BBC Climate Expert Explains How Australia Could Live Without Coal Exports

Guest essay by Eric Worrall

Coal is both Australia’s second largest export and something Australia could live without, according to the BBC.

Climate change: Why Australia refuses to give up coal

By Frances Mao
BBC News, Sydney

In a world racing to reduce pollution, Australia is a stark outlier.

Canberra has also resisted joining the two-thirds of countries who have pledged net zero emissions by 2050.

And instead of phasing out coal – the worst fossil fuel – it’s committed to digging for more. 

So it’s no surprise that Australia is being viewed as a “bad guy” going into the COP26 global climate talks in Glasgow, analysts say.

Mining has helped drive Australia’s economy for decades, and coal remains the country’s second-biggest export. 

Coal exports totalled A$55bn (£29bn; $40bn) last year, but most of this wealth was kept by mining companies. Less than a tenth went to Australia directly – that’s about 1% of national revenue.

The coal workforce of 40,000 is about half the size of McDonald’s in Australia. But coal jobs do sustain some rural communities.

But analysts say there’s no long-term market as countries race to meet emissions goals.

Australia could end its literally toxic relationship with coal fairly quickly, experts say.

Its economy is stable and well-diversified to absorb the loss of coal exports.

This has frustrated those who say Australia should be investing to become a renewables superpower. 

As one of the sunniest and windiest continents on Earth, Australia is “uniquely placed to benefit economically” from its abundant natural resources, says the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), an intergovernmental organisation.

Read more: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-australia-57925798

The BBC economic analysis leaves out an important detail – the $55 billion / year annual coal export industry keeps the the Australian dollar afloat. Australian law requires companies to sell exports at realistic prices, even if they are cross selling between divisions of the same company, so all that coal has to be purchased using Australian dollars. Without that $55 billion annual influx of foreign currency, the value of the Aussie dollar would likely collapse.

What about Australia’s alleged opportunity to become a green energy superpower?

My question: Why are the experts who claim Australia could be a “renewables superpower” demanding government support, instead of putting their own money where their mouth is?

The reason, of course, is the numbers don’t add up.

Australia might be one of the sunniest and windiest continents on Earth, but it is also one of the driest and dustiest places on Earth.

The Australian outback is an incredibly hostile environment for machinery.

Even on the coast, where I live, everything gets covered with a thick layer of dust in days. Gearboxes and bearings fill with grit. Surfaces get abraded. Plastic and rubber rapidly disintegrates under our hot ultraviolet soaked sunlight.

If I park my automobile outside at night, by morning I need to wash my windscreen using the wipers.

Some of the dust contains salt and organic compounds, and picks up electrostatic charges as it is blown by the wind, so it sticks to surfaces like glue, and has to be washed off. You cannot just shake or brush it off.

In the desert, away from the coast, it is even worse.

Unless you have a good supply of fresh water and soap for washing dust off everything you care about, lubricating oil to clean out dust contaminated bearings, and maintenance people to fix all the stuff which breaks, no machinery installation in the Australian interior survives for long.

Vast supplies of fresh water are not easy to find in Australia. Where fresh water is available, it is mostly already claimed by others, who would have to be compensated for loss of access. Billions of dollars would be required, to buy out farmers and miners who are already using every scrap of fresh water which is available, assuming you could convince any of them to sell.

Why would the cleaning water have to be fresh? What about pumping salt water from the ocean?

Salt water would be a disaster for cleaning renewable energy installations. The water would leave a film of translucent salt on everything. Stalagmites and stalactites of electrically conductive salt would accumulate on the edges of solar panels and sensitive electric installations, creating short circuits and fires. Salt water is far more corrosive than fresh water, it would rapidly attack any alumina fittings and all but high grade stainless steel. Salt water use could even lead to accelerated structural failures if there were any significant earth leakages, by accelerating corrosion of any structural metal components in contact with the ground. The influx of salt would remain in the environment, causing a localised ecological disaster.

Remember, the interior of Australia is sunny AND windy. Those solar panels better be anchored to the ground with lots of concrete and structural steel, otherwise they will blow away. The UV gelcoat protection on wind turbine blades would have to be meticulously maintained, to prevent our harsh sunlight from wrecking the plastic. And lets not forget, the freak storms which occasionally sweep in from the coast can drop rock hard hailstones the size of baseballs – not a good thing for anything caught under the storm.

This in my opinion is why companies are demanding large infusions of government cash before they’ll touch our alleged amazing opportunity to become a “renewables superpower”. As with most renewable energy schemes, I believe people behind the Australian “renewables superpower” vision expect any profit will come from milking taxpayers, not from genuinely profitable commercial sales of their product.

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October 22, 2021 at 08:17PM

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