Newcastle Herald: Opinion | HELE plants still cause air pollution

With mining interests calling for new high efficiency coal fired power stations to be built in the Hunter region, it is time to examine the health effects of these proposed plants.

The so called “high efficiency low emissions” (HELE) plants use steam at higher pressure than current plants, which gives them a small gain in thermal efficiency.

The Minerals Council has released a proposal for a new coal burning power station with 41.36 per cent efficiency, compared with the current New South Wales average of 35.5 per cent.

This means that to generate a kilo watt hour of electricity it burns 85.8 per cent of the coal that the current stations would, a reduction of 14.2 per cent.

There would be an equivalent 14 per cent reduction in carbon dioxide, and in all the other pollutants currently created by power stations.

Coal fired power stations release several toxic pollutants to the atmosphere, notably sulphur dioxide, nitrogen dioxide, and fine particles.

These have been documented to travel long distances and contribute up to a third of the fine particles documented in the Lower Hunter Particle Characterisation Study, even though the power stations are many kilometres away.

Power station air pollution has been tracked all the way to Sydney, where it is estimated to cause 130 premature deaths per year. The current NSW generators are old and nearing the end of their service life. As they retire over coming years there will be a health dividend from less heart and lung disease as air quality improves.

If the replacement generation is from new coal power stations using the higher efficiency designs, the community would get only 14 per cent of this health dividend, but if the new generation is from zero pollution sources the full 100 per cent health benefits could be realised.

Lake Macquarie has a long history of providing electricity to the state of NSW, and this should continue into the new energy economy.

It is ideally placed for the construction of a pumped hydro storage system.

This giant battery for the electricity grid comprises two bodies of water and pumps that can push the water uphill when power is abundant, and let it run down again when it is needed.

The dams do not need to be huge as they only need enough water for a day or two, and they do not need to be on rivers as the same water is used repeatedly.

It is the ideal complement to variable generators such as wind and solar, with round trip efficiency quoted as 80 per cent.

The federal government has proposed such a system for the Snowy Mountains wilderness where there is water and height but only a weak link to the national electricity grid.

Morisset, on the other hand, has water, mountains, heavy duty transmission lines and a capable workforce ready to build and operate such a system.

Why would the people of Lake Macquarie put up with another polluting coal fired power station when they have the perfect location for a pumped hydro electricity system?

Let’s get our local representatives onto this challenge.


Dr Ben Ewald is senior lecturer in public health at the University of Newcastle, a GP in private practice, and a member of Doctors for the Environment Australia

First published in the Newcastle Herald on 18 July 2017

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