Thursday, June 28, 2012

Latrobe Valley Coal power and Climate change

The flooding of the Yallourn coal mine since June 5 raises serious issues about energy security in Victoria facing a changing climate and the unwillingness of the Victorian Government to take the hard decisions in diversifying power generation to renewables.

Environment Victoria on Friday 22 June called for an independent investigation into the ongoing problems at the Yallourn mine. The open cut coal mine provides coal to the TRUenergy owned Yallourn power station via conveyor belts. The power station provides 22 per cent of Victoria's electricity, and the mine flooding and disruption to the conveyor belts has reduced power generation capacity by 75 per cent to just one unit operating since June 6 with a small stockpile of coal.

Environment Victoria Campaigns Director Mark Wakeham said in a media statement:
"The problems at Yallourn appear to be much more serious than the company is letting on. The site seems to be inherently unstable and is currently flooding every time it rains."

"We understand about 700 ML of water has been accumulating on the mine site each day since the company dammed the Morwell River following the collapse of their ill-conceived river diversion. This low quality water is now being pumped into the Latrobe River with unknown impacts on the river and the Gippsland Lakes downstream."

"Its not good enough for coal miners to turn our rivers on and off so they can keep accessing coal, and then use the rivers as a dump for polluted water. We're gravely concerned about the potential impacts on the health of the Latrobe River and Gippsland Lakes."

"Yesterday the Federal Government told Senator Madigan in question time that the Compliance and Enforcement Division for the Environment Protection and Biodviersity Conservation Unit was investigating whether any breaches of Federal legislation had occurred from releases of water to the Ramsar listed Gippsland Lakes. Senator Madigan claimed that Victoria's EPA is not carrying out any water quality testing but is instead relying on company data."

The Morwell river was diverted in a $120 million project creating a 3.5 kilometre riverbed. The diversion project won an engineering excellence award in 2005. "We were told in the approval process that the diversion was built to survive a one-in-10,000-year flood," Greens leader Mr Greg Barber told The Age. The Greens and Labor are pushing for an inquiry, but the Baillieu Government has so far rejected these calls.

Environment Victoria flew a photographer over the area last week. Here is what Mark Wakeham tweeted (Pics by Rim Zrtkevicius/Environment Victoria):

The Environment Protection Agency (EPA) has given approval to pump Morwell River flood waters from the mine into the Latrobe River and the Gippsland Lakes via an emergency 30A permit. Pumping this water will contribute to further denigrating the Latrobe River waterway and Gippsland Lakes.

This is not the first time the open cut mine has flooded. The mine's northern wall collapsed in late 2008, resulting in the nearby Latrobe river flowing into the pit.

This recent flooding event was a result of persistent rain, an extreme weather event. With the hydrological cycle warming up, we are likely to experience more intense rainfall events and more flooding events, just part of more extreme weather e ill experience. This flood damage highlights the ongoing risk to the open pit coal mining in the LaTrobe valley. The Government refusing an independent inquiry is like an ostrich sticking its head in the sand when danger approaches.

On top of the flood we had the recent earthquake in the LaTrobe Valley which had a temporary affect shutting down three of Loy Yang Power's four generator units and tripped the second unit Yallourn power station which had just been brought back on line. Hazelwood power station suffered no shutdown, although there was some temporary tripping of mine plant. As the earthquake happened during the late evening - off peak time - there was little impact on the south east Australian National Energy Market. Good thing earthquakes of 5 and above on the richter scale are relatively rare in this region.

Coal fired power stations vulnerable to climate change

But flooding isn't the only problem. In the long term coal fired power, whose emissions contribute so much to global warming, will also feel the heat of climate change and will lose productive capacity. A scientific study recently found that nuclear and coal fired electrical power plants in the USA and Europe are vulnerable to climate change. Both of these technologies are dependant on large volumes of cool water to use as a coolant. But during summer peaks the water may not be available in sufficient volume, flow or low enough temperature, or the output may adversely impact the ecological balance in the river breaking environmental regulations.

The authors predict that thermoelectric power generating capacity from 2031 to 2060 will decrease by between 4 and 16 percent in the U.S. and 6 to 19 percent in Europe due to lack of cooling water. The likelihood of extreme drops in power generation, complete or almost-total shutdowns, is projected to almost triple.

"This study suggests that our reliance on thermal cooling is something that we're going to have to revisit," said co-author Dennis Lettenmaier, a UW professor of civil and environmental engineering.

Power plants on inland lake and river systems are particularly affected. "The worst-case scenarios in the Southeast come from heat waves where you need the power for air conditioning," Lettenmaier said. "If you have really high power demand and the river temperature's too high so you need to shut your power plant down, you have a problem."

The study was published in Nature Climate Change on 3rd June 2012. From the abstract of Vulnerability of US and European electricity supply to climate change (abstract) which says in full:
In the United States and Europe, at present 91% and 78% of the total electricity is produced by thermoelectric (nuclear and fossil-fuelled) power plants, which directly depend on the availability and temperature of water resources for cooling. During recent warm, dry summers several thermoelectric power plants in Europe and the southeastern United States were forced to reduce production owing to cooling-water scarcity. Here we show that thermoelectric power in Europe and the United States is vulnerable to climate change owing to the combined impacts of lower summer river flows and higher river water temperatures. Using a physically based hydrological and water temperature modelling framework in combination with an electricity production model, we show a summer average decrease in capacity of power plants of 6.3-19% in Europe and 4.4-16% in the United States depending on cooling system type and climate scenario for 2031-2060. In addition, probabilities of extreme (>90%) reductions in thermoelectric power production will on average increase by a factor of three. Considering the increase in future electricity demand, there is a strong need for improved climate adaptation strategies in the thermoelectric power sector to assure future energy security.

The Latrobe Valley power sector is also dependent on the water of the region to provide cooling for power generation and ground water extraction for coal mining. Power generation using brown coal currently requires large amounts of water which are taken from the river systems. The climate is shifting with a trend for south east Australia to become drier according to the CSIRO. Even in the wettest two year period on record this drying trend was evident. The next big drought we might find coal fired power generation having to ration water use right when we need it most to power all our air conditioners. Ground water extraction in the area is already exceeding replenishment levels.

And now the State and Federal Government are funding HRL's proposed brown coal-gas hybrid plant in the LaTrobe Valley which will further lock-in coal mining and coal power generation technology. Technology lock-in is a huge issue when the life-span of physical assets can be 30-50 years. Neil Perry, Research Lecturer at University of Western Sydney, talks more about this on Carbon lock-in: social-technological inertias increasing our addiction to coal-fired energy at The Conversation website.

It is about time the Victorian Government started diversifying power generation instead of further carbon lock-in of coal based technologies, and the idea we should export brown coal or processed derivatives.