Further evidence that coal-fired power has reached its use-by-date

| August 18, 2017

This week’s report on Australian coal-fired power stations reveals staggering levels of polluting emissions and underlines the problems created by coal combustion for the health of the planet and its inhabitants, and provides further evidence that coal as a fuel is approaching its use-by date.

These are compelling reasons to phase out all coal-fired power stations within the next 10 years, starting with the most polluting, to reduce the numbers of avoidable deaths and illnesses.

Environmental Justice Australia’s (EJA) comprehensive report concentrates on the four most toxic substances which are emitted by coal-fired power stations: particulate matter called PM10 and PM2.5 depending on their size, sulphur dioxide (SO2) and oxides of nitrogen (NOx).

PM10 mainly causes chronic lung disease while the finer PM2.5 can pass through the lungs and into the circulation and contribute to heart disease, stroke and cancer. Sulphur dioxide and oxides of nitrogen cause lung irritation and associated symptoms such as cough and wheeze, and can precipitate asthma. Children and the elderly are especially vulnerable to the adverse effects of these gases.

EJA points out several concerns over the emission of these pollutants:

  • Monitoring is done by the companies themselves as infrequently as once a year. Based on limited information, annual estimates are then calculated by the company and reported to the National Pollutant Inventory. While some have acted responsibly, there is evidence of companies manipulating the combustion processes when levels are being measured.
  • Levels are judged against limits which are 2-5 times greater than those in Europe, China and the USA. Doctors for the Environment Australia and EJA have worked together for many years in an effort to have more stringent standards introduced throughout Australia. These efforts have been partly successful in some states but uniform standards are lacking.
  • Even when limits have been exceeded, no company has been prosecuted.
  • The current method of electrostatic precipitation to remove particulate matter, which is employed in Victorian power stations, is only partly effective. There are several industrial processes which can more effectively reduce airborne pollution which the power stations could install.  These include wet scrubbers to remove sulphur dioxide and a process called selective catalytic reduction to remove oxides of nitrogen. In the USA, power stations have been required to install these pollution reduction technologies or close.

Advocates for the continuation of coal-fired power stations are promoting the establishment of HELE (high-efficiency, low emission) technology. However even the most advanced “ultra-supercritical” use of brown coal would reduce toxic emissions by only 14% without the addition of the special anti-pollution devices.

The prime purpose of HELE though is to reduce carbon emissions, and since the reduction achieved would be nowhere near sufficient to achieve Australia’s targets, as well as being hugely expensive, HELE does not have a future in power production.

EJA’s recommendations to introduce strong and uniform pollution standards and for more rigorous independent monitoring are timely. Results should be available to the community in real-time and action taken where limits are exceeded.

Ill health comes at a cost which is not paid by the companies or by consumers. However, indirectly we are all paying through our health system.  In the Hunter Valley, NSW, this amounts to an estimated $600M per year. In Victoria, if all the external costs (including health-care) had been accounted for in the operation of the Hazelwood power station, which closed earlier this year, the true wholesale price would have been tripled.

This week’s announcement of Port Augusta’s solar thermal initiative in South Australia is an example of smart, clean technology benefitting communities with cleaner air, a healthier environment and more jobs.

It’s time for federal and all state governments to leave coal in the ground and invest in the health and prosperity of all Australian

John Iser
Dr John Iser is the Victorian Chair of Doctors for the Environment Australia. He has been a general physician and gastroenterologist.


  1. Max Thomas

    Max Thomas

    September 5, 2017 at 3:17 pm

    I accept the health warnings published by ‘Doctors for the Environment’ (DEA) about coal and support the aim of reducing our dependence on fossil fuels. I also take your points about NOx and SOx and the hidden externalities of coal-fired power generation. But there seems to be a pre-occupation with particulate emissions from the power industry to the exclusion of a much greater mass of potentially more harmful diffuse emissions. Reading the article “Time to End the Debate and Get On With It” and related material on the DEA website, it seems to me that DEA is less concerned with public health than politics. The article claims that National Pollutant Inventory (NPi) data show that “electricity production accounts for a “staggering 29% of PM2.5 emissions”. In fact, that was the amount contributed by electricity generators as a percentage of industrial PM2.5 emissions reported to NPi, other major sources were not included. I was astonished that DEA published an unqualified statement based on NPi PM2.5 data, despite claiming later that the NPi figures were deficient and unreliable. The DEA article goes on to assert, in relation to the closure of coal-fired power stations that “we have seen distortion of the facts, causing many people confusion and uncertainty”. This, despite DEA misquoting NPi data, apparently to cause fear and anxiety which I had always presumed would be abhorrent to the medical profession.

    Particles smaller than PM2.5 were present in the atmosphere long before humans appeared; they are found in deep ice cores taken from the Antarctic. ‘Excess’ deaths are caused by air pollution but the contribution of PM2.5 is not completely understood. At present, monitoring is quantitative and the authorities are still making adjustments to their PM2.5 monitoring equipment, so drawing conclusions from the data seems premature. It is misleading and irresponsible to conflate incomplete PM2.5 data with preventable deaths caused by generic air pollution, thus creating the impression that a reliable correlation has been established between (some of) the deaths and electricity production.

    The mass of particulates released by wildfires and fuel reduction burns overwhelms that emitted by power stations. About 1 million hectares of forest is burned by wildfires and for fuel reduction in Australia each year, roughly 10-20% of this in Victoria. Very high PM2.5 levels have been recorded near fuel reduction burning sites. Including savannah and grasslands, the area burned is at least twice the size of Victoria. In this more realistic and objective context, the contribution of PM2.5 particle emissions from electricity production is far less “staggering”.

    Potentially reactive particles from fuel reduction burning may be more harmful than those resulting from high temperature combustion. Surely public health would be better served if medical experts were to collaborate with others to better understand the origin, nature and fate of PM2.5 particulates in the Australian setting. Are the physico-chemical characteristics of PM2.5 emitted from power stations similar to those from bushfires? What happens when they mix under various conditions? What are the potential health impacts? Are the existing limits alone sufficient to mitigate health risks?

    Bushfires, especially ‘cool’ burns are known to contain toxic and potentially harmful substances, including TCDD (Dioxin). It has been estimated that bushfires may contribute at least 20-30% of the total release of dioxin-like compounds to the environment in Australia but the health effects are not well understood.
    It would be refreshing to read medical opinions about the health impacts of low temperature combustion in fuel reduction burns.

    It is certainly true that health and environment are inseparable, but serious questions arise when one or the other is set aside, apparently for political convenience. My main concern is that DEA, in this instance at least, seems content that the end will justify the means. Basing an argument on science requires the rigorous application of scientific standards and methods. Otherwise, not only is the credibility of DEA at risk, it may serve to strengthen resistance to the transition from fossil fuels. I certainly have no wish to see that happen.

  2. Alan Douglas

    September 6, 2017 at 10:12 am

    When we read about power generators, especially renewables, we generally have a picture of vast arrays of collectors surrounded by earth or short vegetation. I wonder if it would be practicable to spread solar panels out so that they don’t impinge so much on the environment? The Little Desert in Victoria’s north west is a beautiful national park. If collectors were to be placed so that they were below the average height of the surrounding vegetation, a huge area could be covered without impinging too much on the wild-life or beauty of the environment. Most country towns have spare space and some of them are using it to produce power, Batteries are now so cheap that producing and storing power in this way is cheaper than by using conventional coal/gas. It seems to me that by centralising production we are increasing pollution because the amount of power per unit area covered dictates that we have to produce at a higher rate.
    I would welcome a comment here by Max or John.

  3. Max Thomas

    Max Thomas

    September 11, 2017 at 2:24 pm

    Being ‘locked into’ one technology or provider might not be ideal, especially given that the Finkel Review found that there remains much to do in developing a national integrated framework for planning and development of future energy infrastructure.
    Dr Ariel Liebman, Deputy Director of the Monash Energy Materials and Systems Institute, points out that decisions will have to be made on where we should build batteries, versus off-river pumped hydro storage, as well as where and how much additional transmission capacity we should build. This requires an expansion of transmission cost-benefit assessment processes to include cross-state investment that will take place over the next 20-30 years, as we will be connecting unprecedented quantities of new wind and solar farms often far from existing grid locations. Dr Liebman went on to say that failing to take such a national approach will likely result in billions of dollars of stranded assets as different technologies unexpectedly emerge as competitive at various locations at different points in the future.

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