Coal is formed when plant material is subjected to high temperatures and pressures lasting millions of years. Several stages are involved in the formation of coal. These are:
Each successive stage has a lower water content and a higher energy content. This means that when the same quantity of each material is burned, a greater amount of heat is released for each successive stage.
Victorian brown coal has a high moisture content, containing more moisture than black coal – it can contain up to 70 percent water. This high moisture content makes long distance transportation uneconomic and so brown coal is not exported.
Brown coal is pulverised and then burned in large-scale boilers. The heat is used to boil water and the steam is used to drive turbines that generate electricity.
When brown coal is burnt it releases a long list of poisonous heavy metals and toxic chemicals like sulphur dioxide, mercury, particulate matter and nitrogen oxides. By world standards these pollutants are poorly monitored & controlled, and they impose a staggering health cost of up to $800 million every year.
Brown coal still makes up a large percentage of Victoria’s energy supply, but the shift to clean energy has already begun and is gathering pace. In 2019-20, renewable energy generated almost 25% of the state’s electricity, and Victoria has a world-leading renewable energy target of 95% clean energy by 2030.
But despite the unpopularity and health impacts of mining and burning brown coal, there have been recent attempts to keep the industry afloat, such as the ‘Advanced Lignite Demonstration Project’. But despite the promise of tens of millions in government subsidies, all of the projects ultimately failed.
More recently both the Victorian and Federal governments helped fund a project that seeks to turn brown coal into hydrogen. However this looks like yet another boondoggle project set for failure.
Instead of offering false hope by throwing taxpayer money at speculative projects which are unlikely to deliver any real benefits, the focus needs to be on a ‘just transition’ and building the sustainable industries of the future.
It's time to make the transition from polluting coal to clean, renewable energy.