Australia is a major supplier of energy to the world markets, exporting over three-quarters of its energy output, worth nearly $80 billion. Our country’s resource and energy exports accounts for over 60% of total export earnings. With this being the case and sustainability being the target, it leaves our state of affairs highly questionable.
Let’s start with coal. Australia is the world’s largest exporter of coal. Among the many advantages of coal is that it provides significant employment opportunities for Australians, a big tick for our economy. It is plentiful (currently), easy to access and convert to energy and once mined it can be stored with no hazard risk. Unfortunately, the worst type of pollution is from the burning of coal as it not only releases high levels of carbon dioxide, but emits radiation, with the waste contributing more radiation to the environment than nuclear power stations. These emissions are linked to major health concerns, including respiratory illnesses and lung disease.
Is climate change and the growing rate of cancer and other illnesses a direct consequence of the high level of burning coal?
- Australia has the best quality coal worldwide
- Coal equates to 20% of Australia’s export
- Coal operates at 59% efficiency
- The burning of brown coal equates to over 57% of electricity production in Australia alone
- Brown coal is a far greater pollutant than black coal (Australia burns brown coal)
- The toxins released from the burning of coal has been proven to be a contributor of heart and lung alignments, as well as neurological problems
- Based on the current export rate, coal resources in Australia will be completely depleted by the year 2120
Burning coal produces about 15 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide each year.
Natural gas is the most used energy source; it’s highly combustible and is the cleanest fossil fuel energy source available. Natural gas can be used in the form of compressed natural gas (CNG) or liquefied petroleum gas (LPG).
Natural gas produces nearly a third less carbon dioxide than coal and almost half less than oil when burned.
- Australia is currently the biggest exporter of gas
- Gas equates to 19% of Australia’s electricity production
- Gas equates to 50% efficiency
- The combustion of gas omits less than 60% of CO2 emissions than coal
Uranium used in nuclear power plants for electricity generation is in fact the most efficient and environmentally friendly energy source. Australia has one third of the world’s total uranium. Nuclear energy originates from the splitting of uranium atoms, which generates heat to produce steam and then used by a turbine generator to generate electricity.
Nuclear is able to operate at 98.9% efficiency.
Uranium is an extremely ‘clean’ source of electricity generation because nuclear power plants don’t burn fuel; they don’t produce greenhouse gas emissions. However, only around 10% of the world’s electricity is generated via this method, because if it’s not stored, maintained or disposed of correctly, radioactive material can leak. Therefore, nuclear power plants must be maintained and if they are maintained correctly (complete shutdown required), they are extremely safe.
If you look at the statistics over 18,500 cumulative reactor-years of commercial operation in 36 countries there have only been three major accidents to nuclear power plants: Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima.
Renewable energy makes up 22% of Australia’s electricity production, with Hydro (Hydroelectricity) being the largest renewable energy contributor.
Hydro (flowing water) produces low greenhouse gas emissions and low operating costs. On the downside, interruptions of natural water flow can have a negative impact on river ecosystems and it involves high upfront capital costs.
Wind operates at 32% efficiency and Australia has the best wind sources globally. However, wind fluctuates and therefore wind energy isn’t constant. Wind turbines are very expensive and cause noise pollution.
Solar panels produce no greenhouse gas emissions and are virtually maintenance free, once installed. However, they are made up of ruthenium, indium, tellurium, lead and lithium and when disposed of these toxic materials can leach out as they break down; landfill also creates new environmental hazards.
Geothermal energy (heat from the Earth) can be extracted without burning a fossil fuel such as coal, gas, or oil. Geothermal fields produce only about one-sixth of the carbon dioxide that a relatively clean natural-gas-fuelled power plant produces. However, it has a high investment cost along with leak, water contamination and corrosion concerns.
Sugarcane is a well-known biofuel source. Ethanol from sugarcane yields 25% more energy than the amount used during the production process, and reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 12% compared to fossil fuels. Growing sugar cane requires a warm, rainy climate, which limits its potential as a global fuel source.
Wave energy (or wave power) captures energy by ocean surface waves. Water and waves are abundant and widely available with a variety of ways in which to harness. There is no damage to the land and huge amounts of energy can be produced. The biggest disadvantage is location (getting your energy from the waves), along with the disruption to marine life.
The biggest area of growth is renewable energy (mostly hydro) and is now a cheaper energy source for electricity generation than coal. An important factor to remember is that the oceans are nearly the largest source of energy. The energy production is definitely constant and viable. Not only is that, despite the costs, the ocean is also a source of absolutely clean and renewable sources of energy.
Sustainable Energy Goals
If global renewable targets from each country are met, by 2070 the entire planet will have ‘net zero emissions;’ an overall balance between greenhouse gas emissions produced and greenhouse gas emissions taken out of the atmosphere.
Are global renewable targets realistic?
Australia is rich in fossil fuels and is dependent on export and the Australian Federal Government has not committed to meeting their own energy targets. In other parts of the world, renewable energy production is the fastest growing source of jobs. The pathway to a renewable future in our fossil fuel rich country is a political one, which indicates why Australia’s commitment to renewable energy production is quite low.
Australia’s electricity grid is not suitable for renewable energy, so this poses other difficulties. To upgrade Australia’s grid it would be estimated to take in excess of 20 years. However, Australia’s electricity grid is suitable for nuclear. In conjunction with nuclear, coal power could be used to provide an alternative source of electricity during scheduled nuclear power plant maintenance.
The environmentally damaging production and recycling of some renewables makes nuclear energy a far cleaner and environmentally friendly choice, even if coal was to be used as an alternate energy supply during plant maintenance. All this poses many questions about the current decisions being made by the Australian Federal Government. By reading between the lines, it’s not hard to understand which energy source is better for Australia’s economy and which are better for the environment.