Life Cycle Greenhouse Gas Emissions from Electricity Generation: A Comparative Analysis of Australian Energy Sources

Hardisty, Paul E.; Clark, Tom S.; Hynes, Robert G.
April 2012
Energies (19961073);Apr2012, Vol. 5 Issue 4, p872
Academic Journal
Electricity generation is one of the major contributors to global greenhouse gas emissions. Transitioning the World's energy economy to a lower carbon future will require significant investment in a variety of cleaner technologies, including renewables and nuclear power. In the short term, improving the efficiency of fossil fuel combustion in energy generation can provide an important contribution. Availability of life cycle GHG intensity data will allow decision-makers to move away from overly simplistic assertions about the relative merits of certain fuels, and focus on the complete picture, especially the critical roles of technology selection and application of best practice. This analysis compares the life-cycle greenhouse gas (GHG) intensities per megawatt-hour (MWh) of electricity produced for a range of Australian and other energy sources, including coal, conventional liquefied natural gas (LNG), coal seam gas LNG, nuclear and renewables, for the Australian export market. When Australian fossil fuels are exported to China, life cycle greenhouse gas emission intensity in electricity production depends to a significant degree on the technology used in combustion. LNG in general is less GHG intensive than black coal, but the gap is smaller for gas combusted in open cycle gas turbine plant (OCGT) and for LNG derived from coal seam gas (CSG). On average, conventional LNG burned in a conventional OCGT plant is approximately 38% less GHG intensive over its life cycle than black coal burned in a sub-critical plant, per MWh of electricity produced. However, if OCGT LNG combustion is compared to the most efficient new ultra-supercritical coal power, the GHG intensity gap narrows considerably. Coal seam gas LNG is approximately 13--20% more GHG intensive across its life cycle, on a like-for like basis, than conventional LNG. Upstream fugitive emissions from CSG (assuming best practice gas extraction techniques) do not materially alter the life cycle GHG intensity rankings, such is the dominance of end-use combustion, but application of the most recent estimates of the 20-year global warming potential (GWP) increases the contribution of fugitives considerably if best practice fugitives management is not assumed. However, if methane leakage approaches the elevated levels recently reported in some US gas fields (circa 4% of gas production) and assuming a 20-year methane GWP, the GHG intensity of CSG-LNG generation is on a par with sub-critical coal-fired generation. The importance of applying best practice to fugitives management in Australia's emerging natural gas industry is evident. When exported to China for electricity production, LNG was found to be 22--36 times more GHG intensive than wind and concentrated solar thermal (CST) power and 13--21 times more GHG intensive than nuclear power which, even in the post-Fukushima world, continues to be a key option for global GHG reduction.


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