I revisit an old Australian television commercial for gas, and muse on how it seems to have morphed into energy policy…

It was meant to be a jingle, not a prophecy…

In Australia back in 1990, we were subjected to a saccharine , family friendly bit of advertising extolling the virtues of “natural gas” for cooking. The tag line? “Why gas? Well just because!”.

Twenty two years later, you could be forgiven for thinking that energy policy makers had been locked in a room and shown this commercial non-stop, Clockwork Orange style. Because whenever you look for an answer to the question “Just what the hell are we going to do next about energy?” the answer seems to come back, regular as, well, clockwork.

Gas.

Gas… the answer is gas…

It’s high time Australian’s really started asking “why gas”? Because let me tell you, the harder I look, the less it stacks up as a sound choice for the country’s future.

Firstly, cost. Forget about today, when we build baseload it lasts for 50 years. It is no secret at all that businesses chase the highest price, and more and more, for gas that highest price is outside of Australia. The price of gas seems set to rise, a lot, such that talk of outright protectionism for the Australian consumer has been seriously raised. It is a perfectly straightforward notion that tying ourselves to this one option is unwise, to put it mildly.

Secondly, greenhouse gas emissions. “Better than coal” is, quite frankly, no kind of ringing endorsement, but that is the only way gas looks good in this department. Where we should be shooting for as close to 0 kg GHG per kWh as we can get for any new build in energy, gas gives us between about 360g (in a combined cycle turbine) and 520g (in an open cycle turbine), which we will then be stuck with for the next 50 years. Better than the 740g you get from the best coal technology? Yes, but it’s like a gentle tap on the brakes as we speed towards a cliff (reference for those numbers).

What’s more, depending on the source, the processing, transport and end use, the gap between gas and coal may be less than most of us think when the product is an export. Here are some pieces of the abstract from Paul Hardisty et al’s recent paper in Energies

… if methane leakage approaches the elevated levels recently reported in some US gas fields (circa 4% of gas production) and assuming a 20-year methane GWP, the GHG intensity of CSG-LNG generation is on a par with sub-critical coal-fired generation… When exported to China for electricity production, LNG was found to be 22–36 times more GHG intensive than wind and concentrated solar thermal (CST) power and 13–21 times more GHG intensive than nuclear power which, even in the post-Fukushima world, continues to be a key option for global GHG reduction.

Thirdly, there’s the tricky issue of dimming. Bear with me, time to get climate sciencey with help from my friend Tom Wigley. (This issue has been summarised at Brave New Climate and the paper is available online.)

Thing is, the filthy pollution of coal has one redeeming feature: it has a dimming effect. That is, it’s blocking incoming solar radiation. It’s a form of shade, basically, holding temperatures down a bit.

With a wholesale switch to gas, which is cleaner burning, we take that negative forcing away (allowing temperatures to climb more and faster) without sufficiently cutting the levels of greenhouse gas so as to overpower this effect with an even bigger negative forcing. So if we are going to cut coal, as we must, we need to do it with something that emits as close to zero greenhouse gas as possible to counteract and overpower the impact of this loss of dimming over time.  That’s not gas. It is looking increasingly like a very ill conceived gamble. In Tom’s words:

 On balance, these factors more than offset the reduction in warming due to reduced CO2 emissions.

… which begs the question: Why do it? Why commit so hard to gas, policy after policy? Volatile price, high greenhouse gas emissions, insufficient climate benefit.

Why gas? I can only come up with two answers:

  1. Well just because… it’s not coal
  2. Well just because… it’s not nuclear, which is politically awkward

Truly, it is the quintessential compromise that fails everyone, and we seem stuck with it because no one is up for the fight for nuclear.

Except…  that’s becoming a little bit less true every single day. More and more people are pulling on the gloves and stepping up to the ring to make the case for nuclear to be fairly considered as an option for our country.

Why nuclear?

Answering that is our job. 🙂

13 comments

  1. A couple of other factors I would add are regional supply imbalance and likely gas demand as a transport fuel. SA gets gas from Cooper Basin at Moomba and Otway Basin via Pt Campbell Vic. Both basins are in decline. The big hope is that fracking will revive Cooper Basin
    http://www.naturalgasasia.com/drillsearch-unconventional-gas-cooper-basin
    which seems like counting chickens before they are hatched. Some Cooper gas is also committed to the Santos LNG plant at Gladstone. That gas can be sold to the Japanese for $15 a GJ which beats $4 a GJ for domestic wholesale piped gas.

    Liquid transport fuels are priced around $40 a GJ. Up to date statistics are unavailable but it appears Australia imports around 40 Mt of oil a year as opposed to domestic gas consumption of around 20 Mt. That is to say imported oil is twice ‘as big’ as gas in tonnage terms and thereabouts in thermal energy terms. A major shift to CNG and LNG in lieu of diesel as a truck fuel would have a profound impact in terms of both price and quantity.

    Put those two together, namely Cooper Basin admitting to running short and gas as a sudden diesel replacement and you have a crisis.

  2. From a non-climate-change perspective, gas is much cleaner burning than coal, and so produces few particulates and virtually no heavy metal emissions. It can also be piped to the power station rather than railed in. Also, the capital cost of gas-fired power stations — at least open cycle ones — is lower than coal. Finally, OCGT is quite good at load following, so helps in meeting intermediate and peak demand.

    They’re the main reasons why gas might be preferred over coal. But they’re not very strong ones, for the reasons you outline Ben, and the fact that nuclear can do all of the above better (yes even the load following, with certain designs, and if the ‘free fuel’ from IFRs or LFTRs allows then to run 24/7 and just divert electrical output to industrial heat applications in low-demand times.

    1. Quite. Provided a serious, full tilt effort to avoid the worst impacts of climate change is only a pretend priority rather than an actual one 😦 and our leaders are not inclined to point out, as you have, that nuclear has the same advantages only more and better, gas does indeed have some nice qualities…

    2. Barry – one of the common myths about open cycle gas turbines is that they are “quite good at load following”.

      The reality is that while open cycle gas turbines CAN vary their output quite readily, that variability comes with an enormous cost in fuel efficiency (and the associated emissions) for any operations outside of a very narrow band of optimal power output.

      My former employer owns a lot of highly maneuverable Brayton cycle gas turbines on ships and aircraft. When we build gas turbine powered ships, we try to avoid some of the fuel efficiency penalties by using controllable pitch propellers and by establishing procedures for operating with a reduced number of engines so that the ones left running are operating closer to optimal conditions.

  3. Ben – the primary reason that gas is so “popular” these days is that it is being marketed by some of the most skilled communicators in the world who are backed by the deepest pockets on the planet.

    Multinational petroleum companies figured out several decades ago that natural gas was the near future fuel that best fit their existing core competencies. They could keep on drilling in difficult geologies, keep making deals with despots, keep running pipelines and tankers, and keep encouraging utilities to build cheap machines that needed a continuous supply of fuel.

    Compared to oil, gas has some physical limitations – like the fact that gas tanks can only contain about about 1/3 as much energy per unit volume as gasoline tanks even if you are willing to build tanks that can withstand 10,000 psi. Unless someone builds the pipelines, methane gas is an explosive, hazardous byproduct of both coal and oil extraction operations that needs careful attention and flaring in order to save the lives of miners and drillers.

    However, the petroleum company marketers seized on the “environmental” benefits argument as something that they have been using in their market share battle against coal since the days when they convinced Churchill to convert the British Navy from domestic coal to oil extracted from imperial colonies. As long as the gas is properly treated and such contaminants as hydrogen sulfide are removed, it burns quite cleanly, even allowing the use of open flames inside homes without chimneys.

    The “environmental” argument for gas capitalized on making use of existing corporate core competencies – the oil & gas companies already controlled a number of large “astroturf” organizations that had been established long before the original basis for the term had even been invented.

    Petroleum companies have also had a major presence in the opinion influencing commercial media since the days when the Texaco Star was as frequently seen as Milton Berle. (I am not sure how well that allusion will play down under, but here is a link to a YouTube video that might help make my point – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=G5iypuYl4E0.)

    People wonder why the major multinational energy companies virtually ignore the existence of nuclear energy. The answer is that it is so vastly different in terms of energy density, intellectual input required and machinery used in the process that oil & gas companies have no natural advantages (other than massive access to capital) that would help them prosper in an atomic focused world.

    1. Rod, as ever you live up to the name of your blog “Atomic Insights” (any DSA readers who don’t know about Atomic Insights, read it! http://www.atomicinsights.com) .

      What you encapsulate so well is that nuclear is a threat to powerful interests. They are not equipped to thrive in a transition.

      Some new friends of mine have done some good preliminary work on workforce requirements for an Australia nuclear industry. It’s a lot of jobs, but a lot of it is new knowledge and skills. Which to me, is exciting. To a fossil fuel company, not so much… http://cdn.brownandpang.com/d/reports/Australia_Nuclear_Power_Workforce_2020_-_2050.pdf

      What I have tried to do a little in this article (actually, what I try to do a lot of the time at DSA), is bring together various threads to help people see the totality of the issues facing us. Hopefully, that will start to make it harder for the major companies that benefit from the status quo to continue defining what is good for us.

      Had I wished to make the article longer, I could have added the supply issues that John Newlands raised. I could have added the deeply unpopular mining processes that are infringing on a growing number of agricultural communities in Australia; that was recently brought up by Podargus. I could have added safety; the Longford gas explosion remains on of Australia’s worst energy accidents. It was only in trying to be succinct for once that I resisted. But it all comes together to my core point: Why gas? This is actually a question that needs to have a bloody bright light shone on it.

  4. The latest gas fired power station to be approved is AGL’s 920 MW peaking plant at Tarrone Vic
    http://www.agl.com.au/about/ASXandMedia/Pages/TarronePowerStationApproval.aspx
    No info on how many years they expect it to run. It will feed the same substation as the 420 MW nameplate Macarthur wind farm
    http://www.agk.com.au/macarthur/index.php/the-project
    The peaking plant will draw on the same gas pipe that supplements Adelaide’s Torrens Island steam cycle only gas plant.

    My guess is that Victorian power prices will take a hit with brown coal heavily carbon taxed and the peaking plant paying both serious carbon taxes and gas fuel costs. The $1bn the Feds just gave to AGL, TRU Energy and others could be a kickback to buy co-operation, in effect a fossil fuel subsidy I suspect before the 2013 federal election the Vics will get even more cash where that came from.

  5. Ben, you ask the question (rhetorical,presumably) – “why commit so hard to gas”

    The short and simple answer is that we have plenty of the stuff if you count CSG and there is a lot of money to be made out of it.
    I think you will find,on the evidence,that this really is what it boils down to among the movers and shakers of our dysfunctional society.And the same group think applies in other vital areas.

  6. Solid estimates of gas reserves are hard to come by, but I did find some good analysis once at The oil Drum, which suggested that, depending on how muc we export, there’s only about 30 – 35 years supply in Aus anyway. So these supposed 50 year plants aren’t going to be fuelled well before they’re obsolete.

    Of course, natural gas is also an important feedstock for fertiliser. Run out of gas for fertiliser and we’ve got even more problems.

  7. I’m puzzled where the replacement power will come from if Northern power station will become a summer coal fired peaking plant
    http://www.adelaidenow.com.au/coal-power-will-only-switch-on-for-summer/story-e6frea6u-1226332097185
    while the adjoining Playford station in converted to a solar steam boost according to earlier media. In their most recent statement BHP-B say they need 650 MW for Olympic Dam mine expansion. If Pt Augusta is to have only intermittent output something else will have to replace it whether out west or more centrally located.

    I note fracking will be used in Victoria’s Otway Basin as well as SA’s Cooper Basin to improve gas supplies to Adelaide. What if it fails? Surely SA is not going to build more wind farms with no assurance of gas backup. If it all goes bad I can see Santos being forced by legislation to take more gas from Queensland since other options are off the table. Both Koutsantonis and Redmond say gas will save SA. Maybe they know something we don’t.

    1. Oi, Newlands, stop pre-empting my posts!!! 🙂

      My thoughts exactly as I read the news today: what exactly is the rest of this plan? You know, the bit where we build something else?

      Check the new post that will be up shortly, and go to town my friend!

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