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Emissions performance standards for Australian coal-fired power


Distant shot of a power station
On 30 November 2010, the Government released its discussion paper: A Cleaner Future for Power Stations. The paper proposes that all new power stations be required to meet a minimum emissions performance standard and be capable of retrofitting carbon capture and storage (CCS) technologies when these become commercially available (which is expected to occur within the lifetime of new power plants). The Parliamentary Library has produced a Background Note, Performance standards to reduce energy emissions, that sets out the backdrop against which an Australian emissions performance standard might be explored.

Australian convential power plants emit between 0.37 and 1.38 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) per megawatt hour (MWh) of electricity generated. The emissions intensity depends heavily on the technology employed and whether brown or black coal is used. Brown coal has higher moisture content than black coal and therefore does not burn as efficiently and produces relatively more emissions per unit of electricity generated. A significant amount of Australia’s coal deposits, especially in Victoria and South Australia, is brown coal.

The Government’s discussion paper proposes an emissions performance standard ‘set with reference to best practice coal-fired generation technology, and at an emissions-intensity threshold below 0.86 tonnes CO2-e/MWh’. A number of industrialised countries have been debating the introduction of emissions performance standards for several years, and some such standards have already been established in those countries at a sub-national level. These are comparatively more stringent than that proposed by the Australian federal government. The South Australian government has proposed a standard of 0.7 tCO2e/MWh. Oregon, California and Washington have had standards of 0.5 tCO2e/MWh for a number of years. Both the EU and the UK have considered standards for their coal-fired plants and these are below 0.6 tCO2e/MWh.

There are risks associated with Australia implementing an emissions performance standard that is less stringent than any being considered by the US and Europe, especially, but not only, in terms of trade considerations. An emissions performance standard that is too lax will not generate the intended CCS technology development, but one that is too stringent may compel the power sector to commit to as yet unproven technologies. The reality is that setting an Australian performance standard at any level will favour some power station combustion methods over others, but then provide no incentive for generators to improve their performance beyond the set standard. Ultimately, an emissions performance standard is a powerful instrument but must be well-designed and be accompanied by complementary measures. Alone, it may not be the best option for dealing with the overall problem of reducing Australia’s greenhouse gas emissions.

(post co-authored with Leslie Nielson)

(Image sourced from: http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/f/f7/Yallourn-w-power-station-australia.jpg)