The recent fires in the open cuts of Morwell and Yallourn have again brought to attention some of the real issues we as a community need to be considering in how we provide for our energy needs into the future. In these more enlightened times, we all expect that resource enterprises undergo a full life cycle analysis of the impacts of mining operations, including the rehabilitation of the site.
Yes we have had cheap brown coal electricity for many years in Victoria, because the power stations have not had to pay for the greenhouse gas emissions (until 2012) and were never required to rehabilitate the open cuts to make them safe from coal seam fires like the present ones. No one seems to count the cost of ill-health caused from fumes and particulate air pollution when the coal is burnt or of the mild acid rain and the build up of mercury and heavy metals in the environment or the cost of the enormous fire fighting effort when the open cut catches fire. When these costs are factored in, as they would need to be for any new brown coal project, the electricity so produced could hardly be called cheap.
Let’s be clear. Because of the un-remediated condition of these disused open cuts, every time there is an ember from a nearby bush fire on an extreme fire danger day, there will be a fire like we have just seen. Why were the operators ever allowed to leave the open-cuts in this state? Shouldn’t it have been mandated that overburden should be spread over the coal seam as they are depleted and the sides of the open cuts likewise coated with a layer above the coal. Also, shouldn’t the coal companies be required to have an emergency pool of money set aside to provide for the cost of fighting these fires as it is the hundreds of CFA volunteers that are doing the heavy lifting here.
At a time, when the State Government is about to announce the successful bidders for 13 billion tonnes of new brown coal, the Latrobe City Council and the community at large forcefully need to demand that the sites be rehabilitated to a safe and usable environment once the mining operation has finished. With any luck the cost of the remediation will tip these projects into unprofitability. But the killer reason why we must end our brown coal obsession in the Valley is that of economics.
Even without factoring in the health and pollution costs and the cost of site remediation, renewable energy is now on the cusp of being the cheapest form of generation. According to figures from the Australian Energy Market Operator (AEMO) the average wholesale
Victorian electricity price last year was around 5.74 cents per kWh. Many South Australian wind farms are selling electricity to the grid for less than this and some for even less than 5 cents per kWh soon. With about 34% of their electricity from renewable electricity, mainly wind, South Australia is the only state whose electricity prices are falling.
Dan Caffrey Latrobe Valley Sustainability Group
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