Jeanette says we must keep the coal in the ground

The Herald ran a very compelling op-ed by Jeanette Fitzsimons yesterday, suggesting that from a climate perspective our priority must be to keep most of the remaining fossil fuel in the ground.

For 35 years I have been wrong about how to prevent climate change. It’s time I confessed.

For 35 years I have worked to improve energy efficiency – insulating homes, efficiency standards for appliances, better light bulbs, fuel-economy standards for cars and energy-saving technologies in industry and farming.

The assumption was that this would result in less fossil fuel being burned and less carbon dioxide going into the atmosphere. Well, it doesn’t.

She details State-Owned Solid Energy’s plans to make money out of lignite, and how that would spell disaster for New Zealand’s climate emissions.

In addition to oil and gas exploration there are well-advanced plans to use more than 3 billion tonnes of economically recoverable lignite from three fields in Southland. These plans are big, and New Zealanders are hardly aware of them.Because we don’t need coal for electricity; state-owned coal company Solid Energy has developed plans to use the lignite for fertiliser and diesel.

This is why changing your light bulbs will not reduce greenhouse gases – Solid Energy, and its government owner, are determined to use that coal.

Of course Don Elder, CE of Solid Energy, imagines that somehow mining Southland’s lignite would reduce global greenhouse gas emissions. We think Don is dreaming, and couldn’t agree more with Jeanette’s call to action:

We need to refocus international negotiations to keep most of the world’s remaining coal in the ground. As citizens, we need to refocus our domestic action to tell Solid Energy and the Government by every means available to us to keep the coal in the hole. Every tonne of lignite New Zealand keeps in the ground is 1.5 tonnes of carbon dioxide that doesn’t get into the atmosphere.

We can let energy efficiency give us a good standard of living, a prosperous economy, more jobs and a clean, green marketing brand. But if we mine the coal, we are fooling ourselves that those “green” developments will do anything for the climate.

51 Comments Posted

  1. While there is nothing wrong with making urea from wood waste, the normal method of producing urea is:
    – manufacture hydrogen e.g. from natural gas (methane);
    – turn the hydrogen into ammonia by reacting it with nitrogen from the air;
    – react the ammonia with CO2 (e.g. from the first step) to make the urea.

    I assume that the process for producing urea from biomass is similar. If some of the hydrogen for this process is obtained by electrolysis using surplus off-peak electricity, the amount of biomass required for a given amount of urea is reduced and the overall CO2 emissions are also reduced. This also gives a paying market for off-peak elecricity which will encourage the development of intermittent resources such as wind, tidal and wave and non-dispatchable resources such as run-of-river hydro.


  2. I agree that internet-signalled demand management would certainly help to reduce the peak demand and help to cope with sudden excursions up or down, but there is a lot of gas-fired generation to replace – plus of course 1GW of coal-fired generation at Huntly.


  3. Again, for the 57th time, the way to make all this work well is a quantum shift thinking in demand management, by using the internet to deliver control messages to consumers so control of load can be instant.

    Lose the entire super-uprated HVDC link (say 2GW) – lose 2GW of controlled load within a couple of tenths of a second. Ok, there’s going to be a frequency excursion, but the grid doesn’t need to collapse.

  4. The HVDC lines have been reasonably reliable, but do represent a large threat to the grids of both islands if either should suddenly go down. I see no reason why they should be particularly vulnerable to earthquakes – certainly less vulnerable than a railway line or a gas pipeline. To decrease the threat, an obvious answer is to have a second pair of lines, giving 4 independent circuits, which is also likely to result in lower losses for a given power level, as well as having a higher peak rating. There may be a case for extending the HVDC lines further north if a second set of lines is installed, to minimise the losses at the north island end. However if a large amount of wind and/or wave or tidal generation is installed in the North Island, the HVDC lines would only need to run close to full power occassionally, during lulls in the wind and waves/tides.


  5. Geothermal power can be used as a backup, but only makes sense if the installed capacity exceeds the thermal resource. Otherwise it would just be run 24 x 7. Unfortunately geothermal plant is expensive, so currently only enough plant is installed as the resource is estimated to be able to supply, and that plant is run 24 x 7. Another problem is that not all geothermal fields are suited to being ramped up and down, although I expect that with a bit of R&D and some practical experience, these fields could be ramped up and down a bit, such as ramping up slowly during the mornings to help meet the morning peak, and ramping back down after the evening peak to allow the field to recover during the night when demand is low. In any case, unless the geothermal plant is run at full power for much of the day, it won’t be economical.

    Tidal power plus ramped geothermal power could be an interesting combination, with the geothermal winding back as the tidal generation increases, but I expect that the geothermal contribution would need to be about twice that of the tidal contribution or more otherwise the geothermal field’s stability could be a problem.


  6. You are going to struggle against strong opposition to get more hydro in the SI

    dbuckley says “Mostly from the Green Party…”

    Not necessarily. The Green Party were completely silent on the fight to save the stunning Lammermoor Ranges from a giant wind farm.

    Opposition to that, and damming the Nevis etc, is widespread and covers a broad spectrum of people.

  7. Trevor29 says “as often as not, the peak in demand will correspond to a trough in tidal generation”

    At least that is more reliable than wind, and more predictable than wind.

    And if you take the likes of Raglan and Akaroa, their tides are 6 hours apart so there is large variation around the country. Places with huge potential like French Pass aparently only have 20 minutes of slack water between tides.

    The rapids created out to sea by the Manakau Harbour emptying, dwarf large fishing trawlers – they are a truely awe inspiring sight.

    And then there’s Hokianga, Kaipara, Aotea and Kawhia etc – huge bodies of water that empty and fill four times a day, and close(ish) to Auckland.

    Then Wellington, Christchurch and Dunedin all have large harbours right on their doorstep.

    We need a variety of methods, using hydro and thermal as our backup “battery”, to be used when the likes of tidal and wind don’t fulfil our needs.

  8. We have decades of experience of operation of the inter-island link, and for most years it has exceeded its target availability. It has had entire chunks of the line fail and need replacing, which didn’t take forever to acheive.

    If there is a big outage then the North Island just has to get by for a bit on less power, and the peakers need to run harder and longer.

    But over any significant period of time, “white diamonds north” is as good answer now as it was in the 1950s. Maybe better, as HVDC plant is now more reliable than it was back then. Building the worlds longest and largest capacity link was pretty brave back in the day when there were only three other HVDC lines in existance, none of them anything like as big as New Zealands. But times have changed; this is all proven engineering.

  9. The issue is that there is very little power in the North and the country is volcanically and tectonically active to an extent that argues strongly against being reliant on a wire strung from one end of it to the other.

    North of Auckland is probably as good a site for solar as we can get but I don’t like our chances of powering Auckland that way, even combined with tidal across the isthmus… not enough head. Auckland needs power that can be stored locally or made locally, and there are not a lot of choices. We’d have to have a large gas storage facility and a large thermal generator, make the gas from excess power in the south and ship it north. The inefficiencies are mind-numbing… and Auckland is a relatively large city to supply.

    The world is going to need Thorium reactors soon enough.


  10. There are worse things than having ones power supply dependent on the tides. Most people who work with ships and the sea also must pay close attention to the tides, which govern their movements in and out of ports and over the shallow bits. It isn’t THAT hard, just different from what landlubbers are used to doing.


  11. “You are going to struggle against strong opposition to get more hydro in the SI.”

    Actually what is needed is peak power generation, so increasing the rating of the generators and turbines is needed. We don’t actually need to build more dams. Some of the South Island hydro power stations were uprated and very few people noticed, and fewer still cared.

    Tidal is fine, but the peaks in tidal generation don’t necessarily correspond to the peaks in demand – as often as not, the peak in demand will correspond to a trough in tidal generation.


  12. You are going to struggle against strong opposition to get more hydro in the SI

    Mostly from the Green Party…

    I am looking forward to the results of the trial tidal stations.

  13. You are going to struggle against strong opposition to get more hydro in the SI.

    Tidal will provide some base load, and is reliable – four flows every day, and predictable years in advance

  14. Unfortunately both the geothermal and nuclear options better suit baseload power needs rather than peak demand and wind may be cheap and plentiful but it isn’t reliable. Therefore I am inclined to think that an upgraded HVDC link and South Island hydro may be required, with geothermal to firm it up and the gas-fired generators kept servicable just in case of major outages.

    A bit of local storage in or north of Auckland would help as well.

    While I have no strong objections to nuclear power (donning flame-proof suit as I type one-handed), I don’t think New Zealand needs this option and I don’t like the idea of New Zealand being dependent on one nuclear plant, as one is the worst number of nuclear plants to have. The nuclear option would be more suitable for Australia, while they build solar thermal systems.

    Good question about geothermal resources under Auckland though.


  15. Geothermal and wind because that long-distance supply means that an earthquake in Wellington could put the lights out in Auckland.

    The truth is that I wouldn’t even be averse (in the short term), to a Thorium nuke north of Auckland, as the far north and Auckland are both a goodly distance from the best sites for our most accessible renewables.

    One has to ask though, what sort of geothermal resource exists under Auckland itself, given the local vulcanism.


  16. The problem I see … [is] … finding a way to meet North Island peak winter demands without burning a lot of gas

    More South Island Hydro and upgrade the HVDC link.

  17. “If we are running at 76% clean energy, we still have some way to go to meet the 90% renewable energy target.”

    True, but there are three geothermal stations consented totalling about 400MW which will add about 8% to that figure when and if they are all constructed, and more wind farms consented too. Plus Stockton and other small hydro schemes.

    The problem I see isn’t so much finding renewable resources that we can tap, but finding a way to meet North Island peak winter demands without burning a lot of gas.


  18. If we are running at 76% clean energy, we still have some way to go to meet the 90% renewable energy target.

  19. I’ve just noticed an interesting detail in the June 2010 New Zealand Energy Quarterly – electricity from coal and electricity from wind were almost identical for the June 2010 quarter. With Meridian still building one of their wind farms (Te Uku in the Waikato) and other wind farms consented, I would hope to see wind generation exceeding coal generation for most quarters from now on.


  20. Actually with the recently installed wind farms and geothermal plants, we are running around 73% electricity from renewables for the first half of this year and 76% for the last quarter of last year – according to the New Zealand Energy Quarterly


  21. Makes sense. New Zealand does need to do more work on its energy strategy, at the moment the goal is 90% renewable energy, but we are around the 65%-70% mark, so there is someway to go. Looks like there is a Geothermal plant in the works, or possibly two.

  22. A move by Solid Energy towards biomass and solar heating would be compatible with changing Huntly to use biomass, so I agree with almost everything suggested. All I am suggesting is that there may be an alternative use for Huntly rather than closing it completely.


  23. This is worth a read too:

    Jeanette Fitzsimons has announced a six-point plan to effectively shut down NZ’s coal industry, which includes converting Solid Energy into a renewable energy company and closing the Huntly Power Station.

    She suggested a change in direction for SOE Solid Energy too:

    Fitzsimons believes Solid Energy should cease investigations into converting Southland lignite to liquid fuels and instead focus on becoming a renewable energy company, building especially on its expertise in waste wood. She notes Solid Energy has recently invested in a wood pellet and wood stove business, as well as a solar water heating business, and is also producing bio-diesel from rape seed.

  24. At the moment Huntly partly runs on imported Indonesian Coal.

    Jeanette has done some work on phasing out Huntly’s use of coal.
    Her coal speech is worth a read: Keep the Coal in the Hole – Speech for Earth Day, Christchurch, 22 April 2008:

    ‘The first target should be the Huntly power station. It is old and inefficient – which means it emits a lot of carbon dioxide for each unit of electricity it generates – and it has no pollution control. It is owned by a State Owned Enterprise. About half of its fuel is imported from Indonesia. There are many alternatives for generating electricity from renewable resources with no carbon emissions. The Greens strongly support the target in the Energy Strategy, which I contributed to developing, that 90% of our electricity should come from renewable sources by 2025. This means that Huntly must eventually close and not be replaced by another coal station.’

  25. “We don’t need the Huntly coal fired power station…”

    Actually for backup to cover dry years, Huntly could still be quite useful. However we don’t have to run it on coal. It could run on biomass – possibly charcoal – and if it is only used during dry years and only for a few months at a time, I believe this would be quite feasible.


  26. I think the key is looking at what a low carbon economy will look like.. We don’t need the Huntly coal fired power station, we don’t need giant Lignite brown coal mines.

    We also need a new energy and resources minister, because Gerry Brownlee is not going to give us an energy plan that focuses on clean energy.

  27. So how do we challenge such an entrenched part of our culture and start the process of reversing these trends?”

    Nice sentiment, but I find it just a little melodramatic.

    Using coal is entrenched in our culture?

    Is that what defines Pakeha? Do Maori define their culture by what fuel they used at the Hāngi?

    Just as steam boats gave way to diesel, or leaded petrol gave way to unleaded, or coal fired trains move over for the electric, it’s simply a matter of making the alternatives more attractive. And since the quote speaks of “trends” then what I just outlined are trends – trends where technological improvements provided us with less polluting alternatives. This isn’t about cultural entrenchment, it’s about choices, and how we foster innovation and progress rather than abandon it.

  28. New Zealand needs a green jobs/ecological economics approach is it intends to phase out coal (see Jeanette’s mining policy speech some years back) if it wants to deal with domestic emissions here from Coal.

    NZ could make jobs if it were to invest in building rail here, windmill parts and so on. Clean Tech and Green Jobs is what New Zealand needs of it wants a low carbon economy. The Green New Deal needs the next phase/policy package to be worked on.

  29. If all coal use was stopped AGW woulkd not continue.

    “It’s also caused insurmountable death and destruction along the way, contributing more than its fair share to climate change, water pollution and worker fatalities. So how do we challenge such an entrenched part of our culture and start the process of reversing these trends?”

  30. Zentiger: re China and energy – they are currently generating more renewable energy than the US. Both Australia and the US are heavily reliant on dirty coal fired power stations. If we want China and India to not be as wastefull and polluting as the western industrial countries, we should supporting them developing renewable energy as the backbone of their energy, rather than exporting them dirty Lignite coal.

  31. not on high conservation value areas like Mokihinui. Jeanette Fitzsimmons has micro hydro on her farm.

    Personally I want more wind, microwind, micro hydro, offshore wind? tidal and wave energy and more geothermal. The Green Party supports HDL’s hydro proposal for the Stockton Plateau on the West Coast.

  32. So can the Green Party now at least do the right thing in New Zealand and commit to supporting hydro power…?

  33. Most of New Zealand’s coal goes to India, also to Japan, China and Australia.. all places with really high emissions and in the case of China and India.. really bad air quality.

    My view is that New Zealand needs to carry through on its 90% renewable energy targets and invest in rail and public transport, and invest in getting a domestic biofuel industry up in running, which means Green Jobs in New Zealand.. some of this should happen in Southland, providing alternatives to dirty coal, which is a sunset industry. The West Coast is more complicated.

    Clare gives a good overview: Coal-to-liquid fuel feasibility studies are underway for lignite, the dirtiest coal, as the coal industry tries to dig itself out of a hole

    Coal badly needs a new mojo, as Energy Minister Gerry Brownlee once recognised, and hasn’t since been allowed to forget.

    Solid Energy and L&M Mining are investigating coal-to-liquid fuels, utilising Southland’s massive lignite deposits..

  34. There will be Gore? Oh no, we are going to get a DVD series and a concert.

    And you missed the pun about a bull in a china shop (given the amount of coal fired power stations China is building).

  35. Im all for alternatives to fossil fuels being burned up & pouring CO2 & other pollutants into the environment.. I once read about the use of HEMP as a source of bio-fuels (which absorbs CO2 as it grows). Henry Ford once proposed methanol-bio diesel as an alternative to the petrol that most people now run their vehicles on. UNFORTUNATLEY the whole ‘marijuana’ issue got in the way & Hemp became as ‘evil’ as the drug they were banning.. maybe it time to take a new rational look at this ? Kia-ora

  36. Now is the time to buy carbon credits to offset the coal about to be dug up.

    Price per metric ton for CO2 is $0.00 on the Chicago Climate Exchange.

    So buy a squillion billion tons of carbon credits and burn the coal I say.

    ETS is working very well.

  37. Given the world profile of power production there is still to be a lot of coal yet to be dug up and burnt…

    If Solid Energy digs up 1.5 billion tonnes of lignite it will add 2.2 billion tonnes of CO2 to the atmosphere.

    So for a week’s worth of human emissions a less than a day’s worth of total emissions we get employment for tons (pun sadly intended) of NZers in a new industry..?

  38. Shunda – if carbon is burnt cleanly, it becomes CO2. For each atom of carbon, two atoms of oxygen are used. The Atomic weight of carbon (C) is about 12, whereas that of oxygen (O) is 16 so CO2 has a molecular weight of 44. 44/12 is 3.66 so each tonne of carbon creates 3.66 tonnes of CO2. The added 2.66 tonnes is the weight of oxygen consumed from the air. The active component of coal is almost all carbon, but there are inactive components as well. What I was querying was just how much of the lignite is not carbon.

    I hope this helps to clear up the confusion.


  39. Lignite is very wet, hence Solid Energy wanting to remove moisture..

    Solid Energy sent Lignite all the way to the US to be dried out, and then had it shipped back (talk about low emissions eh…)

    Coalminer Solid Energy is putting together a shipment of 500 tonnes of Southland lignite for commercial trials of a United States drying plant it hopes will remove enough water so the low-quality coal can be shipped back to New Zealand as briquettes.

  40. I know lignite diesel is roughly twice as high emission-wise as petroluem diesel.

    Here are a couple of stats:

    If Solid Energy digs up 1.5 billion tonnes of lignite it will add 2.2
    billion tonnes of CO2 to the atmosphere.

    * The net annual increase in global CO2 in the atmosphere is now about 3.5
    billion tonnes per year.

    * Therefore, if Solid Energy digs up 1.5 billion tonnes of lignite it will
    make the global consequences of climate change occur about 7.5 months
    sooner than they would otherwise occur.

    I believe composition is: The multiplier for NZ lignite is 1.45 tonnes of CO2 per tonne of lignite

  41. Can someone tell me the composition of lignite? The reason I ask is that for every tonne of carbon that is burned releases nearly 4 tonnes of CO2. (Atomic Weight of 44 for CO2 vs 12 for C.) Presumably lignite has a significant component of something else – like water.


  42. BJChip, Heaps of good uses for coal. Rub coal on your face and get a job in a Dickens play, or sneak at night into a Taleban camp and take out a few suicide bombers before they kill themselves, or attend a Paul Henry protest march.

    You can clean your teeth with it, turn it into a diamond, or light one on Earth Day because you’ve turned out your wind powered electric lights.

  43. Hansen is visiting next year:

    He is very much of the view that coal has to go (or stay more so):

    Coal emissions must be phased out as rapidly as possible or global climate disasters will be a dead certainty. “Clean coal” technology does not exist and carbon capture is not economically feasible.

    Developed countries will need to complete their coal phase-out by about 2020, if global phase-out of coal is to be achieved by 2030. If coal emissions are phased out this rapidly— a tall order, but a feasible one— the climate problem is solvable. – Dr James Hansen

  44. She is in good company. It is mandatory to keep what is already sequestered in the ground, in the ground. Hansen has gotten himself arrested in the protests against the mines in West Virginia. Coal is the dirtiest fuel in universe AFAIK, and there’s not a single use that I can think of (except as a stocking stuffer for NACT), that doesn’t make the planet sicker.


  45. For 35 years I have been wrong about how to prevent climate change.

    Indeed, you can’t prevent climate change. Perhaps you actually mean AGW? It’s an easy mistake to make, because Climate Change(TM) as a cause, works better than an endless war with Eastasia and Eurasia.

    If you really want to keep coal in the ground, perhaps you could rethink the global carbon share-trading scheme?

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