Coal remains a dominant topic in the Australian energy discussion – its use and environmental impact are contentious issues for many Australians. Australia’s current energy shortage provides an opportunity for coal companies to promote their energy source as a practical way to power the country. But many Australians believe the nation needs to move on from using old-school energy sources like coal.
At the forefront of the debate is the concept of ‘clean coal’ – a different form of coal that provides less environmental impact. While many people champion clean coal as the way forward, other experts are much more sceptical. In this article, we’ll explore clean coal to determine what the concept entails and whether it’s a viable option for the Australian energy industry.
What Clean Coal Is… And Isn’t
The term clean coal doesn’t have a single meaning – there are a few different concepts attached to the phrase. The most cited version of clean coal involves the capture and storage of coal emissions – these emissions are typically stored underground and used to extract crude oil from oilfields. The capture and storage version of clean coal is often heralded as a brilliant way to avoid the negative consequences of coal use. The downside is that this version of clean coal is so expensive and commercially complicated that it’s not widely used. Also, with the amount of coal power generated, it would be next to impossible to store all the carbon emission, even if it were possible to extract it.
The problem with capture and storage is that it is used by the coal industry to signify that coal can still play an ecofriendly role in world energy. Unfortunately, the capture and storage method does not seem financially viable – other countries have also struggled to find ways to implement the technology effectively.
Many proponents of coal also refer to more efficient coal plants as ‘clean coal.’ Again, this is misleading – while burning coal at much higher temperatures does reduce carbon emissions, this version of coal and its byproducts are still very harmful to the environment. Coal from high efficiency plants is still one of the dirtiest forms of power available.
While in context it may seem cleaner, in truth it is nowhere near ‘clean.’ While clean coal is a brilliant marketing campaign for the coal industry, it provides a mischaracterized understanding of the world’s most popular energy source.
Environmental Impact of Coal
Regarding environmental impact, coal is one of the most detrimental forms of energy. For this reason, the use of coal as an energy source is often a contentious issue in many countries around the globe. Coal is the largest contributor to human CO2 increases on the planet. Coal byproducts released into the air include arsenic, mercury, radium, lead, and more.
While pro-coal groups typically point to the small amounts of toxins released during the production of coal-based energy, the amount of coal burned around the world means that these small amounts result in significant global quantities. Methane and other greenhouse gases are also significant byproducts of coal production and coal energy.
Because coal particles react with oxygen to form small airborne toxins, coal pollution can travel long distances. Coal often has an environmental impact on areas far from the source – unlike other forms of energy, the soot from coal also causes damage to the environment.
Coal is often thought to be one of the leading causes of global warming. Due to its role as one of the world’s most massive pollutants, many scientists believe that the use of coal is a direct and evident contributor to rising temperatures around the globe. Most environmental scientists think that global warming will result in glacier retreat and rapidly rising sea levels – this can severely damage many populations around the world.
While coal is a leading producer of greenhouse gases, it is not exclusively a pollutant to earth’s air – coal also plays a significant role in polluting waterways and other areas of the planet. The mining of coal can contaminate groundwater and area waterways. Particles such as calcium oxide can also dissolve in water, which can cause a variety of different pollutant issues for waterways around the world.
Many other countries around the world recognise the environmental impact of coal. The Netherlands and Finland are just two examples of multiple nations with set plans to ban coal by specific dates in the near future. It’s clear that there is a consensus among many countries that coal is not the way forward in terms of environmentally friendly energy sources.
Health Hazards of Coal
While the acute environmental impacts of coal use are quite clear, the health hazards of coal are often less advertised. Coal causes a variety of health issues due to its prevalence around the world. Both coal miners and the general population experience health-related consequences from exposure to coal and its byproducts. Regarding the general population, the overall increase in CO2 levels around the world results in an added risk of lung disease, asthma, and a range of other health issues.
Byproducts from coal – such as lead, mercury, and arsenic – also cause problems for populations of people around the globe. Increased levels of lead in the environment can lead to food and soil contamination that results in kidney disease, premature births, heart disease, blood pressure issues, and more. Mercury prevalence can also impact the food chain, create developmental problems for foetuses, and add to a range of neurological disorders. Arsenic exposure to the general population can create several additional health issues, including gene mutations, anaemia, various cancers, respiratory disease, and more.
Living near coal plants and mines can result in an extreme risk of various diseases and health-related issues. However, you don’t have to live in proximity to coal production to experience issues related to coal; coal pollution is pervasive around the world. Coal miners also suffer from extreme problems related to the overexposure to coal. Miners in the coal industry experience much higher cancer rates than the general population – stomach cancer is particularly prevalent. Cancer isn’t the only issue associated with coal mining; several other life-threatening diseases, including pneumoconiosis, are associated with prolonged exposure to coal.
Evidence also suggests that abandon coal mines pose health and safety issues for nearby residents. Dangerous gases, clogged waterways, potential collapses, polluted water, and a range of other problems impact communities near abandoned coal mines. Many coal mining companies fail to properly clean mining sites after they are considered no longer viable. This is due to reduced economic incentive – many nations around the world have been left with the responsibility of performing reclamation on dangerous mine sites after production ceases.
Clean Energy Options
With so much misinformation prevalent in the clean coal debate, information about the current alternatives can be tough to come by. If Australia aims to provide additional power via more environmentally efficient means, it’s essential to understand clean energy options. Now more than ever, there is a plethora of clean energy options available for use. While many of these green energy options require significant upfront investment, the overall benefit of clean energy is astronomical.
The cleanest energy options fall in the renewables category. Thermal solar energy is a leading alternative in Australia – the industry is continuing to grow due to renewable energy
targets and government funding. Given the massive amounts of natural sunlight in Australia, thermal solar energy is a great renewable option that provides a healthy alternative to coal. Wind energy is another favourite renewable energy source in Australia. In fact, in terms of renewable sources, it’s the fastest growing category in the nation. At present, wind energy accounts for 4.9 percent of the energy market in Australia. While there are many wind sources onshore, no current offshore wind sources are operating in the country. Wind energy is particularly prevalent in rural areas of the nation. Prospective offshore wind sources could prove vital – other countries, such as the UK, already benefit from offshore systems.
Hydroelectric energy, or energy created by moving water, is another popular clean energy option in Australia. There are over 120 hydroelectric energy sources in the country. These plants produce over 8 percent of the total energy in Australia. The Australian Renewable Energy Agency is hoping that smallerscale hydroelectric energy sources may become available in the future. These would include hydroelectric sources in rivers and other smaller bodies of water.
Natural gas and nuclear energy are also alternatives to coal. While they still produce some emissions and potential hazards, they’re much more efficient at reducing environmental waste than coal. Nuclear energy is not technically a green energy source – this is due to the harmful radiation present in the nuclear plants. While nuclear power is renewable in theory, the potential perils of a plant meltdown exclude it from being classed as clean.
The Australian coal industry’s desire to promote ‘clean coal’ will have a negative impact on the environment if it prevents clean energy alternatives from expanding. It’s important to understand the considerable clean alternatives available to the country.