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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%
Japan49,811,66943,793,474-12%20%
India34,567,11036,558,2296%16%
Korea24,316,27626,604,8649%12%
Taiwan11,026,92310,899,408-1%5%
Singapore10,875,46010,188,901-6%5%
Total183,484,259175,919,525-4%78%

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 (%)
Vietnam569,7698,279,8061,353%
Hong Kong –6,001,758N/A
Switzerland2,985,9804,638,14555%
Brazil4,937,1663,995,699-19%
Germany4,155,6773,411,423-18%
France3,286,1972,975,694-9%
Malaysia955,0442,237,659234%
Indonesia1,487,3071,727,56416%
Poland775,7411,487,39692%
Turkey1,473,6711,444,755-2%
Netherlands2,283,1751,291,667-43%
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.

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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
Wind6.27.41.2
Hydro6.75.4-1.3
Small-scale solar PV3.84.70.9
Oil products2.12.20.1
Large-scale solar PV0.92.11.2
Bioenergy1.41.40

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 (%)
TAS94.794.2-0.5
SA51.250.2-1
VIC17.621.23.6
NSW17.518.71.2
QLD8.913.24.3
WA8.1101.9
NT3.54.10.6
AUS18.920.92

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.

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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.

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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.

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1 year, 40 new wind and solar farms

Over the next 12 months, 40 wind and solar farms are scheduled to begin full operation. Where are these projects located and why are there so many?

On April 30, the manager of the electricity grid AEMO (the Australian Energy Market Operator) released their updated generation information data. This data is updated every few months and provides a wealth of information about power stations in Australia’s electricity system (specifically the National Electricity Market, which includes all states and territories except the Northern Territory and Western Australia). This includes power stations in operation, under construction and planned.

Perhaps the most interesting information in this data is the Full Commercial Use Date estimations. This is an indication of when a new power station will become operationally available to generate electricity, after the completion of commissioning. The Full Commercial Use Date is not fixed and can change (see more below) but it is decent indicator of when new projects are expected to be connected to the electricity grid.

To make sense of this data, first a couple of definitions:

  • committed power station is a project that is proceeding to construction, with finance locked in and planning largely complete. It may have begun construction but it has not yet started commissioning or generating electricity.
  • A power station in commissioning has completed construction and has begun the testing process in preparation for full commercial operation. 

Now onto the data.

AEMO’s generation information shows that nine wind and solar farms are currently in the commissioning process, with another 31* committed projects scheduled to be fully operational within the next twelve months, by the end of April 2021.

In total that is an astonishing 40 new wind and solar farms ready or nearly ready to begin operation. The combined capacity of these power stations is 5,738MW – a huge amount of extra power, larger than the capacity of Victoria’s entire coal fleet. 

Averaged out, this means a new wind or solar farm will begin operation every 9 days over the next year.

Victoria is home to 15 of these projects, Queensland has 10** and New South Wales has 10. South Australia has three and Tasmania has two. 21 of these projects are solar farms and 19 are wind farms. You can see the full list of projects in the table below.

This is an extraordinary amount of new renewable capacity. What is the explanation for this huge number of complete or nearly complete projects joining the grid in such a short space of time? 

The truth is many of these projects have been complete for months or even longer. New tough regulations introduced by AEMO to make sure wind and solar farms can safely and reliably operate in the grid and a lack of proper grid planning in years gone by have led to a significant backlog of wind and solar projects that have finished construction but have been forced to wait to connect to the grid.

AEMO updates the generation information data every few months and in the short time since the previous update in February, six wind and solar projects have had full commercial use dates pushed back significantly.

In Queensland, the Kennedy solar and wind project has had its full operation date pushed back by four months, as has the Warwick solar farm. In New South Wales, the Darlington Point solar farm has been pushed back by five months. But the worst delays have been experienced by two Victorian solar farms: the full commercial use date for the Yatpool solar farm has been pushed back by six months and the Cohuna solar farm has been delayed by a full year.

There are so many new wind and solar farms on some parts of the electricity network that the grid is becoming very congested. In some parts of the grid, like north-west Victoria, these problems are becoming really severe and the existing grid is close to being full.

Nonetheless, it appears that AEMO have established a good process to clear this backlog of projects waiting to connect and with better systems in place, hopefully the connection process for future projects will be far more efficient.

So with 40 wind and solar farms beginning operation, does this mean the renewable industry is alive and thriving? Well, not exactly. But that is a topic for another post.

Table. Dates for full commercial operation of new wind and solar projects.

State:Wind and solar projectsFull commercial use dateSize (MW)
SABungala Two solarMay-20135
NSWBomen solarMay-20100
NSWGoonumbla solarMay-2070
NSWNevertire solarMay-20132
QLDYarranlea solarMay-20103
VICElaine windMay-2084
VICYendon windMay-20144
VICMurra Warra Stage 1 windMay-20226
VICCherry Tree windJun-2058
QLDMaryrorough solarJul-2035
QLDCoopers Gap windJul-20453
TASCattle Hill windJul-20144
VICDundonnell windJul-20336
VICKiamal Stage 1 solarJul-20200
QLDKennedy solarAug-2015
QLDKennedy windAug-2043
SALincoln Gap wind stage 2Aug-2086
SALincoln Gap wind stage 1Aug-20126
VICMortlake South windAug-20158
NSWDarlington Point solarSep-20275
QLDHaughton solarSep-20133
TASGranville Harbour windSep-20112
VICYatpool solarSep-2050
VICCrowlands windSep-2080
QLDOakey 2 solarOct-2056
QLDWarwick solarOct-2032
NSWLimondale solar 1Nov-20220
NSWBiala windDec-2011
NSWSunraysia solarDec-20229
NSWCollector windDec-20227
NSWMolong solarDec-2032
QLDLilyvale solarDec-20118
VICMoorabool windDec-20312
VICStockyard Hill windDec-20532
VICGlenrowan West solarDec-20106
VICBulgana Green Power Hub windJan-21194
QLDGangarri solarMar-21120
VICWinton solarMar-2185
NSWCrudine Ridge windApr-21135
VICCohuna solarApr-2131
Total: 40 projects5,738

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

*This total includes the Mortlake South wind farm and the Limondale One 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 list.

** Queensland is also home to the Hughenden solar farm. This project is committed but a full commercial use date is not provided and as such, it is not included in this post.

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Which coal power station is the most polluting? And is newer better?

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:

VICWAQLDNSW
1.20.910.880.88

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 NameStateTotal Emissions 
(t CO2-e)
Emission Intensity 
(t CO2-e/ MWh)
Primary Fuel
Yallourn
Power Station
VIC13,467,2021.31Brown Coal
Loy Yang A
Power Station
and Mine
VIC18,798,5191.16Brown Coal
Loy Yang B
Power Station
VIC9,564,1201.13Brown Coal
Callide B
Power Station
QLD4,597,7680.94Black Coal
Callide C
Power Station
QLD5,811,2260.93Black Coal
Gladstone
Power Station
QLD7,917,1990.93Black Coal
Muja
Power Station
WA3,530,0160.92Black Coal
Liddell
Power Station
NSW8,528,4220.92Black Coal
Bluewaters
Power Station 1
WA1,510,1300.91Black Coal
Collie
Power Station
WA1,442,9810.91Black Coal
Bluewaters
Power Station 2
WA1,443,9410.88Black Coal
Bayswater
Power Station
NSW14,115,4130.88Black Coal
Stanwell
Power Station
QLD7,457,3090.87Black Coal
Tarong
Power Stations
(including Tarong North)
QLD10,273,7970.87Black Coal
Vales Point
Power Station
NSW6,802,3040.86Black Coal
Mt Piper
Power Station
NSW5,944,9550.86Black Coal
Eraring
Power Station
NSW15,457,9650.86Black Coal
Kogan Creek
Power Station
QLD5,108,9440.82Black Coal
Millmerran
Power Station
QLD5,050,4310.82Black Coal

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.

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Europe’s coal phase out is gathering momentum

It is an unfortunate side effect of the times in which we live: events that in any other circumstance would be big news, now barely cause a ripple.

On April 17, Austria became the second European country to phase out coal, with its last coal power station switched off. 

This news was followed just four days later by Sweden announcing that it too had closed its last coal power station. 

These are the first European countries to finish phasing out coal since Belgium in 2016.

Two wealthy, developed countries kicking the coal habit is big news. Austria has the 29th largest economy in the world and Sweden the 23rd largest (Belgium is 24th). And these countries will not be the last, with the list of former coal burning countries likely to get much longer in the next few years.

Of the 24 countries remaining in Europe that still burn coal*, 11 have pledged to stop burning coal by 2030. France has committed to getting off coal by 2022, Slovakia and Portugal in 2023 and the United Kingdom in 2024.

Add to those Italy, Ireland (both 2025), Greece (2028), Finland, the Netherlands (both 2029), Hungary and Denmark (both 2030), which will all be coal free within ten years.

Another three countries, (Spain, Czechia and (North) Macedonia) are all reviewing the future of their coal industries, with expectations that Spain and North Macedonia will adopt targets in line with the countries above.

Germany, the biggest coal burner in Europe, has pledged to go coal free by 2038, a target criticised by many for being too late (although mechanisms exist to bring this target forward by a few years).

With another 14 European countries already coal free**, that leaves nine countries still burning coal with no plans to phase out. Poland, the second biggest coal burner in Europe, is the last hold-out in northern Europe. The rest are all in south-eastern Europe and include most of the former members of Yugoslavia: Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Slovenia, Croatia, Montenegro and Kosovo, plus the much bigger Romania and Bulgaria.

Concerningly, some of these countries continue to have plans for new coal power stations, although it seems that every month or so a proposed coal project is cancelled. In particular, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Serbia have plans for a number of new coal power stations that have either received development approval or are seeking approval.

It is now often accepted that it was inevitable that Europe was going to move on from coal but actually it was far from certain back in 2010 that Europe would be where it is today. 

Back at the start of 2014, no European countries had coal phase out policies. 

And despite the justifiable focus on China, the United States and India, European countries are still some of the biggest polluters in the world. Germany (6th), the United Kingdom (17th), Poland (18th), Italy (19th) and France (20th) are all in the top 20 most polluting countries in the world. In fact if you added up the emissions of these five nations as if they were one country, it would be the fourth most polluting country in the world (using 2018 data).

The contrast with Australia is stark. We have no national plan to phase out coal. And if left to the private sector, Australia will continue to burn coal until Queensland’s Millmerran coal power station shuts down – the owners have announced they plan to keep it open until 2051.

Most of the information in this post was sourced from Europe Beyond Coal. If you would like more detailed information on coal in Europe, look no further than Europe Beyond Coal. It is a wonderful resource, regularly updated. 

*This analysis is excluding Russia, Ukraine and Moldova due to poor data. Both Russia and Ukraine have large coal industries; Moldova I am not sure about.

**Belgium, Austria, Sweden and 11 other countries that have never had coal industries.

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About the blog

ICENERVESHATTER is a Melbourne-based blogger with an interest in energy, climate change and politics.

I have been working in the environmental movement for a number of years, with a focus on energy and climate change solutions research. Most recently, I have worked as an energy researcher with the wonderful Climate Council, as well as doing report-writing and policy research for Greenpeace, Australian Conservation Foundation, The Greens and the AYCC. 

I am passionate about the energy sector and it is my hope that this blog will be a resource for others who want to learn more about the sector but are perhaps intimidated by its complexity. Getting a handle on electricity jargon is almost like learning a second language.

As such, this blog is not primarily intended for the experts (although hopefully you may learn a thing or two!). Rather, I write posts assuming that the reader is intelligent but otherwise not very familiar with the topic. I avoid energy jargon as much as possible.

Posts can generally be divided into two categories: a high level overview of a particular topic (eg. the Queensland coal industry) or a deep dive into a very narrow topic (eg. constraints on solar farms in western Victoria).

All posts are strictly limited to 750 words – that means you can read them in 5-10 minutes and prevents me spending hours writing them. This may mean that I do not always go into as much depth as you would like. As such, I always include links to further reading at the bottom of my blog posts. 

Feedback is always welcome. If there is a topic you would like me to look at or you think I am wrong about something (it happens), add a comment to the end of my posts. Enjoy!