Which of Australia’s 19 coal power stations are the most polluting? And are more modern coal power stations less polluting than older ones?
There are two ways of measuring how polluting a coal power station is. One way is to look at total greenhouse gas emissions – simply, which power station produces the highest emissions over a given time.
Another way is to compare a power station’s emissions to the amount of electricity it produces – how many emissions are created for each unit of electricity produced? This is called the emissions intensity and it is calculated by dividing emissions by electricity production. This is the approach I will use in this post.
Emissions intensity is useful because it accounts for the fact that power stations generate different amounts of electricity. For example: if power station A is running full bore 365 days a year, it will produce significantly more emissions than power station B that is running for just 200 days a year. But if both power stations were running for 365 days, power station B may actually produce more emissions. That is, power station B has a higher emissions intensity.
The biggest determinant of emissions intensity is fuel source. Solar and wind energy can be utilised without any emissions being generated, so its emissions intensity is zero. The energy in coal, gas and oil can only be released by being burnt – producing a lot of greenhouse gas emissions in the process. Burning gas is less polluting than burning coal, and burning black coal is less polluting than burning brown coal.*
Let’s look at the numbers. There are 19 coal power stations still operating in Australia. How do they compare?
Until 2017 the title of dirtiest power station had long been held by Victoria’s now-shuttered Hazelwood power station. Today, Australia’s dirtiest coal power stations are Hazelwood’s neighbours, the three remaining coal power stations in Victoria. Fed by highly polluting brown coal, the Yallourn power station is now Australia’s dirtiest power station, with an emissions intensity of 1.31. This is fully 39% more polluting than the dirtiest black coal power station in Australia (Callide B in Queensland). This ancient power station is the second oldest in Australia, built in the early 1970s.
There is a decent gap after Yallourn, with the second and third dirtiest power stations the nearby Loy Yang A (1.16) and Loy Yang B (1.13). These power stations were built in the 1980s and 1990s respectively.
All three of these power stations are run on brown coal, which is why they are so polluting. There is a big gap between those three and the rest of Australia’s coal power stations (the full table is below).
Australia’s other coal power stations all run on black coal and they are located in New South Wales, Queensland and Western Australia. The emissions intensity of all these coal power stations is similar. The dirtiest is Callide B (0.94) and the least dirty are Kogan Creek and Millmerran (both 0.82).
Averaging out the emissions intensity of each state’s coal fleet paints a similar picture, with Victoria’s brown coal fleet much dirtier than the black coal fleets in other states. In terms of tackling climate change, clearly we should be prioritising the closure of Victoria’s coal fleet before other states.
Average emissions intensity of each state’s coal fleet:
This lack of variation in emissions intensity among black coal power stations is perhaps not surprising considering they all use the same fuel source – black coal. But on the other hand, the oldest of these power stations was built in 1971 (Liddell) and the youngest was built in 2009 (Bluewaters). This is a gap of 38 years. Surely coal power station technology has improved and become less polluting over the course of four decades?
A look at the average emissions intensity of Australia’s black coal power stations by decade of construction reveals that the answer is a resounding no:
- 1970s: 0.90
- 1980s: 0.89
- 1990s: 0.88
- 2000s: 0.87
Coal power stations built in the 2000s are just 3.3% less polluting than those built in the 1970s.
So next time you hear someone talking about new “modern”, “high efficiency”, “low emissions”, “ultra supercritical” coal power stations, have a good laugh. The only way to stop a coal power station from being so polluting is to stop it burning coal. The newness of the power station doesn’t make much difference.
Table of Australia’s coal power stations by emissions intensity. The dirtiest are at the top, the least dirty are at the bottom:
|Facility Name||State||Total Emissions |
|Emission Intensity |
(t CO2-e/ MWh)
|Loy Yang A |
|Loy Yang B |
|Callide B |
|Callide C |
Power Station 1
Power Station 2
(including Tarong North)
|Vales Point |
|Mt Piper |
|Kogan Creek |
The table and all data in this post was sourced directly or calculated from the Clean Energy Regulator’s annual Electricity sector emissions and generation data 2018-19.
* Broadly speaking, there are two main stages at which the fossil fuel industry produces greenhouse gas emissions: extraction and burning. When coal or gas is dug up from the ground, emissions that were trapped in the ground are released into the atmosphere (extraction). More emissions are then released when coal or gas is burnt, often in a power station to produce electricity (burning). This data only looks at power station emissions so it does not account for the emissions produced during extraction.