The environmental impacts of coal power: The tale of Beijing, China and Morwell, Vic

The use of coal fired power has spawned an entire coal generation lasting more than 100 years.

It got the industrial revolution going, has lit up our homes, powers our laptops and helped us transform as a society. But is coal generation out of touch with reality?

I sometimes wonder.

There is no doubt that being able to generate large quantities of cheap electricity has benefited society, but with our modernisation we have also learned how to understand, measure and share the known impacts of our actions far better.

Ironically, the prolific use of coal-fired generation has helped us realise that there should be a better way to make electricity. The risks increasingly appear to outweigh the benefits, particularly when it comes to health.

If you ever wanted tangible evidence that the negative consequences on health are profound, you need look no further than events of the last few weeks.

Air pollution in the Chinese capital of Beijing was described by some this week as the “Airpocolypse” when it reached a staggering reading of 552, beyond the current Air Quality Index. This week, the World Health Organisation’s representative described the pollution as a “crisis”

To give you some context, the official definition of the Air Quality Index defines levels greater than 300 as “Health alert: everyone may experience more serious health effects.” Notably this is worse than the somewhat terrifying lower limit of 201-300 which defines it as “Health warnings of emergency conditions. The entire population is more likely to be affected.”

According to Environment NSW, the AQI in downtown Sydney was today reading 30. Intriguingly in the Hunter Valley where most of our coal fired generation is based, the reading was 26% higher at 38. However, it’s still a long way from 552.

The majority of this pollution is due to the generation of electricity by burning coal or through emissions from steel mills which also use coal as part of the smelting process.

China is under immense pressure to reduce coal-fired pollution and some action has been taken to restrict emissions and recent events are galvanising previously unheard of public criticism of the government.

Almost 10,000 kms away in the small Victorian township of Morwell, the effects of this same pollution are being felt too, arguably for the first time in Australia in such obvious and profound ways.

A relatively small bushfire which started two weeks ago jumped to the Hazelwood open cut coal mine and has been ferociously burning the open coal seams ever since, despite the efforts of hundreds of local fireman. The latest updates suggest it could be “weeks, perhaps months” until the blaze is extinguished which has blanketed nearby towns in dense smoke and dangerous levels of pollution.

How dangerous? According to Victoria’s EPA the AQI in Morwell South was hovering at 1,122 as I wrote this story; almost double the same conditions described as apocalyptic in Beijing.

And where does China get most of its coal? From Australia, including mines such as Hazelwood.

The ramifications from mining and burning coal could not be more evident.

Top image: Hazelwood Power Station, via Wikipedia

© 2014 Solar Choice Pty Ltd 

Nigel Morris

Nigel is one of the foremost solar energy analysts in Australia, having worked in the industry for over two decades.
Nigel Morris