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Byron Shire
March 6, 2021

Australians hate coal, so what do we do now?

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By Cathy Alexander

Crikey deputy editor

Talk about biting the hand that feeds you.

Research released by The Climate Institute yesterday has found that coal is Australia’s most-hated energy source. Focus groups and an online poll gauged the views of more than 1,000 people in April and May this year on their preferred energy sources, and coal came last. Even nuclear power fared better.

Two-thirds of the people surveyed placed coal in their bottom three (that is, least popular) of the nine energy sources listed. There’s another way of crunching the numbers by which nuclear is less popular than coal – looking at which power source was ranked in last place – but either way, coal is on the nose.

It’s an interesting result from the world’s largest coal exporter (A$46 billion of exports in 2011), and from a country that generates about 75 per cent of its electricity from coal.

Australia has derived much of its present prosperity from its abundant black and brown coal reserves, which at current production rates will last for more than a century. So what does this research tell us, that the public wants out?

Climate Institute chief executive John Connor thinks there’s a message for policy-makers and the coal industry.

‘They can put all the money they like into supporting advertising, but I think that Australians know that that’s an industry which is on limited time,’ Connor told Crikey. ‘This is an industry that rests on shaky ground.’

Connor says it’s ‘quite fascinating’ that coal power ranks behind nuclear power. ‘Australians are aware of coal and all that comes with it, and it’s very clear that they want clean energy,’ he said.

Solar tops

The survey found solar was the most popular energy source, with 81 per cent of respondents putting it in their top three; wind came second, then hydro. Connor says there is broad support for renewable energy, and politicians should facilitate that shift ‘as soon as possible’.

The Australian Coal Association is not commenting on the research, but Nationals Senator and staunch supporter of the industry Ron Boswell isn’t so shy.

‘You tell John Connor I’ve campaigned for 30 years, and how you ask the question, well you get the answer you want,’ Boswell told Crikey.

‘He is totally wrong, I’d like to see him go up and say that in the coalfields in Queensland, ‘’don’t worry but we’ll give you a nice green job’’.

’Yeah, people don’t like coal, but if you say ‘’are you prepared to burn coal and it will cost you 20 per cent less for your power’’, then you probably will burn coal. If John Connor thinks people are happy to pay more, tell him he’s dreaming.’

Boswell argues many punters don’t understand the costs involved in switching to renewable energy like solar, which he describes as ‘the most inefficient way of producing power’, with wind ‘pretty bad’ in terms of cost.

Certainly the numbers indicate it would be a very big call for Australia to shift away from its heavy reliance on the coal industry. The ACA calculates that Australia is the world’s largest coal exporter.

According to DFAT data from 2011, coal ($46.8 billion) is our second largest export after iron ore ($64.1 billion). Coal exports surged almost nine per cent in 2011 alone. Sales of thermal coal, which make up a lesser share of Australia’s trade than metallurgical coal, increased by almost 25 per cent in that year. Overall, coal exports boomed by almost 300 per cent in the decade to 2011.

And there’s plenty of paydirt left – the federal Department of Resources, Energy and Tourism has estimated that at present rates of production, there’s 539 years of brown coal-mining left, and 111 years for black coal.

And some of the coal stays here; about 75 per cent of Australia’s electricity is generated from coal, according to the federal government’s Bureau of Resources and Energy Economics. In 2009–10, solar PV generated 0.3 TWh of electricity, compared to 180.5 TWh from coal.

So Australia runs off coal and makes a great deal of money from selling it overseas, yet Australians say they don’t like coal and would prefer renewable energy. Try figuring that out, Canberra.

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  1. agree on solar PV as unefficiant way to produce power.
    But give coal the shit – our shit and biomass waste producing power in decentralised powerstations

  2. As 90% of Australians live wthin 50km of the coastline, and most of those are in urban areas, there is a large disconnect with the producers, including food producers, who support their lifestyles. Everything we use or eat is produced by someone else and the old adage “there is no free lunch” prevails.

  3. Not that long ago (about 2004 as I recall) we were being told that the coal would last more than 200 years at (then) current production rates.

    That 200 has now become “more than a century”.

    If we keep pursuing economic growth through increased coal “production”, as we currently are, how long before that becomes 50 years? Or 20? Or, eventually, it’s all gone?

    Because if we stake our future on continuing to increase “production”, for export, that is what will happen.

    At which point we will need to have created a renewable energy source for ourselves, or we will find out what real poverty is about.

    But of course that won’t happen for a few decades to come yet, now matter how much we try to dig it all up and sell it asap.

    Which it seems won’t matter to Mr Boswell and those like him.

    It’s time for Australians to start voting for representatives who do care about what happens in a few decades time.

    Otherwise we should start teaching Modern Greek History and Modern Spanish History in our schools – so the next generation will have some idea how to deal with extreme indebtedness and poverty.

    After all, we do want them to look after us when we reach old age at that time, don’t we?

  4. The cost to the consumer of alternative energy is now at, or near, parity with fossil fuel generated energy. The price differential change is only moving in one direction and it’s speeding up so, in the not too distant future, alternative energy will be cheaper.
    If Ron Boswell thinks people will be happy to pay more to support coal, he’s dreaming.


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