The cost of coal puts renewable myths in perspective | RenewEconomy

The cost of coal puts renewable myths in perspective

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The disaster at Morwell shows we can’t let our leaders disavow safe alternatives to fossil fuels, riding on fragile wings of myth and fear.

Source: Keith Packenham, via the CFA website
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As I type, 94% of generation in Victoria is being sourced from brown coal. Hazelwood power station is pumping out 1,221 megawatts, about 20% of total Victorian power. At the same time, the open cut coal mine that provides fuel to the power station is burning; a slow, intense fire that sits at the coal seam face. The fires, suspected to have been deliberately lit, eject plumes of smoke into Morwell, a town of 14,005 residents, a stone’s throw away from the smouldering seam. Click here for more on Google Earth image.

Morwell, on the right hand side of this image, sits directly next to the Hazelwood coal mine. The power station sits at the bottom left of the image. Click here for a satellite view of the coal mine and the town. Source: Google Earth.
Morwell, on the right hand side of this image, sits directly next to the Hazelwood coal mine. The power station sits at the bottom left of the image. Click here for a satellite view of the coal mine and the town. Source: Google Earth.

On the 9th of February, reports emerged that a bushfire was threatening the output of one of Victoria’s largest coal generators. At one point, Hazelwood’s output was reduced to three quarters of total capacity. Since the bushfire, the power station has ramped back up to full power:


The fire has been burning for several weeks now, and authorities are concerned it might linger for months. CFA photographer Keith Pakenham has published a set of haunting photos of the fire – an unnerving capture of the alien landscape faced by the Country Fire Authority, every night, as they fight the blaze.

Source: Keith Packenham, via the CFA website
Source: Keith Packenham, via the CFA website

Air quality has dropped significantly since the fire began. The Victorian Environmental Protection Authority publishes air quality data on their website, and it’s clear that the residents of Morwell are experiencing serious impacts. See more here.

 [AIR QUALITY CHARTS WEEKLY] Source: EPA Victoria, synthesised from two screenshots taken one week apart. Data are for February 2014

Source: EPA Victoria, synthesised from two screenshots taken one week apart. Data are for February 2014
 The consequences are wide-ranging. 20 firefighters were sent to hospital with carbon monoxide poisoning in the first week of the incident. Residents have attended health assessment centres established in the town after experiencing nose bleeds, chest pains and respiratory problems.

25,000 face masks have been distributed around the local area by the Latrobe City Council, and EPA Victoria have released a steady stream of high level alerts warning of immediate impacts from smoke inhalation and poor air quality.

Victoria’s Chief Health Officer, Rosemary Lester, issued an advisory, stating that “children, the elderly, smokers and people with preexisting illnesses such as heart or lung conditions (including asthma) are more sensitive to the effects of breathing in fine particles. Symptoms may worsen and include wheezing, chest tightness and difficulty breathing”.

Microscopic particles known as PM2.5 have been recorded at dangerous levels in the township by visiting EPA officers from Tasmania, at some points exceeding levels recorded in the heavily-polluted city of Beijing. A six year old boy has developed a cough that is so severe, he’s having trouble eating. One writer visited the town, and came back coughing up blood.


Last Friday, health authorities recommended children and the elderly leave town. In Morwell, there are 2,586 people aged under 14, and 2,690 people aged over 65. That’s 5,276 Morwell residents who might be forced out of their home town – about one third of the town’s population.

Also last Friday, Australia Post cancelled all deliveries to large parts of Morwell. They stated that “this decision has been made after careful consideration for the health and well being of our postal delivery officers, which is our primary concern”. According to AAP, several schools, kindergartens and childcare centres have closed down.

nasa pic
NASA’s Visible Infrared Imaging Radiometer Suite satellite captures the Morwell coal fire on February 10th, circled in green. Source: NASA

These impacts are real, and it’s worth comparing them to the health claims put forward by groups dedicated to spreading fears around a wind energy technology, a competitor to coal.

No person has ever been diagnosed (by a registered health professional) with ‘wind turbine syndrome’, despite an estimated 32,789 people living within five kilometres of fifty wind farms in Australia. 64.7% of these wind farms have never been subject to a single health or noise complaint.

Worse still for groups propagating health fears around wind energy, several health authorities have explicitly stated that there is no evidence to suggest wind farms have health impacts, including the Victorian Department of Health and most recently, the National Health and Medical Research Council, who have released a draft systematic review, stating that “there is no reliable or consistent evidence that wind farms directly cause adverse health effects in humans”.

ketan tweet updated

It gets even worse. The actions of anti-wind groups are increasingly unpopular. The community of Waubra, the town originally used by anti-wind groups to coin the term ‘Waubra Disease”, has disavowed an anti-wind group known as the ‘Waubra Foundation’. Strong pleas from locals to remove ‘Waubra’ from ’The Waubra Foundation were refused, because “the name Waubra Foundation is revered by victims of wind projects worldwide”.

Despite growing antagonism towards anti-wind groups and an unequivocal absence of supporting evidence for ‘wind turbine syndrome’, Prime Minister Tony Abbott recently announced a study into the health impacts of wind energy. He has also criticised the Renewable Energy Target, stating that “We’ve got abundant coal….so we can be the affordable energy capital of the world”.

Prime Minister Abbott ought to ask the residents of Morwell how they feel about his vision of an Australia blanketed by an abundance of coal.

Perhaps the PM could explain to Morwellians why ‘lip vibrations’ and ‘disoriented echidnas’ supposedly caused by wind farms are more worthy of research funding than the health costs of coal-fired power. At the same time, he could spell out why wind farms are banned within five kilometres of any township in Victoria.

The impacts of the coal fire at Morwell, even using conservative estimates, are quite significant. Our current government seems to be steering us towards a greater reliance on the fuel that’s suffocating an entire Victorian town – a fuel that’s being labelled as cheap, when the costs are suddenly very real.

Prime Minister Abbott’s ‘affordable energy’ dream will have a serious and irreversible cost, and no quantity of myth will counter the harsh reality of the short-term health impacts of coal-fired power, and the long-term impacts of climate change.

Morwellians won’t be the last to bear the burden of the costs of coal, if we don’t act to alter our trajectory.

We can’t let our leaders disavow safe alternatives to fossil fuels, riding on the fragile wings of myth and fear. I hope they’ve a sceric of ethical fortitude, buried somewhere in the sea of simplicity we’ve seen so far.

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  1. Beat Odermatt 6 years ago

    I have worked as an Environmental
    Scientist for a coal mines for about 20 years. We have the National
    Pollution Inventory, which should in theory give an estimate of
    emissions caused by coal mining and coal fired power stations. In my
    opinion, the real cost of coal sourced electricity production is far
    higher then any current estimates and make a fast move towards 100%
    renewable more urgent. In the National Pollution Inventory, massive
    emissions caused by shale and coal fires are not measured. These
    emission in many cases are considerable higher than any “measured”
    emission. Coal and shale fires are almost impossible to control and
    I know sites were fires have been burning over 50 years. We may put a
    figure of 50 Billion Dollars to rehabilitate existing and abandoned
    coal mines and power station. The cost of rehabilitation of mines,
    railway tracks and power stations may cost more and it needs to be
    done sooner or later. I feel if we could invest such amounts in
    renewable energy instead of rectifying engineering stupidity of the
    past, we would have a far better and cleaner today and tomorrow.

  2. Coaltopia 6 years ago

    Morwellian indeed.

  3. David K Clarke 6 years ago

    Excellent article Ketan.

    There was recent research published in the British Medical Journal and elsewhere detailing increased heart disease risks from particulate matter, eg. from coal fired power stations. (

    And, there was an article published in The Lancet several years back calculating the number of deaths and serious illnesses caused by burning coal (

    Why is the Liberal Party so opposed to renewables, when as Ketan said, there’s no evidence that they harm anyone’s health and we certainly need action on climate change? The only answer, it seems to me, is that they are looking after the fossil fuel industry, who, in tern, look after the Liberals with generous campaign donations.

    Well said Beat Odermatt too.

  4. Ketan Joshi 6 years ago

    Hi everyone,

    Apologies for the non-functioning EPA chart – it’s just a replication of the data you can find here:

  5. Chris Fraser 6 years ago

    Morwell citizens in the CFA were discussing the fires on the local ABC. They mentioned the area where the fires started have not been mined for several years. For some reason they said, the ground which caught fire had not been rehabilitated, despite having a window of several years to do so.
    Not only would it be bad practice and a failure to deal with risk, but the true cost of rehabilitation has not been factored into the exploitation of the coal seam and the cost of energy. There are issues with air quality in both the general and disaster case, and now it appears the true cost of the coal mining is even higher than we’re told.
    We have surpassed ourselves at being ignorant of the real cost of coal energy, because we haven’t got a true grasp of the externalities, or we don’t want to know. But I’m from the other end of the country and everybody here now knows the plight of Morwell.

  6. Professor Ray Wills 6 years ago

    Negative health effects of coal broadly documented

    Evidence on the impact of sustained exposure to air pollution on life expectancy from China’s Huai River policy outlined in 2013 –

  7. DogzOwn 6 years ago

    Did anybody see TheAge/Letters, group of 70 year olds, 10km South, suffering extra smoke from grassfire ignited from Hazelwood Mine, because mowing not done – they’re asking permission to mow, for little old Gdf!!

    Is Gdf out of jail free, about dismantling fire extinguishing water system because of claim cause of fire is arson?

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