Climate change, lignite, and Solid Energy: Searching for truth and reason

Matters are coming to a head, on the lignite saga in Southland.

As climate change intensifies around the world and not least here in New Zealand, our national responsibility to respond proportionate to our size and liability increases commensurately.

The UN has prescribed a national emission reduction target of 25% to 40% off 1990 levels by 2020 for the rich (‘developed’) countries.  Few have responded adequately. New Zealand, displaying the foresight of the Dodo, has committed to 10% to 20%, conditional. While that is shameful, let us explore the implications of how (not) to get there.

A 15% cut off 1990 levels means that we would emit some 52 million tonnes GHG in 2020.  (down from our current level of 75 m. t.).  The Government, somewhat disingenuously, claims that reducing our agricultural emissions (which account for about half of the national total) is almost impossible.  They say it’s a big ask to shave 15% off within ten years.

Here, to the rescue, comes Solid Energy.  This SOE, owned by you as taxpayer, plans to engage in open cast mining in Southland over the next ten years to develop three plants using lignite – the lowest grade of (dirty brown) coal on the planet.

In select committee  hearings this week, in answer to my question, Solid Energy estimated that these three projects alone would emit 10 to 20 million tonnes (mid-point = 15 m.t.) of gross GHG emissions each year. This means 15 m.t. on top of the 75 m. t. we emit today – an increase of 25%, as opposed to a decrease of 15% on 1990 levels.

Solid Energy says, of course, that some of this will be exported (mainly to China) and so will not appear on our national carbon account.  This is pure legerdemain, since NZ coal pollutes the planet’s environment wherever it is burnt, which ruins both the NZ and Chinese climate together.  While we escape accounting liability we never escape moral-political responsibility for NZ coal.

With breath-taking confidence, Solid Energy claims that, despite this, it continually makes a net positive contribution to the NZ environment; and that its lignite projects themselves will be carbon-neutral.

The only two mechanisms by which this extraordinary goal could be achieved are through carbon forest sequestration and / or carbon capture and storage (CCS).

There is, in fact, no known technology by which CCS is proving to be viable as yet – and unlikely before 2030.  One underground storage site in Saskatchewan Canada, has recently been reported as catastrophic, as the CO2 seeps to the surface, destroying the terrain and killing biodiversity.

Mercifully, the Minister (Gerry Brownlee) had no notion of where the CCS site might be located in Southland.  That, you understand, is an operational matter for Solid Energy.

That leaves sequestration.  Solid Energy remains coy about the figures.  So let me explore the matter.  To compensate for 15 m.t. of annual gross emissions, New Zealand will need about 500,000 ha. of new forest – almost 1/50th of our landmass. But we already need those forests to sequester existing emissions.

Can our climate change saviour, Solid Energy, please give us the figures of how it will compensate for 15 m.t. of gross emissions?

37 Comments Posted

  1. sprout – did you have to go and say:
    Rumour has it that the South Island is expendable (another decent shake will destroy its value for property developers anyway),…“?


  2. dbuckley – “use Huntley more” doesn’t actually equate with “burn more coal” as it is practical to run Huntley off biomass.

    Trevor (using a different computer without my password).

  3. SPC and Trevor – you are of course correct, in principle, but, the bottom line is that the only power projects that get built are the power projects some corporation wants to build.

    Thus in the context of most individual projects, there isn’t actually a choice of what to build, its a yes/no decision on a singular project. And every time the ‘no’ decision comes through on a hydro or wind project, what that actually means is “use Huntly more”.

    And that’s why the Green Party really piss me off on this issue: the Green Party by its actions supports burning more coal.

    Even bad hydro or wind projects are better than burning more coal. think that’s going to be my new mantra.

  4. Biomass also has its place, especially for combined heat and power systems. I believe it could be a valuable dry-year backup.

    The other electricity infrastructure that I hear a lot of opposition to is of course transmission lines. However if renewable resources are to be harnessed instead of fossil fuels and nuclear power, then we will need transmission lines to transfer the energy from where it is available NOW to where it is needed NOW.


  5. It’s not as simple as hydro vs CO2 – most future water projects will have more to do with water storage and irrigation than power generation anyhow.

    Besides even now more often in the news is opposition to wind power, not hydro and this is not an issue the Green Party is closely associated with. Eventually tidal power (sea tide and current based turbines) will be the next case of clean energy vs natural habitat.

    We should note that wind turbines for household use are a future source of energy – not just solar heating for water etc. One day we may generate our own power for the car battery. At least in Wellington.

  6. Trees, it is good that there is something there that we support, this forum being given over to our opposition to things hydroelectric and so a wrong impression may be gathered by any visitor.

    However, an awful thing about this is that we may still need the “bad” hydro too if we are to wean ourselves off the fossil fuels we have to replace with electricity. It wants a lot more renewable electricity than we have now.


  7. The greens have supported good hydro, and joined conservationists in opposing bad hydro schemes – like the locale Stockton Hydro Scheme near the proposed Happy Valley mine and the Mokihinui Dam, that Peter Dunne, Forest and Bird, the FMC and others oppose. The Green Party welcomed news today that Solid Energy has withdrawn its appeal against Hydro Development Limited’s (HDL) resource consent to build a power station on the Stockton plateau.

    “Finally, we have a breakthrough for smart new power generation on the West Coast,” said Green Party conservation spokesperson, Kevin Hague.

    “The green light for the power scheme at Stockton leaves Meridian’s proposed power scheme on the Mokihinui River redundant, saving a pristine river valley from destruction.

    “HDL’s ingenious and environmentally positive scheme was always clearly the better of the two schemes. HDL’s power scheme will actually enhance the water quality of the heavily polluted Ngakawau River and the scheme will be located in a highly-modified landscape, unlike Meridian’s competing proposal.

    Cleaning up polluted mine water and providing power, seems like a way better idea than supporting stupid schemes like the gigantic Mokihinui Dam.

    Don’t forget some of the conservation movement in NZ was in a sense founded on the Save Lake Manapouri campaign. Conservation and clean energy isn’t just about more new energy all the time, there are other factors.

    The greens have been consistent in opposing coal and dirty energy, and promoting appropriate clean energy.

    This is where NZ can be moving – getting to 90-100% clean energy, and getting off the coal –—and-necessary “New Zealand has more potential than most to advance this transition to safe, clean energy and by doing so, create new jobs and increase prosperity. With appropriate planning and development we could be in a position to showcase New Zealand-made technologies to the world”

  8. Sorry, i did use a word inappropriately, but BJ has rescued the day by proving the case; the Green party are very anti-hydro, which in most cases (there is the odd exception) is the wrong thing to do. The greens should be supporting hydro, despite the fact that hydro is not a perfect solution and damage to the environment is caused.

    The bottom line is this: By supporting and thus building hydro we reduce green house gas emissions. By wishing for some other approach the Green party is fiddling while the carbon is burning, or more accurately, and in most cases, the rate of burning of carbon is increasing.

    The Green Party cannot have it both ways. Well, they continue to think they can, but we the people know better.

  9. Sam, I am sure I do not have to page backwards on this blog very far to see some comment from someone about saving some river from a dam.

    Which isn’t to say that all dams are good dams or that we should not do this, but there is not in all those intervening pages, any power generation from hydro resources that we are supporting. This is something I have observed and DBuckley has observed. Greens do not want the hydro-power resources to be used.

    I really really do understand that, and the conflict that these projects create, but I do not agree with the way the party seems to come down against every project that involves a dam on a river somewhere.


  10. My question was real – which particular projects have the Greens blocked (or tried to)? If there’s a pattern of opposing things per se, the criticism is valid. If the opposition is to badly thought out, el cheapo, particularly environmentally destructive hydro schemes, then it isn’t.

  11. Sam

    It is a fair criticism in terms of what we sometimes TRY to do, and I have criticized the party for that same thing. I have a more realistic apprehension of our commitment to reducing CO2 emissions than DBuckley seems to accept, as I understand the conflicting goals that exist in this space.

    I know that the party IS serious.

    I also understand why there is a definite perception that we are not, when it comes to our activity around hydro plants and storage. When there are alternatives to building more hydro I will be happier to avoid the hydro, but at present the demand is massive and increasing, and the changes we are getting in demand (we need reductions and conservation, not increases) and supply (we need more wind, more tide, more solar, more wave and more geo), are not keeping up.

    Which means that we are importing and digging up stuff to burn. Not what we want.

    We have to make each dam unnecessary rather than opposing it because something pretty will be put underwater. We are not even close to that yet.


  12. “When the Green Party stop blocking (most) hydro plants”

    What hydro plants have the Greens ‘blocked’? And how does such a small party ‘block’ anything?

  13. Oh like, when business puts profits before the conservation estate and environment, Greens placing CO2 reduction as a priority.

    But what if it is not necessary to do this to reduce CO2 emmissions? Is this then not building more hydro rather than using other means?

  14. Lignite: dirty brown forbidden fruit

    There was a slight acknowledgement that there were carbon footprint issues still to be resolved and some soothing suggestions, reported in the Otago Daily Times, that approaches such as mixing synthetic diesel with biofuels, carbon capture and storage, and planting trees, could reduce the net emissions. With a convenient fall-back – that the company could pay someone elsewhere in the world to do this for it. There is little evidence that carbon capture and storage will feature as anything more than talk in this scenario.

  15. CCS Carbon-Leaks

    It’s a case of canary in the coalmine for carbon capture and storage (CCS). The Weyburn-Midale Carbon Dioxide Project in Canada, reportedly the largest CCS project in the world, has begun to leak CO2. A farming couple who own land above the project have commissioned and released a damning independent report that discovered carbon dioxide is escaping from its supposedly secure confines under the ground, contaminating water sources and killing small animals. Already a technology that fails on many frontiers, the news should herald another nail in the coffin for CCS.

    The disastrous potential CO2 leakages have for lifeforms was demonstrated in 1986 in Lake Nyos, Nigeria. Some 1700 people and 3500 livestock were killed by a deadly cloud of concentrated carbon gas leaking from the rock beneath their feet.

    Dr James Hansen also thinks coal is a dud:

    “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.”

    So what New Zealand really needs is a national energy plan, not coal industry PR from Brownlee and his boss coal pimp Dr Don Elder.

  16. An interesting article in the current (19-25 Feb 2011) Listener about sequestering carbon by coppicing trees and compressing the wood so that it is heavier than water, then simply dumping it into the deep ocean. This is similar to the processes that millions of years ago formed the coal, oil and gas that we have been digging up now.

    With such a process, New Zealand could easily meet its Kyoto obligations and even be paid to reduce our net emissions further.


  17. The short-term profits of pumping CO2 into the air this way WILL increase.

    Not taking advantage of this does not however represent a loss…

    …and trying to seize such a profit is deadly in the long run.

    The nations of the world will (some of them) do exactly that… burn coal without any CCS or any other mitigation. The results will be very bad.

    Our need as a nation is to disconnect from the global debacle and to be able to build the things we need ourselves. When the US $ loses reserve-currency status the collapse in its value will make it almost impossible to sell to them. What they have that we want will be.. next to nothing.

    That effort to disconnect entails new industries being built that can replace the mining of coal, and that is what we should be doing, and encouraging… not simply going in and blindly digging up sequestered carbon in order to get at the Hydrogen that is sequestered with it (situation with CCS) or to burn it and the Hydrogen into the atmosphere to worsen the climate situation at the fastest possible rate (situation with no CCS).

    Both processes are futile in the long run.


  18. I just had another bizarre vision of a sad figure desperately knocking on the gate of a privileged community crying….”Please let me in, haven’t I always been loyal and steadfast in my praise and support? Haven’t I also been strong in my condemnation of those nasty Green people who questioned your wise decisions and didn’t hold the faith as true as I? Please let me in……’s me, Photonz!”

  19. This Government is not a sophisticated one. It does not require due diligence for its decisions, it distrusts science and academia, it surrounds itself with corporate lobbyists and is attracted by quick bucks like a moth to a light bulb. Conservative governments never look to the future but cling desperately to the ways of the past and are skilled at humming loudly and covering their ears when alternative views are expressed. They love their jobs, their BMWs and most of all their sexy, sexy coal. If, by the merest possibility, they could have been even a little bit wrong they have ensured their homes are well away (no coal dust drift over the English house thank you).

    Rumour has it that the South Island is expendable (another decent shake will destroy its value for property developers anyway), so why not squeeze every possible litre of milk and every tonne of coal out of it while the going is good? At this very minute gated communities are being built in the major North Island cities and special motorways are being constructed to connect them. Delegations have spent time in Israel to learn how to corral the low waged masses into walled camps. This drastic action will be explained as a necessary security precaution against the dangerous insurgents commonly known as “tree huggers”………

    Ahem…sorry about that I got a little carried away, I know John, Bill and Gerry care deeply about the low waged the sanctity of our environment and the value of public transport. The above scenario is completely preposterous.

  20. A couple of minor points:
    – 15 million tonnes is 20%, not 25% of 75 million tonnes;
    – as I understand it, the plants are one to create briquettes, one to create a synthetic diesel fuel and the last to create urea or similar ammonia-derived fertilizers, etc. They are not planning to build a power station. All three plants convert the coal to something else. None burn the coal directly for their process, although I concede that they might need to burn some coal for process heat as well.

    It is still stupid to dig up the lignite. They would be better using wood.


  21. If the plan is to export the dirty coal to China, has anyone asked them whether they want it? They have plenty of this sort themselves – they only want to import the good stuff.

    As to urea, making it here rather than importing it – the problem is that would require the subsidy of the Kyoto cost being given to Solid Energy

    1. expanding the ETS approach where the public subsidise business
    2. this government intends to sell 49% of Solid Energy and one wonders what influence this has on the plans.

  22. Photonz, again, if you keep on with this I will lose all respect for anything you say. There is no way to sequester the output of a power plant by running it through greenhouses. Stop being silly.


  23. Photonz

    Sleipner is a STORAGE field, natural gas and light oil are extracted and it is NOT, repeat after me NOT BURNING COAL. It is no more capturing the Carbon from a coal burning plant than it is flying to the moon on the wings of a butterfly.

    There is no commercial CCS for Coal anywhere on the planet and none is expected until 2030 according to MIT.

    Not that that matters any, because there wasn’t any CCS being built into the Solid-Energy proposal… given that any effective technique of doing this is going to triple the price of electricity so generated.

    CCS does not come close to mitigating the OTHER problems that burning this stuff creates which gives another 24 cents per KWH in costs to the society per the Harvard Medical School analysis.

    This isn’t even arguably a good idea. It is an entirely crap idea. I’d rather see a nuke down there than this stuff coming out of the ground, but that wouldn’t do any good because the whole point is to ship it to China.

    Just like selling off every other part of New Zealand.

    Like it would make a difference where it is burned.

    This isn’t acceptable at any level at all. It isn’t financially viable without the tacit subsidies that go with it.


  24. Kennedy says “There is, in fact, no known technology by which CCS is proving to be viable as yet – and unlikely before 2030.”

    Yet in the Netherlands, they actually PAY TO BUY CO2 emissions to feed their greenhouses

  25. Can you talk to the Southland Times editor about this Kennnedy?
    Southlanders are hungry for the real story around lignite. So far, we’ve been starved of anything substantial and just fed ‘sexy coal’ spin.

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