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NEWS
New opportunities for Victorian brown coal

While many in the community may think there is no future for brown coal, this is proving to be far from the truth…



Victoria’s Latrobe Valley contains a vast resource of brown coal, approximately one quarter of the world’s known reserves, of which 33 billion tonnes has economic potential. This resource contains about 14 billion tonnes of carbon, which is equivalent to about half the carbon content of Saudi Arabia’s crude oil reserve. This coal contains very low impurities by world standards, but has a high moisture content.

The inefficient practice of burning wet coal to produce cheap electricity, with the attendant production of large quantities of CO₂, has led to the common misconception that brown coal is a “dirty” fuel. With the pressing need to sharply reduce global production of greenhouse gases, there is no question that the current fleet of brown coal boilers must be progressively phased out. However, it is unconscionable to think that the Latrobe Valley power industry could be forced or regulated to close down without a contingency plan to avoid causing damage to the local community.

While there are predictions that Victoria’s brown coal will become a ‘stranded asset’, this does not have to be the case. Brown coal will have a viable future – provided that all future developments are both economically viable and have a low or zero CO₂ emission. Victoria has some of Australia’s best geology for CO₂ sequestration in the Gippsland Basin, so it is feasible to achieve low-emission processing of Victorian brown coal, and BCIA sees the need to focus on three main areas to achieve a sustainable future for brown coal.

  • Providing low-cost technology pathways for the transition from current methods of brown coal based electricity generation.
  • Developing options for new uses and products for Victoria’s carbon resources.
  • Supporting economic growth and job creation via new manufacturing opportunities.

Brown Coal to Support Renewables
Wind and solar PV are the two main forms of renewable energy being installed in Australia; both are intermittent and vary seasonally and throughout the day. To ensure that the power generated matches the hour-by-hour demand, they must be partnered with some form of flexible power delivery system.

Brown coal power stations operate continuously, providing baseload power. To make up any shortfall from renewables, load following power plants (typically hydroelectric or gas turbine) are brought on and off line as needed, and so must be flexible enough to start up and shut down without losing efficiency.

The requirement for load following power will rise with increasing penetration of renewables. However, there is limited capacity to build new dams for hydroelectric power and gas prices are expected to rise sharply, so a lower-cost alternative will be needed.

BCIA is supporting development of the Direct Injection Carbon Engine (DICE), a novel approach to power generation using water-based Micronised Refined Coal (MRC) fuel in large stationary diesel engines. CSIRO modelling indicates that MRC-DICE may be able to deliver electricity at double the efficiency of today’s brown coal power stations.

It is anticipated that brown coal MRC-DICE will be able to deliver load following power and be cost-competitive with gas. Rather than closing down the existing power stations, DICE technology could be installed progressively as modular units, changing the power generation capacity to a balance of both baseload and load following as renewable power sources are progressively introduced.
Figure 1: 50MW stationary diesel engine at Korea Midland Power. (MAN Diesel & Turbo)

New Carbon Products
Beyond electricity production, the Victorian economy would benefit enormously if cost-effective low emissions processes can be developed to transform its massive carbon reserve into high value products.

A range of new technologies show promise for use with brown coal, including oxygen-blown entrained flow gasification, torrefaction, micronisation and advanced cleaning techniques, oxidative hydrothermal dissolution and densification. These technologies could potentially be used to transform brown coal into a wide range of products needed in a modern society, such as fuels, fertilisers, carbon fibres, industrial chemicals, plastics and metallurgical reductants.

Such products underpin a sustainable modern society. In the renewable energy sector alone, glass, steel, carbon fibre, plastics and hydrogen are essential and could be produced using brown coal (please refer to illustrations below). Increasing deployment of renewable energy will create an increased demand for these raw materials. These same materials are used in mobile phones, computers, aeroplanes, trains, etc. – in fact, all aspects of a modern society. There is a huge potential market for products manufactured either from or using Victorian brown coal.


Brown Coal Carbon Could Support New Manufacturing Industries in Victoria
Figure 2: Some of the new products that have been produced from brown coal over the past five years.

Carbon Capture and Storage
Transformation of the Latrobe Valley into a low emissions power and manufacturing hub will necessarily require implementation of Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) technologies, so that CO₂ emissions can be prevented from entering the atmosphere. The Latrobe Valley is already home to a strong oil and gas industry. The skills and expertise in this industry are directly applicable to new CCS installations, which will involve engineering design, project management, procurement and commissioning activities.

The installation of a pipeline to transport CO₂ for storage would create additional opportunities for such skills, and operation of the pipeline would create more highly paid jobs. For CCS to be economically viable, it will be important to focus on high value products, supported by appropriate government policy settings.

A Sustainable Future for Brown Coal
There is no reason why Victoria should willingly convert its massive carbon reserve into a stranded asset, when opportunities to rejuvenate power stations with DICE technology and create new manufacturing industries for low-emissions carbon products have not yet been fully explored.

The Latrobe Valley has the potential to become a powerhouse of new low-emissions economic growth and commercial activity, while securing the jobs of the current coal workforce. Achieving this will require sustained investment in low-emissions coal technology development and innovation, and ongoing support for the most promising technologies from research and development through to commercial deployment.




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