The social licence of coal

I’m (just) old enough to remember the Australian nuclear disarmament (and associated opposition to nuclear power) rallies from the 1970s, the fervent opposition to the Newport gas-fired power plant in Melbourne, Tasmanian dams protests of the 1980s, along with logging and woodchipping protests, and so on. Just about every energy source attracts opposition. The interesting thing is that although there’s a broad understanding of the need to transition from unabated coal, there doesn’t seem to be the acute feeling against coal-fired electricity in relation to historic conservation campaigns. Indeed, historically, coal was often advocated as an energy source that could complement renewables, provide energy security, and substitute for oil and gas.

A parallel narrative is the broad support for renewables. But much of the community is yet to appreciate the practical constraints of high-penetration renewable scenarios, and the inevitable synergy with gas in the absence of dispatchable renewables.

I would argue that this helps to explain at least part of the political stalemate of Australian climate policy – no consensus on CO2 pricing; but support (if recently equivocal from the Government) for renewables. Indeed, Australian electricity seems to be on a trajectory that will emulate the original aspirations of the 1980 forerunner to the German Energiewende – 50 to 55% coal and 45 to 50% renewable energy by 2030 (with a larger role for gas in Australia due to indigenous resources). The social licence of coal seems to be a key factor, and I’ve put together a few observations in no particular order –

  1. As a pioneer nation, Australia’s economic roots lie in agriculture and mining. Australia readily exploited the power of steam. Local coal was an antidote to a reliance on imported fuels – oil and natural gas were not developed until the 1960s. Furthermore, affordable electricity was essential for incubating a manufacturing industry.
  2. Prior to climate change, people really weren’t that worried about coal. Even the Australian medical and academic community seem to have not been too concerned about studying coal-fired power’s health impacts (see two recent reports by the ATSE and BZE). Most health studies were related to the mining of coal rather than combustion.  
  3. The Australian geographic distribution of power plants in low population density areas has mitigated against the worst effects of pollution. Australian coal is low in sulphur, lessening the likelihood of acid rain.
  4. During the 1970s and 80s, despite pressing for more funding for ‘alternative energy’, environmental advocates treated coal as a relatively benign fuel. For example, in advocating a policy of environmental protection, Hugh Saddler (1981, pp. 119-120) argued that coal was a more economic and less risky option than nuclear. In arguing the case against Tasmanian hydro development, Peter Thompson, representing the Australian Conservation Foundation, noted that coal plants ‘pose relatively few air pollution problems if the operation is adequately planned, sited and built to the highest standards of quality’ (Thompson 1981, p. 125). Similarly, during the Franklin River campaign in 1981, Bob Brown stated that ‘a new coal fired power station is the manifestly best option built on Tasmanian coal fields.’
  5. A similar view was held in Germany and the US. During the 1970s, the German Government actively promoted the expansion of coal for electricity and combined heat and power (Guilmot et al 1986, pg. 20). Even the contemporary Energiewende was originally conceived around Germany’s substantial coal resources. The Energiewende emerged from a study by the German Öko-Institut in 1980 that grew out of concerns of oil security from the first oil crisis, and the safety of nuclear energy (Krause et al. 1981; Joas et al. 2016; Maubach 2014; Morris & Jungjohann 2016). The study, titled ‘Energy turnaround, growth and prosperity without oil and uranium’, envisaged a German energy supply derived from 50 to 55% coal and 45 to 50% renewable energy by 2030.
  6. In 1977, pro-conservation US President Carter proposed an 80% increase in coal production for power generation and liquid fuels, arguing for ‘the expanded use of coal, supplemented by nuclear power and renewable resources, to fill the growing gap created by rising energy demand’ (Stobaugh & Yergin, 1979, pg. 80).
  7. From Lowy and other polling, the willingness to pay a higher cost for electricity is very limited – in 2011, 39% were prepared to pay no more and a further 32% were prepared to pay no more than $20 a month. The majority of Australians like the idea of an energy transition but aren’t willing to pay for it. Although the Murdoch Press and elements of the Lib-Nat Coalition are critical of the LRET, the community seems to support both the LRET and rooftop solar.
  8. The IEA projections for India illustrate the way in which a ‘techno-optimist’ narrative of growing renewables (or nuclear) can co-exist with the stark reality of growing coal-fired generation. According to the IEA ‘New Policies Scenario’, solar PV in India is projected to grow around 60-fold by 2040, wind around 7-fold, and nuclear around 6-fold. But despite coal’s share falling to 57% of generation, coal-fired generation is projected to nearly double in absolute terms because of the sheer scale of India’s demand growth. The reasons for India’s increasing demand for coal are simple – coal is cheap and easily shipped, requires no pretreatment, and most importantly, provides fit-for-purpose dispatchable generation. It does not require smart grids or storage to provide dispatchable power, nor the institutional and community support that nuclear requires.
Figure 2.22, IEA India Energy Outlook

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