Australia’s coal is essential for overcoming Third World Poverty??

While I’m on a rave about coal, sustainability and myths (see Josh Frydenberg’s myths about the security of Peabody coal mines in Australia and his (unintentional) demolition of their employment contribution), let’s look at the myth of how our coal is essential to eradicating poverty in Third World countries.

The following is from Mike Sandiford, Professor of Geology at the University of Melbourne in The Conversation:

“Back in Australia, our coal lobby is fond of quotes of the ilk … “_Only when Third World children can do homework at night using cheap coal-fired electricity can they escape from poverty” .

And at least some in our government seem of a like mind.

Why, might we ask, does it matter that it is just “cheap coal-fired” electricity that alone will alleviate poverty? Why does not cheap hydro, geothermal, nuclear or whatever else, also do the trick?

No doubt coal has been a useful source of electricity in the third world, and will likely remain so for some time given that not all countries are endowed with the hydro resources of the Bhutanese. But is clear that Bhutan puts paid to the idea that coal alone can alleviate poverty.

But Bhutan also shows that there is something more fundamental that our coal lobby is loathe to acknowledge, and it speaks to the very paradox that lies at the heart of their claim – given that cheap coal has been around powering electricity systems for over 150 years, why are any children still living in poverty?

Could it be that the purported saviour of the world’s poor – the coal industry – doesn’t really have such a flash track record in the altruism stakes after all?”

Seems that no matter whether we are looking at our sustainable options here in Australia or at eradicating poverty in Third World countries, coal mining isn’t a critical component of either and may just be getting in the way of real solutions.

3 thoughts on “Australia’s coal is essential for overcoming Third World Poverty??

  1. Hello, my Helidon neighbour

    I agree with you about the dodgy PR on the necessity of coal being justified by the poor – but I was wondering what you thought the real solutions were? I think coal power is critical to alternative energy, because to date, all alternative energy power, runs exclusively off a coal powered grid. We haven’t developed a sustainable (without coal power) alternative energy system. If we’re talking off-grid alternative energy, which definitely has its merits over grid, components still need to be manufactured with predominantly fossil fuel energy. Especially if we’re talking affordable components, which still largely ship from China. I don’t think we manufacture them in Australia.

    • Hi Chris, good to hear from you. Interesting comments. I’ll start with the last one first. Yes, they are manufactured in China – for a couple of reasons. One is that China is determined to rapidly increase the percentage of energy it gets from alternatives. So there is huge market there that supports mass production with resultant lower costs. Allied to this is that the Australian government (or any persuasion) has never really supported alternative energy technology because they are captive to the carbon/hydrocarbon companies. And as a part of the first reason, one of the major companies there is based around (and was mostly owned by) a Chinese national who did his engineering PhD in Australia and developed a new solar technology, which the Australian government would not help fund to get it into production here. He reluctantly went back to China and set up factories there.

      You are absolutely right that alternative energy production components (whether for on-grid or off-grid generation) have to be largely manufactured using fossil fuel energy – but only because there is not enough large-scale alternative energy production yet. The technology is there (wind and solar thermal) but not yet sufficient investment.

      The grid isn’t “coal powered”. It doesn’t need “power” to run it – it carries electrical power from where it is generated to where it is used. The grid doesn’t know or care what the source of the electricity is. Yes, most of the electricity flowing in Australian grids is coal-generated, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Pretty soon we are going to see a rapid increase in very localised power production (at the housing estate or community level) using its local grid, where the only need for the larger grid will be to share energy when a local grid has too little or too much.

      At present the world does have some alternative energy grids that are not dependent on fossil fuel inputs – except as you recognise, for the manufacture of components. They range from very small – our home being one example, where a solar PV system on and in the “office” building supplies power to the office and then to the house and the workshop, as well as to external uses such as the electric fence around the vege garden and the grey water pump. We haven’t run our generator for several years – totally solar powered apart from pumping water up to our header tank with a petrol powered pump, but that’s only because I have not got around to replacing it with an electric pump.

      At the other end of the scale Bhutan is one example of a large non-fossil fuel grid – in that case it runs predominantly or totally on hydro. Then there are an increasing number of national or sub-national grids which are occasionally carrying only non-fossil power for days at a time – with the length of time increasing as they add more alternative generation to the system. The ACT will soon be totally non-fossil fuel powered. South Australia is aiming for the same. Germany occasionally has periods of a few days of total non-fossil fuel power.

      Shifting away from fossil-fuel power isn’t a choice – it is an imperative (and needs to be done quickly) if we are to avoid climate change that will disrupt and degrade our lives massively. Climate change refugees will make the current warfare and economic refugee issues look like a walk in the park if we don’t act quickly.

      Great to get your comment.

      • Thanks for the reply. I’ve read it requires coal to keep the base load power from dropping though, as alternative energies are intermittent, based on when the wind blows and the sun shines. The more houses which are connected to the main electricity grid, the bigger the base load needs to be. So while solar is excellent at providing power to the network during a sunny day (oversupply, in fact) it may not be sufficient to meet the base load during overcast weather and during the night.

        I vaguely remember Germany was working on a solution for that.

        I think Hydro is probably the only dependable alternative energy, if you happen to live in areas like Bhutan. They have the amazing river water flows, of no less than FOUR rivers. Which is why Bhutan can run completely on hydro without maintaining a base load, and sell most of it back to India. The rivers are always running, day/night and especially during storms, it increases its capacity to generate electricity. However there is a downside, read….

        It seems there is an enormous environmental cost, and to quote from the article about the financial reality, “However, Bhutan’s hydropower projects do not make much sense even economically, as they lead to heavy debt due to the loans that Thimphu needs to take out for their construction. Moreover, they result in mere quantitative growth without producing substantial number of jobs for Bhutanese people. Furthermore, since the electricity is sold exclusively to India, the resultant economic “self-reliance” wouldn’t mean much in terms of Bhutan’s sense of sovereignty. India’s dominance will remain, if not increase.”

        In essence, its really the insatiable appetite of growth in capitalism which is killing our climate, not what form of power we decided upon. When economies around the world are forced to rationalise what they can do, to maintain their economic viability, they ALWAYS end up enslaving themselves to moneylenders. Who make it so cost prohibitive to make a profit, short cuts on the environment are inevitable, if not mandatory.

        I don’t think capitalism is bad, just the present appetite for unrealistic growth. Its consuming more environmental capital than it can replace. Which is why its good to have public discussions like these – to talk about all the factors involved in change. It’s interesting, in the Bhutan example, they impose $200 per person, per day tariff, on those visiting their country, in an effort to reduce the impacts into their environment and culture. Yet they’re up to their eyeballs in debt, attempting to pay for the expansion of hydro. Not to supply the modest needs of their own people, but to supply the increasing need for India’s growing wealthy class. I imagine if Bhutan wasn’t doing this voluntarily, India would find some way to seize their country’s hydropower for themselves.

        So in essence, Bhutan is the conundrum, our own country faces. We could go further into debt, to make the change over to alternative energies, but there will still be that pressure for growth, in order to pay the moneylenders back. If we could address “growth”, with a more desirable proposition, I suspect change into alternative energies would be a breeze. I like the idea of capitalism and don’t wish to see it replaced, but there is something wrong with its present paradigm, that needs changing too. What do you think? Tariffs and taxes may not be the answer to address the kind of change we need, given Bhutan’s example. Why is it, every nation is so afraid of diminishing growth? And can we replace that fear, with a better proposition?

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