In just one decade, the United States has halved its coal use

It is one of the most remarkable energy transition stories – how the United States, the world’s largest economy, has halved its coal generation in just a decade. This post will provide an overview of American electricity generation, how it has changed over the last decade and how it compares with Australia. My post next week will explore the fascinating differences in coal generation across the 50 American states.

The national picture

Table 1. Proportion of electricity generation by fuel source in the United States.

Fuel source% in 2010% in 2015% in 2019Change from
2010 to 2019
Natural gas23.9%32.7%38.4%14.5%
Other renewables 
(incl. wind and solar)
Change in
total generation 
from 2010
to 2019

It is no secret that current United States President Trump doesn’t accept the reality of climate change and support for the coal industry has been a key part of his electoral strategy. It is also no secret that former President Obama mostly failed to seriously cut greenhouse gas emissions in his eight years in office because many of his policy initiatives were blocked by a Republican-controlled Congress (and conservative Democrats). 

It is a reflection of the weakness of the presidency and the federal government in the United States more generally that these events have had little impact on the underlying economic trends that have driven a steep and rapid decline in coal use over the last decade.

In 2010, coal was the single largest source of electricity generation in the United States, providing 45% of the country’s electricity. Gas provided 24% and nuclear provided 20%. Renewables, primarily hydro, provided 10% and other sources provided 1.5%.

Since then, coal generation has collapsed by almost half to just 24%. About one third of the decline in coal has been replaced by renewables, primarily new wind and solar plants. But gas generation has replaced the other two-thirds, increasing to 38%. Increased gas generation is not much of an improvement than coal from an emissions perspective because gas can be just as polluting as coal.

Gas is now the single largest source of electricity generation in the United States, even if it only provides a bit over a third of the country’s electricity. Coal, nuclear and renewables provide 24%, 20% and 18% respectively of the country’s electricity. 

But there is more nuance to this. Although coal’s decline has been steady over the past decade, the increase in gas and renewables has not.

Between 2010 and 2015, the proportion of coal generation declined by almost 12%. About three-quarters of the gap left by coal was filled by gas and just one quarter was filled by renewables. This period was primarily characterised by cheap new gas supplies driving out more expensive coal.

The situation has been quite different over the last four years. Between 2015 and 2019, coal declined by almost 10%. Yet gas only covered about 55% of this gap; renewables covered 45%. Wind and solar in the United States are now outcompeting coal and are increasingly outcompeting gas (in Australia, wind and solar farms are already significantly cheaper than both new coal and new gas). Increasingly as coal power stations shut down, more and more of the gap is being filled by renewables.

On current trends, renewables will soon become the second largest source of electricity generation in the United States, on track to overtake both coal and nuclear in the next two to three years. In contrast to the rapid decline of coal and the rise in gas and renewables, nuclear generation has been stagnant, up just 0.1% in a decade.

There are some revealing contrasts between the energy transformations taking place in the United States and Australia:

  • The United States has long had a more diverse mix of electricity generation than Australia, a situation that is still true today. While gas is the United States’ largest source of generation at 38%, coal is the largest source of generation in Australia at 56%. The risks of relying on such a polluting fuel source for such a large amount of Australia’s electricity will only increase as the world decarbonises.
  • A core driver of the decline in United States coal generation has been the large fall in the price of gas. This is the complete opposite of the situation in Australia, where gas prices have skyrocketed in recent years.
  • The total amount of electricity generation has barely changed in the United States over the last decade – down just slightly (0.2%). In the last five years alone, Australia’s total electricity generation has increased by 4%. 
  • The United States has a number of legacy nuclear power stations, built in previous decades and increasingly ageing. This means that the United States gets 37% of its electricity from non-greenhouse gas emitting power sources*, despite only 18% coming from renewable energy sources, like wind, solar and hydro. Australia does not have any nuclear power stations and we get slightly more of our electricity from renewables than the United States (21%). 

If the trends of the past decade are anything to go by, the United States will completely phase out coal generation by the early 2030s.** For Australia to do the same will require a much more rapid phase out of coal than is currently planned.  

Next week’s post will look at coal generation in more detail across America’s fifty states. 

All data on electricity generation in the United States was calculated from the United States Energy Information Administration’s Electricity Data Browser.

Data on electricity generation used in this post was calculated from the Federal Government’s Australian Energy Statistics – Table O, released in May 2020.

*Nuclear power stations do produce toxic waste, but not in the form of greenhouse gases.

** Past performance is not necessarily a reliable indicator of future performance, to repurpose the super fund disclaimer.


Electricity generation in Australia, Part 4: NSW and VIC

This is the fourth and final part of a series looking at electricity generation in Australia. You can also read parts one, two and three.

This post will provide an overview of electricity generation in New South Wales and Victoria over the last five years.

New South Wales:

New South Wales201520182019Change from
2015 to 2019
Black coal80.5%78.8%76.8%-3.7%
solar PV
Natural gas7.3%3.1%4.1%-3.2%
solar PV
Oil products0.4%0.5%0.5%0.1%
Change in 
from 2015 
to 2019

New South Wales* is the most coal dependent state in Australia, with black coal providing 77% of the state’s electricity generation. New South Wales is also the least reliant on gas of the mainland states, at 4%.

Almost 19% of the state’s electricity is from renewable energy, including 6% wind, 5% hydro, 4% rooftop solar and 2% large-scale solar. Biomass provides almost 2%. Overall, the state generates 9% more electricity now than it did in 2015.

New South Wales has had the most stable electricity supply make-up over the last five years, symptomatic of a lack of support for the renewable energy industry until very recently. The biggest changes have been the 3.7% decrease in coal and the 3.5% increase in wind. 

Total renewable energy generation in New South Wales bounces around year-to-year due to the state’s relatively high proportion of hydro generation. Hydro generation is heavily influenced by rainfall, which is variable.

From 2018 to 2019, wind and solar generation increased by 3.4% – a sizeable increase not far behind Victoria and Queensland. But total renewable energy generation increased by just 1.2%. The wind and solar increase was partly cancelled out by a 2.2% decline in hydro generation, due to low rainfall.

Conversely, there has been heavy rainfall in the first half of 2020, so it is probable that hydro will drive a sizeable increase in total renewable energy this year, even if wind and solar do not increase by much. 

So when analysing the renewable energy transition in New South Wales, it is best to exclude hydro generation to get a more accurate picture of the situation. 

Big changes loom in New South Wales. The state has the oldest coal power station fleet in the country including the 48-year old Liddell power station, which will shut during 2022 and 2023. The state government has also begun a process to enable a massive increase in renewable energy projects in the years to come. Clearly the stability of recent years is coming to an end.


Victoria201520182019Change from
2015 to 2019
Brown coal85.4%75.8%70.2%-15.2%
Natural gas3.1%6.3%8.3%5.2%
solar PV
solar PV
Oil products0.2%0.4%0.4%0.2%
Change in 
from 2015 
to 2019

Victoria sources a bit over two-thirds of its electricity generation from brown coal – it is the only state in Australia that burns brown coal. Wind energy is the second largest source of electricity at 11%, with rooftop solar providing 5%, hydro 2% and biomass and large-scale solar each providing almost 2%. Gas supplies 8%.

Victoria’s electricity sector has been turbulent in recent years. Victoria is the only state in Australia where overall electricity generation has declined over the past five years, down by almost 16%. This is primarily due to the sudden closure in 2017 of Hazelwood, Australia’s oldest and most polluting coal power station, which came just months after its owners announced the closure. 

This sent shockwaves throughout the electricity sector, which was unprepared for such a sudden withdrawal of electricity supply. This led to an increase in generation from all other energy sources (except hydro) while Victoria became increasingly reliant on importing electricity at times of high electricity demand from South Australia, Tasmania and to a lesser extent New South Wales.

Ironically, the supply impacts of Hazelwood’s closure have been compounded by climate change. Increasingly extreme heat waves in recent summers have driven up electricity demand whilst causing major breakdowns in Victoria’s remaining ageing coal power stations. Witness the enforced blackouts across parts of Melbourne in January 2019, when several of the state’s coal units broke down due to the extreme heat.

Victoria has a relatively high proportion of renewable energy at 21%, with strong increases in both wind and solar generation over the last five years. Wind and solar generation will increase further in the next couple of years as Victoria is currently the renewable energy investment capital of Australia, with more new projects scheduled to connect over the next 12 months than in any other state. Unfortunately, this also means that Victoria is suffering most acutely from onerous grid connection requirements on new renewable energy projects.

While the state is on track to exceed 50% renewable energy by 2030, Victoria continues to be grossly unprepared for another coal closure. I continue to think that an early full or partial closure of the Yallourn coal power station within the next five years is far more likely than generally appreciated ……but that is a topic for another post.

Data on electricity generation used in this post was calculated from the Federal Government’s Australian Energy Statistics – Table O, released in May 2020.

* For electricity generation purposes, the ACT is included in the total for New South Wales. The ACT has relatively little electricity generation within its borders but the local government purchases renewable energy to supply 100% of the ACT’s electricity consumption.


Wind and solar farms are still stuck in the waiting room

Source: Pinterest

Back in May, I wrote a post about the wind and solar farms connecting to the electricity grid over the next twelve months. With the release of AEMO’s latest generation information on July 22nd, I can provide an update on how things are going and compare what has changed since the previous release on May 1st. 

And the news is not encouraging. Much like Agent Dale Cooper in the red room of Twin Peaks, not knowing when he’ll be allowed to leave and whether he’ll have to wait two minutes or 25 years, completed wind and solar farms continue to be stuck indefinitely in the waiting room of the electricity grid in record numbers. 

Since May 1, just one solar farm has entered full service. This is despite 14 wind and solar farms originally being scheduled to enter full service by the end of July.

Table 1. Just one solar or wind farm has entered service since May 1.

StateWind and solar projectsSize (MW)
QLDHaughton solar133

The connection dates for many projects have been delayed even further since May. The full commercial use dates for 18 wind and solar projects have been pushed back, a clear sign that AEMO is still struggling to deliver timely connections. Ten of these projects have been hit by comparatively minor delays of one to two months, albeit these delays add to existing delays of months or even years.

Eight projects face more severe delays:

  • The Bungala 2 solar farm and Murra Warra stage one wind farm have been delayed by three months, while the Goonumbla, Kiamal stage one and Glenrowan West solar farms have all been delayed by four months.
  • The Dundonnell wind farm in Victoria has been delayed by five months.
  • The Yarranlea solar farm in Queensland has been delayed by six months.
  • Worst of all, stage 2 of the Lincoln Gap wind farm in South Australia has been delayed a full 14 months. Instead of connecting next month, it will now have to wait until October next year.

To reiterate, almost all these projects have finished construction. The delays are overwhelmingly caused by strict new grid connection rules introduced by the operator of the electricity grid, AEMO.

There is a silver lining: the number of projects in commissioning (ie. in the process of connecting to the grid) has surged from nine to seventeen. Eleven of these projects are schedule to be online by the end of August. I am very skeptical AEMO will keep to this timetable but we live in hope.

AEMO has also provided full commercial use dates for six new wind and solar projects. These are outlined in the table below. One of these projects, the Silverton wind farm in New South Wales, had actually been classified as ‘in service’ until the latest update, when its status reverted to ‘in commissioning’ (it seems that the previous ‘in service’ listing was an error as it has been reported that the project had faced connection issues for the last two years).

Table 2. Full commercial use dates for six new wind and solar projects have been revealed in the latest Generation Information update.

StateWind and solar projectsFull commercial use dateSize (MW)
NSWSilverton wind*Aug-20199
VICBerrybank windOct-20181
QLDMiddlemount solarDec-2026
QLDBroadsound solarDec-20355
NSWWellington solarFeb-21211
NSWBango 973 windApr-21159

The delays to wind and solar farm connections are endangering the future of renewable energy development in Australia, probably more than any other factor. As RenewEconomy has reported extensively, many of the biggest wind and solar farm developers have abandoned Australia over the last 18 months after making huge losses on projects that have completed construction but are unable to connect to the grid.

The next AEMO update – probably at the end of September or October – should provide a clearer picture of whether AEMO are actually getting on top of the connection process, or if the seemingly never-ending commissioning delays will continue to slowly suffocate the renewable energy industry. 

Table 3. Month of estimated full commercial operation of new wind and solar projects, as of July 22.

StateWind and solar projectsFull commercial
use date
Size (MW)
NSWBomen solarJul-20100
NSWNevertire solarJul-20132
VICElaine windJul-2084
VICYendon windJul-20144
VICCherry Tree windJul-2058
QLDMaryrorough solarJul-2035
QLDCoopers Gap windJul-20453
SABungala 2 solarAug-20135
VICMurra Warra Stage 1 windAug-20226
TASCattle Hill windAug-20144
SALincoln Gap wind stage 1Aug-20126
VICMortlake South windAug-20158
NSWSilverton windAug-20199
NSWGoonumbla solarSep-2070
NSWDarlington Point solarSep-20275
TASGranville Harbour windSep-20112
VICYatpool solarSep-2050
VICCrowlands windSep-2080
QLDKennedy solarOct-2015
QLDKennedy windOct-2043
QLDWarwick solarOct-2032
VICBerrybank windOct-20181
VICKiamal Stage 1 solarNov-20200
QLDOakey 2 solarNov-2056
NSWLimondale solar 1Nov-20220
QLDYarranlea solarDec-20103
VICDundonnell windDec-20336
NSWBiala windDec-2011
NSWSunraysia solarDec-20229
NSWCollector windDec-20227
NSWMolong solarDec-2032
QLDLilyvale solarDec-20118
VICMoorabool windDec-20312
VICStockyard Hill windDec-20532
VICBulgana Green Power Hub windDec-20194
QLDMiddlemount solarDec-2026
QLDBroadsound solarDec-20355
NSWWellington solarFeb-21211
QLDGangarri solarMar-21120
VICWinton solarMar-2185
VICGlenrowan West solarApr-21106
NSWCrudine Ridge windApr-21135
VICCohuna solarApr-2131
NSWBango 973 windApr-21159
SALincoln Gap wind stage 2Oct-2186
Total: 45 projects6,736

Note: This table includes the Mortlake South wind farm and the Broadsound solar farm, which are technically classified as emerging and maturing projects rather than committed projects. But both projects are expected to have full commercial use by the end of this year so I have included them in this post. Queensland is also home to the committed Hughenden solar farm but a full commercial use date is not provided and as such, it is not included in this post.

The data in this post was sourced from AEMO’s Generation Information July 2020. This is the one-stop shop for information on power stations in the National Electricity Market and is updated every few months.

* The Silverton wind farm was previously classified as ‘in service’. See note in text.


Electricity generation in Australia, Part 3: SA and QLD

This is the third part of a series looking at electricity generation in Australia. Part one is here and part two is here.

This post will provide an overview of electricity generation in South Australia and Queensland over the last five years.

South Australia:

Table 1. Proportion of electricity generation by fuel source: SA

South Australia201520182019Change from 2015 to 2019
Natural gas38%47.9%48.9%10.9%
solar PV
solar PV
Oil products1.2%1%0.9%-0.3%
Brown coal20.9%-20.9%
Change in 
from 2015 
to 2019

South Australia has probably had the most significant electricity transformation of any state over the last five years. 

Today, South Australia gets the majority of its electricity from renewables, with wind providing 37% of the state’s electricity generation and solar providing 13% (including 10% rooftop solar). Gas provides 49%.

In 2015, 21% of South Australia’s electricity was from brown coal. In 2016, the state’s last coal power station shut down, taking out a fifth of the state’s electricity supply. The gap has been filled more or less equally by both gas and renewables (which have increased by 11% and 10% respectively).

Overall electricity generation has increased by 19% in the last five years. To understand why, we have to consider the effects of the Hazelwood coal power station closure in Victoria. Hazelwood’s closure in 2017 transformed the import/export relationship between Victoria and South Australia. Previously, Victoria’s cheap coal power stations had provided substantial electricity exports to South Australia. South Australia’s gas power stations were more expensive to run so didn’t turn on as often.

But after Hazelwood’s closure, Victoria suddenly had a lot less electricity to send to South Australia and, at times, Victoria now relies upon South Australia to export it electricity. Consequently, many of South Australia’s more expensive gas generators were up and running significantly more often. As well as pushing up electricity prices, this drove the 19% increase in South Australia’s electricity generation.

South Australia continues to be a world leader in wind and solar but the next stage of the state’s transition will require a significant expansion in storage capacity and the construction of a new transmission line connecting South Australia to New South Wales. This interconnector is scheduled to be up and running in 2023.

It will also require a resolution to the state’s system security issues. With wind and solar providing much of the state’s electricity supply at certain times of the day, the electricity grid operator (AEMO) has placed constraints on wind generation and directs gas generators to stay online when they would rather be switched off. This is a temporary stop-gap measure, which should be resolved in the first half of 2021 (see pages 5 and 6 here for details). Once resolved, this should enable South Australia’s renewable energy generation to reach new heights.


Table 2. Proportion of electricity generation by fuel source: QLD

Queensland201520182019Change from 2015 to 2019
Black coal68.9%74.8%70.5%1.6%
Natural gas23.4%14.8%14.9%-8.5%
solar PV
solar PV
Oil products1.6%1.5%1.5%-0.1%
Change in 
from 2015 
to 2019

Queensland primarily relies on coal for its electricity. Black coal supplied 71% of the state’s electricity in 2019, while gas provided 15%. 13% of the state’s electricity is renewable, with solar providing 9% and biomass, hydro and wind providing less than 2% each.

Queensland’s energy transition has really only just begun; renewables increased by just 2.8% in the three years to 2018, but increased by 4.3% in 2019 alone – the biggest increase of any state that year. Another substantial increase in renewable energy generation is likely in 2020.

Another notable trend in Queensland is the significant decline in gas generation since 2015. Since 2015, gas has fallen from 23% to 15% of the state’s supply. At the same time, Queensland’s total electricity generation has gone up by 5% and coal generation has increased by 1.6%.

I suspect this fall in gas generation is due to the start of liquefied natural gas exports in Queensland. The start of the LNG industry in Queensland has had a similar effect to pulling a plug out of a full bath; the vast majority of the east coast’s gas production is now shipped overseas, driving up prices and reducing supply in Australia. It is probable that gas suppliers simply decided that they could get a higher price selling their gas offshore than they could get selling gas to Queensland’s gas power stations.

Queensland has excellent renewable energy resources and it is great to see one of Australia’s largest wind farms now undergoing commissioning while another truly massive wind farm will begin construction next year. These projects will significantly increase the state’s wind generation, which is currently at a pitifully low level of 1%.

Data on electricity generation used in this post was calculated from the Federal Government’s Australian Energy Statistics – Table O, released in May 2020.


Electricity generation in Australia, Part 2: NT, TAS and WA

This is the second part of a series looking at electricity generation in Australia. Part one is here.

Electricity generation in Australia varies significantly by state – from the coal-reliant eastern states of New South Wales, Victoria and Queensland, to gas-reliant Western Australia and the Northern Territory, to the renewable energy powerhouses of Tasmania and South Australia.

This post will look at electricity generation in the Northern Territory, Tasmania and Western Australia and assess how it has changed over the last five years.

Northern Territory:

Table 1. Proportion of electricity generation by fuel source: NT

201520182019Change from 2015 to 2019
Natural gas79.3%63.2%57.6%-21.7%
Oil products19%33.4%38.4%19.4%
solar PV
solar PV
Change in
2015 to

The Northern Territory’s primary electricity sources are gas (58%) and oil products (38%), supplying around 96% of the territory’s electricity.

The most striking thing about the NT is how much electricity generation has increased in the last four years – total electricity supply has increased by almost 50%. This is a far larger increase than any other Australian state. I do not know enough about NT to provide an explanation for this, though I speculate it may have something to do with the huge new liquefied natural gas processing facilities constructed in recent years.

The make-up of NT’s generation has changed significantly over the last five years but not in a way that is beneficial for the climate: a 22% fall in the proportion of gas has been cancelled out by a 20% increase in oil products. Small and large scale solar has increased by a bit over 2%. The transition to renewables has proceeded at an extremely slow pace in the NT, totalling 4.1% in 2019 compared to 1.7% in 2015.

But the territory government has not been idle, providing funding for new large-scale solar farms and big batteries while advancing electricity market reforms that should facilitate a further increase in solar generation in the future. As such, the NT should see a significant increase in renewable energy generation in 2020 and 2021, albeit remaining at a low level overall (the Territory government claims the NT will reach 16% renewable energy by the end of this year – if that eventuates, it would be a four-fold increase on 2019).


Table 2. Proportion of electricity generation by fuel source: TAS

Tasmania201520182019Change from 2015 to 2019
Natural gas1.1%5.2%5.6%4.5%
solar PV
Oil products0.3%0.2%0.2%-0.1%
solar PV
Change in
from 2015
to 2019

Tasmania is the renewable capital of Australia, with the vast majority of its electricity from hydro power stations. 81% of Tasmania’s electricity was from hydro in 2019, while wind provided 11%. Renewables in total supplied 94% of the state’s electricity. 

Tasmania’s hydro output varies depending on water storage levels: higher water storage generally means more hydro generation and vice versa. Lower rainfall in recent years is a likely explanation for the 6% decline in hydro since 2015. This has driven a fall in the proportion of Tasmania’s energy generation from renewable energy, from 99% in 2015 to 94% in 2019. But with two new wind farms joining the grid this year, this trend should begin to reverse. Solar provides just 1.6% of the state’s electricity – unsurprising considering Tasmania’s southern latitude. 

Tasmania has just one gas power station, which has increased gas’ share of generation from 1% to 6% since 2015 at the expense of hydro. Closing this power station will be vital if the state is to reach its target of 100% renewable electricity by 2022.

The state’s total electricity generation has increased by 10% since 2015, with the state exporting more electricity to Victoria.

Western Australia:

Table 3. Proportion of electricity generation by fuel source: WA

201520182019Change from 2015 to 2019
Natural gas54.9%61.5%61.3%6.4%
Black coal28%24.8%23.2%-4.8%
Oil products10.2%5.6%5.5%-4.7%
solar PV
solar PV
in total generation
from 2015
to 2019

Like the NT, Western Australia is primarily a gas-powered state, getting 61% of its electricity from gas. Black coal provides 23% of the state’s electricity and oil products provide 6%. 10% of WA’s electricity is from renewable energy, the vast majority from wind and solar.

The main change over the last five years has been in the proportions of the different fossil fuels. Gas has increased by over 6% while oil products has declined by 5% and is now at almost half the level of 2015 (10% to 6%). Meanwhile, black coal has declined by 5%, partly due to the closure of Muja AB, partly due to increased gas generation and partly because solar has continued to chip away at coal’s market share.

Overall electricity generation has increased by 12% across the state since 2015 due to higher demand.

Western Australia looms as an interesting state in the energy transition over the next few years. After years of stagnation, 2019 provided the first evidence that the state is finally picking up speed, with renewable energy generation increasing by almost 2% – for comparison, it increased by just 1.2% in the previous three years combined. The state government is delivering a whole host of reforms to the electricity market that should significantly increase WA’s attractiveness to renewable energy developers and improve access to the electricity grid.

Like South Australia, Western Australia is at the forefront of the minimum demand challenge, with increasing rooftop solar generation cutting grid demand to lower and lower levels during the middle of the day, throwing up a host of technical challenges.

Data on electricity generation used in this post was calculated from the Federal Government’s Australian Energy Statistics – Table O, released in May 2020.


The state polling drought and what it means for interpreting political events

A break from energy this week.

Over the past couple of years, there has been a notable decline in the number of opinion polls measuring voting intention. It may be because media companies can no longer afford to commission polling or because of the failure of federal polls to indicate a Coalition victory at the 2019 federal election. Either way, there have been far fewer polls published.

This is particularly pronounced at the state level, where there have been extremely long periods without any voter intention polling whatsoever.* The most egregious examples:

  • Victoria has had no polling at all since the state election 19 months ago
  • New South Wales has had no polling at all since the state election 15 months ago
  • Western Australia has had no polling at all in 22 months – this is despite the next state election being nine months away.

Polling has been only slightly more frequent in two other states:

  • Queensland had two polls in 2019 and has had two polls in 2020 so far. That is very sparse for a state heading into a competitive election in just four months time.
  • South Australia has had one poll in each of 2019 and 2020.

Tasmania is the only state that has had consistent voter intention polling, with five polls in 2019 and one in 2020 so far (I highly recommend reading the Poll Bludger for regular updates on political polling in Australia ).

Of course, polling has its limitations. Polls are a snapshot of voter sentiment at a fixed point in time (it is not a forecast); a pollster’s methodologies can affect a poll’s sample and in turn the results; if pollsters conduct polling but only release the results selectively, the public can get a distorted view of voter sentiment; and of course, it is foolish to place too much emphasis on just one poll.

But polling is a useful tool that has a really, really important role in political discussion: it acts as a reality check on the commentaries of political pundits, halting questionable media narratives and spurring new ones.

Let’s consider this in the context of Victoria, where there has been no polling since the state election in November 2018.

Victorian Labor had a gigantic election victory in 2018 – the polls showed a close race 6 months out but as the election drew closer Labor’s lead in the polls increased, especially from September. The polls in the last couple of weeks of the campaign in November indicated a comfortable Labor victory – in fact, Labor ended up winning by an even greater margin than the polls indicated.

(See this excellent piece by journalist Noel Towell two days before the state election, which demonstrates the importance of polling that showed the Coalition losing ground, countering the narrative given to the media by Coalition operatives “that everything was going great”.)

Polls are obviously valuable in the weeks leading up to an election by providing an indication of the sort of result we can expect. But conclusions drawn from election results are carried over into the next term of parliament by the media and political pundits. The narrative developed in the immediate aftermath of the Victorian state election continues to influence media and political commentary today, without any more recent polling to challenge or confirm it.

The decisiveness of Labor’s victory in 2018 quickly lead to a general consensus amongst the media and political class regarding the explanation for the victory, which goes something like this: 

  • Labor is building infrastructure at a faster rate than any government in the state’s recent political history and voters approve.
  • Voters care a lot less about government scandals and corruption than they do about a government delivering services and building infrastructure.
  • The Coalition’s campaign was doomed by its narrow, tough-on-crime agenda, while Matthew Guy’s meeting with an alleged mafia figure shredded his credibility (‘lobster with a mobster‘ is still the catchiest name for a political scandal I have heard).
  • Voters like can-do Dan Andrews with his direct, relatable and (perceived) honest communication.
  • The dumping of Malcolm Turnbull as Prime Minister a few months before the state election dragged down support for the Coalition in Melbourne, where Turnbull was especially popular.

This narrative has continued to inform political and media commentary in Victoria over the last 19 months.

But how much of this narrative still holds true? 

Eventually, when the next poll does come, media commentators will posit a range of explanations for any movement (or non-movement). But the most recent baseline with which this future poll can be compared will be the election of November 2018. They say a week is a long time in politics; well 19 months is an eternity.

This matters. Understanding how voters respond to political events affects how political parties develop their strategies and tactics, how they fight elections, how the media choose to cover political events and in the long-term, how we understand and remember history.

Let’s consider Victoria again: what if the overwhelming reason Labor did so well at the state election was due to the removal of Prime Minister Turnbull? Perhaps if a poll had been conducted in early 2019 after more time had passed, Labor’s support would have been much lower. 

And what was the effect of COVID-19? What was Labor’s support like in February 2020, before the s*** hit the fan? Was the government in a strong or weak position? And since then, has COVID-19 strengthened Labor’s position or weakened it? Was the government doing okay in early June before the recent political scandals hit? Did these scandals cause a reduction in support for the government or did they barely register? Regular polling is the only way we can attempt to answer these questions empirically.

But now it is too late; these questions are now impossible to answer empirically. So much has happened over the last 19 months that there are a whole host of different explanations that might be true.

When the next poll comes, all we will have is the subjective interpretations of the media and political pundits to untangle these factors and explain any rise or fall in support for either party. And that is a tragedy. 

People often criticise poll-driven media narratives but the problem has never been the polls themselves; rather it is how the media and political class have chosen to use and interpret them.

Polls, interpreted accurately, are the best tools we have to measure voter sentiment between elections. And they are certainly a heck of a lot more credible than press gallery commentary based upon conversations with political party operatives, other journalists and a few vox pops.

So when the next state poll is eventually released, beware of any commentator who clings too strongly to a particular narrative. With no polling for so long in Victoria, Western Australia and New South Wales, drawing conclusions from the next poll will be fraught with uncertainty. So keep an open mind and be prepared that a whole host of explanations may be true.

And hope that we won’t have to wait another 19 months for the next poll.

For more information about opinion polling, I highly recommend the Poll Bludger and Kevin Bonham’s blog.

* No, polls of premier approval ratings definitely don’t count. Approval rating polling has some value but it is no substitute for voting intention polling.


Coal in Australia, Part 2: Queensland

This is the second in a series of posts providing an overview of Australia’s coal industry. You can read part one here.

Victoria has two coal mines. Western Australian also has two. 

Queensland has 57.

Queensland is the largest coal producer in Australia. It is home to 57 coal mines, 50 of which produced coal in 2018-19. 

Of these 57 mines, six are located in southern Queensland – the region south of Bundaberg. Coal in this region is primarily thermal coal (used to make electricity), much of which is used to power the four local coal power stations: Kogan Creek, Tarong, Tarong North and Millmerran. The coal from this region is sourced from two coal basins: the Surat Basin and the much smaller Tarong Basin.

Queensland’s 51 other coal mines are all located in central Queensland, from the Dawson mine in the south located inland from Gladstone, all the way up to the Collinsville coal mine located half way between Mackay and Townsville. Almost all these coal mines are located in what is one of the largest coal basins in the world: the Bowen Basin. The Bowen Basin is a huge deposit of thermal and metallurgical coal (used in steel-making), stretching north to south for 600km and east to west for 200km at its widest point. This huge area is dotted with around 50 coal mines that supply a large proportion of the world’s exported coal.

Another couple of mines are located in the comparatively tiny Callide Basin, where only thermal coal is produced. To the west of the Bowen Basin lies the Galilee Basin, another huge deposit of primarily thermal coal. As of yet, there are no active coal mines in this basin although it is home to a host of huge proposed projects.

There are a range of plans for new coal mines throughout Queensland, with major developments planned in the Bowen Basin as well as the Galilee Basin. All of Queensland’s advanced coal projects are located in these two basins (according to the Queensland Government’s definition of ‘advanced’).

Central Queensland is also home to four coal power stations (Gladstone, Stanwell, Callide B, Callide C) located in a triangle between the regional cities of Rockhampton, Gladstone and Callide. 

In total, Queensland’s eight coal power stations supplied 71% of the state’s electricity in 2019 and their capacity is significantly larger than both Victoria’s and Western Australia’s (but smaller than New South Wales).

Queensland is a massive coal exporter – the vast majority of coal that is mined in the state is shipped overseas. Coal from southern Queensland is transported by rail to the Fisherman Islands coal export terminal just north of Brisbane. Coal from the Bowen and Callide Basins is transported by rail to one of three locations: 

  • The Wiggins Island, RG Tanna or Barney Point coal terminals in Gladstone.
  • The Hay Point or Dalrymple Bay coal terminals near Mackay.
  • The Abbot Point coal terminal near the town of Bowen.

Queensland primarily exports metallurgical coal, making up 72% of the state’s coal exports. Overall, Queensland’s total coal exports increased by 3% between 2014-15 and 2018-19.

78% of Queensland’s coal exports go to just six countries: China (21%), Japan (20%), India (16%), South Korea (12%), Taiwan (5%) and Singapore (5%). Coal imports and exports can vary significantly from year to year but collectively, Queensland’s exports to these six countries have declined by 4% since 2014-15 (refer to Table 1). So if exports to Queensland’s six biggest customers have declined by 4%, what explains the 3% increase in total coal exports from 2014-15 to 2018-19?

Table 1. The six largest export markets for Queensland coal in 2018-19.

Market2014-2015 QLD coal exports (tonnes)2018-2019 QLD coal exports (tonnes)Change (%)% of QLD coal exports
China 52,886,82147,874,649-9%21%

Behind these six countries, which all imported over 10 million tonnes of coal from Queensland in 2018-19, there are 12 other countries that imported between 1 and 10 million tonnes. These 12 countries bought 17% of Queensland’s coal. See the full list in Table 2.

Table 2. The twelve export markets that received between one and ten million tonnes of Queensland coal in 2018-19.

Market2014-2015 QLD coal exports (tonnes)2018-2019 QLD coal exports (tonnes)Change (%)
Hong Kong –6,001,758N/A
South Africa992,8611,167,95218%

There are four markets that stand out with significantly increased coal demand over the last four years: Poland, Malaysia, Hong Kong and most importantly, Vietnam. Poland’s 92% increase in coal imports from Queensland is intriguing, as Poland is practically the last pro-coal country in northern or western Europe. Malaysian coal demand has increased by over 200%. Despite these increases, Poland and Malaysia still don’t consume that much Queensland coal. 

Hong Kong’s imports have gone from zero to 6 million tonnes in just two years, a huge increase, but I wonder if this is due to an accounting change.

The most important change is in Vietnam, which has gone from a very small coal customer to Queensland’s seventh biggest coal customer behind Taiwan. It is no wonder Vietnam has become the favourite child of the Australian coal lobby in the last couple of years. If these trends continue (and they may not) Vietnam may soon overtake Singapore and Taiwan to become the fourth largest market for Queensland coal.

But with Vietnam the only significant growth market for Queensland coal, arguments in favour of new coal mines are misguided from an economic perspective (as well as being criminal from a climate perspective). Vietnam has had a central role in countering the decline in coal demand from Queensland’s other customers. If Vietnam were excluded from the data, Queensland’s 3% increase in total coal exports from 2014-15 to 2018-19 would actually have been a 0.5% decline. The sooner Vietnam’s coal demand peaks, the sooner demand for Queensland’s coal will flat-line and eventually decline.

Queensland’s coal exports are likely to be more resilient than other markets (including New South Wales) due to their high reliance on metallurgical coal whilst having a relatively low reliance on thermal coal. Thermal coal is in structural decline and this decline is likely to accelerate in the next few years as the world transitions to renewable energy in the electricity sector. Metallurgical coal is used in steel-making and its decline will likely take longer to come to pass.

For an excellent map of Queensland’s coal sector, refer to the Queensland Government’s Queensland Coal Map Fourteenth Edition.

Much of the data in this post was calculated from the Queensland Government’s Coal industry review statistical tables 2018-19.


Electricity generation in Australia, Part 1: Renewables have finally overtaken gas

In a happy coincidence, the day after I published my previous post, the Department of Energy and the Environment finally released Australia’s electricity generation data for 2019. Why it took until June to release I don’t know (I suppose it could have been COVID-19 related).

Using this data, I will look at some broad national trends in electricity generation, renewable energy generation in the states and speculate on what this means for 2020. This will be the first in a series of posts on this topic, with future posts looking at each state in more detail.

The majority of Australia’s electricity is generated in the National Electricity Market (NEM) but there are also separate electricity grids in Western Australia, the Northern Territory and regional Queensland. Households and businesses also generate their own electricity, including off grid.

In 2019, Australia’s electricity generation increased by a bit less than 1% compared to 2018, with some fuel sources increasing and others decreasing. There are currently eight types of fuel for electricity generation: black coal, brown coal, gas, oil (all fossil fuels), wind, solar, hydro (all renewable) and bioenergy (notionally renewable). Solar is generally split into small-scale (eg. rooftop solar) and large-scale. These are outlined in Table 1.

Table 1. Fuel sources as a proportion of Australia’s total electricity generation.

 2018 (%)2019 (%)Change (%)
Black coal45.843.9-1.9
Natural gas19.620.50.9
Brown coal13.712.5-1.2
Small-scale solar PV3.84.70.9
Oil products2.12.20.1
Large-scale solar PV0.92.11.2

Overall, renewable energy increased from 18.9% to 20.9% of Australia’s electricity generation from 2018 to 2019. At first blush, this 2% increase is lower than I expected considering the huge number of wind and solar projects beginning operation since late 2018. A closer look at the numbers is revealing.

  • Wind and large-scale solar each increased by 1.2% and small-scale solar increased by 0.9%. Collectively they provided 14.2% of the country’s electricity. Wind and solar now each create more electricity than hydro.
  • Gas generation increased by 0.9% and oil increased by 0.1%. 
  • For the first time in 20 years, renewables now provide more of Australia’s electricity than gas does. And with large numbers of wind and solar projects still connecting to the grid, the gap is likely to continue to grow. 
  • Both black coal and brown coal declined by a combined 3.1%. Coal provided 56.4% of Australia’s electricity in 2019. 
  • Hydro declined by 1.3%. 

Let’s dig into this. Wind and solar collectively increased by 3.3%, a sizeable increase in line with my expectations. But I hadn’t accounted for the 1.3% decline in hydro generation. So instead of net renewable energy increasing by 3.3% (if hydro had been stable), it only increased by 2%. 

Hydro generation varies year-to-year depending on dam levels and the drought conditions in 2019 throughout much of the country meant that hydro power stations made less electricity, primarily in Tasmania and New South Wales. 

The 0.9% increase in gas generation is also interesting. Most of the increase in gas occurred in South Australia, Victoria and New South Wales. I can offer a few possible explanations for this:

  • Drought conditions meant that hydro power stations in New South Wales and Tasmania generated less electricity. This left New South Wales more dependent on their gas power stations in periods of high electricity demand. This also left Tasmania more dependent on importing electricity from Victoria, increasing demand on Victoria’s gas power stations.
  • In Victoria, one of the Loy Yang A coal power station’s big units was broken for much of 2019. This punched a hole in the state’s electricity generation and was the primary reason brown coal generation decreased by 1.2%. To make up the gap, Victorian gas power stations ramped up production, especially in peak periods and South Australia’s gas power stations also ramped up to export more electricity to Victoria.

With Loy Yang A back operating normally (at least for the time being) and higher dam levels after heavy rains in the first half of the year, both hydro and to a lesser extent brown coal generation should recover at the expense of gas in 2020. 

In contrast, the 1.9% decline in black coal generation is likely structural, not cyclical. Black coal power stations in New South Wales and Queensland are increasingly losing market share to wind and solar, a trend that is likely to continue with 40 new projects connecting across the NEM in the next 12 months. 

I’ll conclude this post with a breakdown of renewable energy generation in each state from 2018 to 2019. I will go into more detail about the situation in the states in future posts but here are the topline numbers:

  • Queensland and Victoria have seen large increases in renewable energy generation of 4.3% and 3.6% respectively. If this increase were to continue for the next decade, Victoria would reach 57% renewables by the end of 2030 and Queensland would reach 56% renewables.
  • New South Wales saw a more modest renewable energy increase of 1.2%. The state did see a decent increase in wind and solar in 2019 but this was partially offset by the decline in hydro generation.
  • After years of little movement, Western Australia has finally awoken from its slumber with a 1.9% increase in renewable energy, reaching 10%.
  • The Northern Territory is at real risk of falling behind the rest of the country, with a very modest 0.5% increase to 4.1%.
  • The two Australian leaders in renewable energy, Tasmania and South Australia, both experienced small decreases of 0.5% and 1% respectively, probably due to the reasons discussed above (the increase in gas exports from South Australia to Victoria and reduced hydro in Tasmania).

Table 2. Renewable energy as a proportion of total electricity generation by state.

 2018 (%)2019 (%)Change (%)

Note: All data in this post has been sourced from Table O Electricity Generation 2019 released by the Federal Department of Energy and the Environment. Totals may not add to 100% due to rounding. The ACT is included in the NSW total.

If you want up to date information on electricity generation, I highly recommend OpenNEM, a brilliant and easy to use resource. The only limitation of OpenNEM is that it only includes the NEM – so there is no information on WA, NT and regional QLD.

For a comparison of electricity generation from 2017 to 2018, read this article I wrote last year.


Coal in Australia, Part 1: Western Australia and Victoria

Australia made 56% of its electricity from coal in 2019. This is down from 62% in 2013-14 and 74% in 2008-9. The make-up of each state’s coal industry and its reliance on coal-fired electricity generation varies significantly. Since South Australia ended coal mining and coal burning in 2015 and 2016 respectively, just four states in Australia now have active coal industries: Western Australia, Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland. 

This post will provide an overview of the small coal industries of Western Australia and Victoria. Future parts will look at Queensland and New South Wales, the big fish of Australian coal.

The coal industries of Western Australia and Victoria have very similar characteristics. Although it is often perceived as a resources state built on extractive industries, Western Australia has just two coal mines: the Premier Coal mine, owned by Yancoal, and the trouble-plagued Griffin Coal mine, most recently owned by Lanco Infratech. These two mines supply coal to three power stations: Muja and Collie, owned by the state government, and Bluewaters*, owned by Kansai Electric and Sumitomo.

Both mines and all three power stations are located within 20km of each other near the town of Collie in south-west WA. This is about 200km south of Perth.

This picture is mirrored in Victoria. Victoria is also home to two coal mines and three coal power stations: the Yallourn mine supplies the Yallourn power station (both owned by EnergyAustralia), while the Loy Yang mine supplies the Loy Yang A power station (both owned by AGL) and the Loy Yang B power station (owned by Alinta Energy). 

All mines and power stations are located within about 30km of each other near the towns of Moe, Morwell and Traralgon in the Latrobe Valley in Victoria’s east. This is about 150km east of Melbourne.

Coal in both states supports few jobs overall but because all the mines and power stations are located near each other, jobs are highly concentrated in Western Australia’s Collie region and Victoria’s Latrobe Valley.** 

All coal mined in both states is burned domestically in power stations – no coal is exported overseas, in stark contrast to New South Wales and Queensland.

There are two important differences between Western Australia and Victoria: Victoria’s coal power stations are significantly bigger and as such they produce a much larger share of the state’s electricity. At full tilt, Victoria’s coal power stations can produce three times more electricity than WA’s, enabling Victoria to source a far greater proportion of its electricity from coal. In 2019, Victoria sourced 70% of its electricity from coal. Western Australia sourced just 23%. 

There is one other difference. Although all coal is polluting, it is true that some coal is worse than others. And Victoria’s coal is some of the most polluting in the world. The emissions intensity of Victoria’s brown coal power stations is fully one-third higher than Western Australia’s black coal power stations – meaning that for every unit of electricity produced, Victoria produces 33% more greenhouse gas emissions. That’s not because Western Australia’s coal is clean; it is because Victoria’s coal is very, very dirty.

Part 2 in this series will look at the much bigger coal industry in Queensland.

*Bluewaters has two units that are sometimes classified as two separate power stations.

** Getting reliable numbers on coal industry jobs by state is challenging. The ABS states that 2,800 people are employed in coal mining in WA but there is no figure for coal power stations, which are aggregated with “Electricity Supply” and “Electricity Generation” – these categories include jobs at coal, gas and hydro power stations, as well as wind and solar. Not very useful.

The ABS actually says there are no jobs in coal mining in Victoria, which is obviously incorrect. Presumably this is because both coal mines are owned by utility companies and therefore jobs at these mines are classified under “Electricity Supply” and “Electricity Generation”. Again, not very useful. See for yourself here in data cube EQ06.

ABC Fact Check have made a decent guess at the number of coal jobs nationally here and explain some of the challenges involved.


Gas generation has been stagnant for a decade – and the future trajectory is down

Over the last couple of weeks, the Federal Government and its COVID-19 Commission appear to have pinned their hopes for Australia’s economic recovery from COVID-19 on massive taxpayer-funded gas projects. Part of the logic seems to be that as Australia phases out coal, the need for gas will increase. To put it mildly, this logic is misguided on a number of fronts.

There are two huge problems with gas as an energy source.

Firstly, it is very polluting. Burning gas in a power station produces carbon dioxide but more importantly, when gas is extracted from the ground large amounts of methane emissions are released – and methane is a powerful greenhouse gas that drives climate change. 

It has long been suspected that methane emissions from gas extraction are under-reported and recent studies have indicated that gas may actually be more polluting than coal (even though gas burns cleaner in a power station). You can read more about this in Carbon Brief’s analysis.

Secondly, gas prices are extremely volatile. The Australian gas price is linked to the international price of gas, which is in turn linked to the international price of oil. Over the last few months, gas prices have collapsed due to the “oil price war” between Saudi Arabia and Russia. But let’s not forget that until late last year, the high cost of gas had been crippling Australian industry – remember all those articles about a gas shortage?

By continuing to rely on gas to power our industry, Australia’s major employers are placed in a vulnerable position of having their economic viability determined by wild fluctuations in the global oil and gas market and the policy decisions of the international oil cartel. It is especially reckless policy for the Australian Government to encourage an increase in our reliance on gas when Australia has an abundantly available and affordable energy supply in the form of wind and solar.

But even if gas were less polluting (it isn’t) and gas prices were reliably low (they aren’t), Australia would not need any new gas power stations anyway.

Australia already has plenty of gas power stations and most of these do not do very much work at all, sitting idle for much of the time. The manager of the electricity grid, AEMO, forecast that gas power station capacity will be flat until the mid-2020’s and then decline every year thereafter to 2040, according to the neutral scenario in AEMO’s 2018 electricity grid plan*. Battery capacity, in contrast, is expected to increase significantly. With so much spare capacity at existing gas power stations and more batteries, there is little room at all for new gas capacity.

The amount of electricity generated at gas power stations has varied from year to year but the overall trend is one of stagnation. Between 2012-13 and 2017-18**, Australia’s proportion of renewable energy generation increased by 3.7% to reach 17%. In the same period, gas generation increased by just 0.1% to 20.6%. Even this number is flattering to the gas industry as it includes the gas-heavy states of Western Australia and Northern Territory.

If both those states are excluded, renewable energy generation increased by 4.4% to 19%, while gas generation actually decreased by 2.7% to 12%. As more wind and solar has been built, the role of gas has actually shrunk.

And we don’t need to speculate how much new gas is required in an electricity grid with lots of wind and solar – South Australia is already a high-renewables grid and has completely phased out coal.

In 2008-9, South Australia sourced just 14.4% of its electricity from renewables; in 2017-18 this had risen more than three-fold to 46.6%. Today South Australia routinely gets over half its electricity from renewables and at times it is fully powered by clean energy. To take just one recent example: from 10:00am to 4:30pm on May 19, renewables supplied over 100% of the entire state’s electricity demand (South Australia exported its excess electricity to Victoria).

If gas is so important to “balancing out” wind and solar, surely as wind and solar generation increased and coal shut down in South Australia over the last decade, we would also have seen a significant rise in the proportion of gas generation? 

But no. In the same ten-year period, gas generation barely increased at all. It stood at 49.8% ten years ago. Today it is 52.4%, a meagre 2.6% increase. 

Between 2012-3 and 2017-8, the picture is even more stark. Renewable energy as a proportion of total generation increased by 17.1%, while the role of gas actually decreased slightly by 0.3%. This is all the more impressive considering South Australia generated 19.8% of its electricity from coal as recently as 2016.

The role of gas in South Australia is likely to shrink even further in the years to come as they are increasingly outcompeted by big batteries

Increasing gas use is a recipe for higher and more volatile electricity prices and worsening climate change. And the silliest thing is we don’t even need it. Australia is already moving to high levels of renewables and even on the most optimistic reading, gas is but a bit player.

Data on historical electricity generation was directly sourced/calculated from the Federal Government’s Australian Energy Statistics 2019, Table O. The 2020 edition has not yet been released.

If you would like to read more about the problem with gas and how Australia’s economy can recover from COVID-19 with renewable energy, check out the Climate Council’s latest report.

* An updated version of AEMO’s Integrated System Plan will be released later this year.

** I really wish I had access to more recent Federal Government data than 2017-18 but the department is sitting on annual electricity generation data for 2018-19. It is usually publicly released in March or April. Until its release, I’ll have to make do with 2017-18 data.