outfit," Rodger Meads says. "Himself, his wife and three employees. He's laid off all three. Before the budget he was getting four to five approvals a week. That was probably the limit of his capacity to install. Since budget night he's had one."

The government remains unrepentant - if somewhat incoherent. Environment Minister Peter Garrett has insisted that "those most in need will benefit," and that he expects "more people under the threshold will now take advantage of the rebate," although he hasn't explained why they might do so now if they didn't before. (The budget contained no added incentives for low-income earners to take up the scheme.) And the prime minister was even less inclined to apologise, telling Kerry O'Brien on 19 May, "I said before the budget there'd be a lot of people who were going to be complaining about it. And guess what? There are. I understand that, but on this one you've actually got to start to draw the line somewhere. At the end of the day, you know, do we want millionaires getting the baby bonus, millionaires getting the solar-panel rebate?"

But, of course, $100,000, while a tidy sum, doesn't quite get you into the millionaires' club, an inconvenient truth that induced the PM to uncork a magnum of vintage waffle when prodded on the subject by O'Brien: "Well, I think it's important to put the climate-change debate in its wider context. How do you actually achieve, you know, big impact on the overall question of emissions reduction on the one hand, as well as adaptation measures on climate change, as well? An emissions-trading regime: we're powering on, on that question, after 12 years of dithering by our predecessors. Mandatory renewable-energy target: we are moving strongly in that direction, as well. Energy-efficiency policies: moving in that direction, as well."

Rudd didn't mention the more than $2 billion that his government allocated to clean-energy research, perhaps because in the rush of rhetorical battle with O'Brien it slipped his mind. Or perhaps because the largest single beneficiary of the budget's green largesse was the coal industry. Having saved "about $50 million" by choking off the solar-panel sector on 13 May, Wayne Swan then found $500 million to give to the coal giants for research into carbon capture and sequestration, the holy grail of "clean coal".

Despite the most fervent wishes of Bob Brown, coal isn't going anywhere. According to the Australian Coal Association, coal-fired power stations produce 84% of Australia's electricity and 38% of its greenhouse emissions, significantly higher than the global average of one-quarter. In part this is because the nation does not rely on nuclear power. Contrary to popular belief, Australia does not control the world market for coal, but it is the biggest exporter, with nearly a third of the global trade in black coal, and 60% of trade in metallurgical coal, which is used for smelting. Regardless of the Kyoto Protocol or whatever scheme succeeds it, world demand for coal is very conservatively forecast to rise 73% by 2030.

China and India will account for a good deal of that increase. At the moment, for instance, only 3% of our coal exports go to China, which is - according to a New York Times report of 11 June - opening a coal-fired power station every ten days. That is not a typo. "Every week to ten days," the report said, "another coal-fired power plant opens somewhere in China that is big enough to serve all the households in Dallas or San Diego." The People's Republic does have its own vast reserves of coal, but at least half is the dirtier brown variety, unlike our minty-fresh export-quality black stuff. The Australian coal industry is also more mature, efficient and technologically advanced than its competitors in China. As more and more of the hundreds of coal-fired power stations China has planned come online, their appetite for high-quality Australian coal will become more voracious. This is why Kevin Rudd has remarked on the natural congruity of the two nations' interests, the world's largest exporter and the world's largest consumer of coal.

Iron ore remains a bigger contributor to the national accounts, but that in no way diminishes the importance of coal to the economy, or to the state and federal governments, which have gorged themselves on royalties and taxes from the industry over the past decade. Over the next 12 months alone, coal will earn Australia $43 billion in export revenue. That's not just a sum of money. It's a force of nature. At the end of 2006 the industry was directly employing more than 30,000 workers, and projects under construction or consideration will raise that by another 15,000, bringing with them vastly increased tax revenues and another quantum leap in export earnings. Indirectly, that investment will create thousands more jobs: for example, up to 4000 full-time positions in the new rail and port infrastructure that will be needed to service the growing industry. Many of those workers will be unionised and their dues will flow into the coffers of the CFMEU, bolstering the strength of the union and adding to its influence within the Australian Labor Party.

The figures roll on with numbing constancy. Estimated Queensland government royalty income from the coal industry in 2008-09? Two billion dollars. Value of proposed rail and port investments for black-coal export? Four billion dollars. Rio Tinto's profit last financial year? Eight billion dollars. Total value of committed investment by the coal industry? Twenty billion dollars.

Coal, unlike solar or indeed any of the alternative renewable-energy sectors, is a juggernaut. The industry is only going to get bigger and more powerful in the next 20 years, the period most climatologists identify as the tipping point for climate change, when we either bring emissions under control or the atmospheric carbon load reaches a level of saturation, after which the effects begin to cascade and reinforce each other. To put the contribution of burning coal to atmospheric carbon levels into perspective: the Kyoto Protocol mandates CO2 cuts of 483 million tonnes by 2012. The emissions from coal-fired plants in three countries - the US, India and China, none of whose emissions are captured by Kyoto - will pump an extra 2.7 billion tonnes of carbon into the air in that time. George Bush and John Howard were right about Kyoto being inadequate.

It makes good sense for coal companies and the federal government to invest heavily in research into carbon capture and storage, a fact recognised by some, if not all, in the environment lobby. In April this year, Greenpeace activists protested outside the World Wildlife Fund offices in Sydney, because of the latter organisation's decision to work with the CFMEU and the Australian Coal Association to lobby for "a national task force to develop clean coal". The protesters accused their former comrades of "greenwashing" the coal industry. Greg Bourne, from the WWF, responded that they were backing the new alliance because, "If it's going to work, we need to know quickly," and if clean coal "was not going to work, we need to know even more quickly".

In another sense, though, the clean-coal sceptics have a point. Despite the industry's bright eyes and relentless happy face when discussing the prospects for clean-coal research - the Australian Coal Association describes the claim that carbon capture is unproven as a "myth" - the industry-accepted timeframe for widespread introduction of the technology spans at least another 20 years. The ACA's Peter Logue cites a number of projects happening inside a decade, such as a large post-combustion capture facility in New South Wales by 2015, and a Queensland-based pilot program to convert coal to gas by 2012, with a second-stage commercial-scale plant operating by 2017. Logue also points out that generators and energy retailers, not coalminers, build and run power stations in Australia. "Once the technology is proven at a commercial scale," he says, "that's when the big questions will need to be answered.  Who will build the commercial-scale, low-emission power stations; who will finance them; and what will the electricity cost consumers?"

Even the federal government's most ardent clean-coal believer, Resources and Energy Minister Martin Ferguson, speaks only of "deployment of low-emission technologies out to 2030". (The emphasis is mine.) "It's particularly telling," says the Greens' climate-change spokesperson, Senator Christine Milne, "that on the morning of World Environment Day, while Peter Garrett was out getting his photo opportunity with energy-rating stickers for televisions, the real powerbroker, Martin Ferguson, was having a chummy breakfast with coal lobbyists, talking up mega-polluting liquefied coal as a transport fuel ... Ferguson holds the purse strings when it comes to energy, and he has been quite blatant in turning his back on renewables while doling out the cash to coal."

Whether that cash, all $500 million of it, will make any difference is the deal breaker for clean-coal cynics. Tony Troughton-Smith, writing in the online journal ScienceAlert, admits the feasibility of the basic idea is not in question. "We know it's possible to remove carbon dioxide from either the exhaust gases or feedstock of a power station, and then pump it underground." But he does wonder whether "a relatively simple laboratory process can be scaled up to address the vast volumes of CO2 produced by power stations, especially (but not only) when retro-fitting the technology to existing plants, in locations where no suitable sequestration site is close by."

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimated that while a modern supercritical coal-fired plant could theoretically capture up to 90% of its carbon emissions, the vast amounts of energy required to do so would drive up the fuel needs of that plant by at least 25%, and the price of electricity generated there by up to 80%. The figures are based on a best-case scenario, with a purpose-built power station sitting atop a suitable storage dump. Older plants, the panel's investigators found, could use up to 40% of the energy they generated in powering the carbon-capture process, thereby requiring more coal-fired plants to be built to replace the lost capacity.

Solar power is not the ‘gimme' its champions make it out to be. As an energy source, coal is very centralised; coal-fired power plants often sit next to a coalmine, and electricity flows out along high-tension powerlines. In contrast, solar arrays, and indeed their cousins, wind turbines and geothermal deposits, are very widely distributed. You would need many solar panels and wind farms spread over hundreds of miles to even begin to replace one coal-fired plant. This in turn means investing billions of dollars to upgrade the network of towers, poles, wires and substations that make up the current electricity network. The whole infrastructure of the system is already stacked in favour of coal.

Further, all the arguments routinely made against solar energy, in particular as an option for base-load power, have real heft. Manufacturing photovoltaic arrays is a costly, technically demanding and energy-intensive process. Even with subsidies, the modules remain beyond the reach of most household budgets because of the large upfront cost. And coal is cheaper. Much, much cheaper - so long as you don't factor in the carbon cost, and for the moment nobody does.

But none of these problems are insurmountable, and some have already been solved, at least in part. Back in 1991, researchers at Lausanne's École Polytechnique Fédérale worked out a process for synthesising a new type of solar cell that required none of the high-end equipment or prohibitively expensive materials that go into traditional photovoltaic (PV) arrays. In brief, plates of conductive glass are covered with titanium dioxide, a common component of household paint. A photosensitive dye is added. To grossly oversimplify what happens next, the dense little matrix of dyed powder grabs the photons streaming down from the sun, strips out the juicy electrons for which your power company charges so much, and sends them off to your plasma TV or waffle iron.

Named after one of the inventors, Michael Grätzel, the "dye-sensitised solar cells", or Grätzel cells, seemed to hold out the promise of cheap, plentiful electricity. Unfortunately, says Professor Max Lu, from the Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology, the early promise wasn't fulfilled. Lu is a believer in Grätzel's work, so much so that the uninformed could be forgiven for thinking that dye-sensitised solar panels might just save the world. "They're very easy to manufacture," he says. "They don't require a clean room or expensive equipment. The cost of the modules is about one-fifth of a PV-cell module." So how much more efficient are they than their old-fashioned rivals? Lu smiles. "Not more efficient. Less. If they were more efficient, you've already made it. Michael Grätzel would be super-rich."

Grätzel is very rich from licensing the technology, but not Bill Gates-rich. And not Bill Gates-powerful. And certainly not coal-industry rich and powerful. Grätzel cells are widget cheap and ridiculously easy to mass-produce, but they are simply not very good at what they're supposed to do: make free electricity. They are, at best, only half as efficient at stealing free power from the sun as costly silicon-based cells. At worst, they are only a quarter as good. But because they are so cheap, there is a market for them.

Lu remains excited by the technology because his team, based at the University of Queensland, has discovered how to double the efficiency of the titanium-dioxide powder that coats the glass panels. "That comes very close to the efficiency of a PV cell," he says. "And then we have a business." Lu's discovery, which was funded by an Australian Research Council (ARC) grant, was reported in the American science journal Nature in May this year. His team did the undoable, increasing tenfold the reactive surface of the titanium-dioxide crystals that help power Michael Grätzel's solar cells.

"Anyone can make the titanium crystals," Lu says, grinning. "But the trick is making them highly reactive. The difference is all about morphological control. You can have a cube-shaped crystal, a pyramid, a diamond, all sorts of shapes. For titanium dioxide to absorb a lot of photons from sunlight, you need the crystals to have a lot of active surface. We have increased the flat, active surface ten times. It was thought to be impossible. It is a dream."

This dream, when viewed under a microscope, looks like nothing so much as a pile of fudge squares, or perhaps little fudge pyramids, all of them cut off at the base. It's the big square area on top that does all the magic down at a nanomolecular level, trapping the precious photons in a net of titanium atoms. And photons aren't the only things it snares. The new crystal form also turns out to be highly efficient at cleansing pollutants from contaminated water and air, massively increasing the potential uses. "I would predict that widespread application of this technology would be less than ten years away," Lu says. "High-rise building windows could be sprayed with the powder, sealed with a polymer, and then begin generating their own power."

His own building is six storeys high, a modernist amalgam of glass and sandstone. Asked how much of its own power such a building could provide, Lu glances around almost absentmindedly. His office, blessed with an abundance of natural light, perches over the green expanse of a playing field and one of the university's child-care facilities, a renovated wooden house with gently undulating gardens and a small wooden boat protected by shade cloth. Outside the glass wall of his private space, a wide corridor separates him from labs full of beakers and tubes and bubbling coloured liquids. The air-conditioning hums quietly. Computers bleep as grad students rattle off rapid-fire instructions. "It would be more than was needed," he says, shrugging. "You could sell the surplus energy. It would definitely be positive."

But not for everyone. While commercialising Lu's discovery would take a decade - half the time required to prove and move to clean coal on even the industry's best estimates - there remain formidable obstacles. These are not so much technical as political and economic. Technically, Lu says, two or three years would be needed to engineer a robust module to contain the boosted Grätzel cells. The downside of the hybrid system is that, because it involves paste and dye, it needs to be perfectly sealed against the weather or it will degrade. Any water penetrating the panel will halve its efficiency. Currently Grätzel-cell modules operating at 5.5% efficiency will last only 15 years. The silicon-based modules working at much greater efficiencies that Phil May could install on your roof would outlive both him and you. Other engineering challenges include optimising the match between the powder and the dye. Nonetheless, the impossible part of the dream has already been achieved. Only the difficult remains.

That difficulty is exacerbated by the very existence of the coal industry, by its entrenched power and the privileged status that any political system affords to actors who have already established themselves. Big Coal, which literally powers the world, even as it chokes us all, cannot be wished away with good intentions and Arcadian dreams. The coal industry does not have to connive against its successor technologies: it denies them oxygen simply by being there.

Rodger Meads, of the solar-energy company Conergy, cites the near-impossible task his industry will soon face attracting skilled workers in competition with the coalmines. "Our business depends heavily on electrical trades," he explains. "A young, four-year-trained electrician can fly up to the mines today and get a job paying between $120,000 and $150,000 a year. And we have to get those guys and ask them to go back and do a training qualification to be able to install our products. Not everyone can put these things on your roof - you have to be a trained, qualified electrician. You can build panels all over the world, but you have to install them locally. Nobody's developed a low-cost Chinese package that somehow morphs them onto a roof. We need to develop them through TAFE; we need to have jobs for the electricians when they graduate."

Since 13 May those jobs have evaporated and the siren song of the mines is much louder. The $500 million allocated to clean-coal research is another case in point. Wayne Swan killed off Phil May's custom because government revenue is finite. Every dollar spent on one project is lost to another. The solar-panel subsidy got caught up in the new government's redirection of middle- and upper-class welfare, such as the baby bonus, to lower-income voters. Rudd and Swan knew that spending cuts had to be made, and in the frenzy of budget preparation it seemed reasonable to expect families whose income had moved into the magic realm of six figures to pay for their own home renovations. Especially as billions of dollars had to be found for election promises like tax cuts and the clean-energy fund, with its $500-million handout to Rio Tinto and co. for clean-coal research.

A fraction of that half-billion would have saved the solar-panel industry and ensured that a proven green technology continued to grow. But it would not have done anything to safeguard future income, the thousands of billions of dollars that coal will generate over the decades ahead. Measured against that payoff, a comparatively minuscule investment of $500 million looks like a good bet - if clean coal actually works, if it can be installed in half the time the industry is promising on its own best estimates, and if some future Nobel-winning economist can conjure away the trillion-dollar-plus expense of retrofitting the technology to a global power grid that was not designed to carry it.

Meanwhile, researchers like Max Lu will struggle to fund the development of alternatives. Building a new weatherproof super-cell with his nano-engineered crystals is not as tricky as it sounds. Finding the $5 million to do so, particularly in this country, is. When Lu discusses the difficulty of what lies ahead, as he moves from the arcane world of materials science to the real world of dollars and cents, his endearing ebullience dissipates and you can hear a cold wind blowing out of the abyss. "In research you try and pursue a worthy cause, a big goal," he says, for the first time sounding tired. "But the reality is that you have to get grants or industry support. The industry-innovation culture is not so conducive here and some of the people don't want to take any risk; they say, ‘Oh, I would rather invest my money in a shop.' No matter how passionate you are about your technology, no matter how promising your technology, if you do not get continual support you have to drop it and move on to something else. That's the reality. A lot of our technology is unsuccessful, not because of the science - this country has tremendous capability in science - but because we have a lot of inventions which end up overseas, or just dead, for want of money."

He gives the example of a fellow professor, David Mills, who couldn't find the money to demonstrate his solar-thermal technology on a large scale. He needed $5 million, Lu says, but couldn't get it in Australia. Venture capitalists in the US, excited by Mills' huge, industrial-scale plans for solar-powered base-load energy generation, gave him $300 million to further the concept. Lu estimates that he would need about $300,000 for the next stage of his own project, to demonstrate the project's feasibility, to show that the super crystals can be made on a bigger scale. "Then you need to manufacture modules," he says. "A couple to put on a roof, to test for a couple of years. So, for the first three years we need about a million dollars. You can't use an ARC grant for that: they'll say, ‘No, mate, not good enough.' They are about pure, cutting-edge research, and that is good. Venture capital should be about investing and developing ideas. Further scale-up to trial manufacturing would need $5 million. You need a plant, skilled workers, tools and so on. David Mills got to there, but couldn't get the money."

For people like the Greens' Christine Milne, who have no faith in clean coal, who see it as nothing more than a conjuring trick to preserve an entrenched and profitable special interest, the problems of commercialising green technologies such as Lu's make governments' preferential treatment of the coal industry all the more infuriating. "While the prime minister and ministers Wong and Garrett have been talking up their climate credentials, Peter Garrett destroyed the solar industry overnight by introducing a means test on the solar rebate. Meanwhile, Martin Ferguson pulled the rug out from under the broader renewable-energy industry by allocating no funds at all in the budget to renewable-energy commercialisation in the coming year, and did away with the Commercial Ready program," she complains.

"There are so many renewable-energy technologies that are ready to start generating zero carbon energy now if we only gave them the commercialisation funding to go head to head with entrenched coal. But instead, the door has been slammed in their face by a minister intent on supporting coal at all costs. Ferguson let the cat out of the bag when launching the government's legislative plans for geosequestration, saying that making the technology work was vital to the long-term sustainability of the coal sector. He cares about the sustainability of record coal profits, but not about the sustainability of the planet."

Martin Ferguson could not be contacted before this essay went to print. In response to the budget that cut the solar-panel rebate and poured funds into coal-industry research, he released a statement that read in part, "Coal is vital to the Australian economy and to the developing world as it lifts its people out of poverty. Therefore no serious response to climate change can ignore the need to clean up coal." 

John Birmingham

John Birmingham is an author, a columnist and a journalist. His books include He Died With a Felafel in His Hand and Leviathan: The Unauthorised Biography of Sydney.


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