Coal fired power station operating at sunset

Coal-fired power stations: Everything you need to know

It wouldn’t be too farfetched to say that most Australians would have stumbled across the term ‘coal-fired power stations’ at least once in their life. Whether it’s listening to a fiery discussion on talkback radio or a neighbour giving their two cents on the topic, coal – and how it’s used – usually comes with negative connotations. But just how much do we know about this controversial fossil fuel and what is its main purpose in Australia?

While there are so many initiatives to produce energy from renewable sources, coal is still largely relied on for electricity generation. In this guide we’ll cover the key questions about coal-fired power stations, including the role these plants play in catering to Australia’s energy needs, as well as how they work and where they are located.

What is a coal-fired power station?

A coal-fired power station is an energy plant that burns coal – a fossil fuel – to generate electricity that’s fed into the grid which supplies power to homes and businesses. There are a few key energies stored in coal and when successfully converted, can create thermal energy, mechanical energy and electrical energy. Australia’s electricity generation relies heavily on coal-fired power stations, which supplies about 80 per cent of the country’s power needs, according to Geoscience Australia.

How do coal-fired power stations work?

In a nutshell, coal-fired electricity generation is achieved through quite a complex process:

  • Black or brown coal is pulverised into a powder that’s burned in a boiler known as a furnace.
  • The heat generated from this turns water fed into the power station into steam which passes through turbines at high pressure.
  • The resulting steam helps move and spin the turbines that are connected to an electrical generator.
  • Inside the generator are magnets that turn copper wire coils, creating an electrical current that generates electricity.

Coal Fired Power Station Diagram

It’s important to note that thermal coal in Australia is either black or brown coal, both of which are flammable sedimentary rocks formed over millions of years from decomposed vegetation that’s been compressed under layers of sand and sediment.

How long do coal-fired power stations last?

The average lifespan of a coal-powered plant is 29 years although some power stations are designed to last between 40 and 50 years, according to Energy Networks Australia. Most coal power plants have an expected closure date, however can cease operating earlier due to a variety of reasons, like being replaced by renewable energy generation or a reduction in performance that’s likely to increase electricity prices and power outages.

How many coal-fired power stations are in Australia?

There are currently 24 coal-fired power stations operating across Australia. These plants are located in New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland and Western Australia. Here is a list of the coal plants currently in operation:

State Power Station Primary Fuel Type Capacity (MW)
NSW Eraring Black coal 2,880
NSW Bayswater Black coal 2,640
NSW Liddell Black coal 2,000
NSW Mt Piper Black coal 1,400
NSW Yates Point B Black coal 1,320
VIC Loy Yang A Brown coal 2,210
VIC Hazelwood Brown coal 1,760
VIC Yallourn W Brown coal 1,480
VIC Loy Yang B Brown coal 1,026
QLD Gladstone Black coal 1,680
QLD Tarong Black coal 1,400
QLD Stanwell Black coal 1,460
QLD Callide C Black coal 810
QLD Milmerran Black coal 851
QLD Kogan Creek Black coal 750
QLD Callide B Black coal 700
QLD Tarong North Black coal 443
QLD Yabulu (coal) Black coal 37.5
QLD Gladstone QAL Black coal 25
WA Muja Black coal 1,070
WA Collie Black coal 340
WA Bluewaters 1 Black coal 208
WA Bluewaters 2 Black coal 208
WA Worsley (Alumina) Black coal 135

Source: Australian Energy Council, Submission 44, p.5.

Where are the coal-fired power plants in Australia?

The map below shows some of the main coal-fired power stations in Australia. Keep in mind this map is not to scale and is designed to be a rough guide only. As you can see, most coal power plants are located along the east coast of Australia.

Map of coal fired power stations in Australia

When was the first coal-fired power station built?

The first coal power plant in Australia is credited to the Yallourn Power station in Victoria. Located in the Latrobe Valley, the origins of the Yallourn Power Station date back to 1890 where operations begun at the Yallourn North Open Cut – a brown coal mine. Over the years, the area has consisted of many sites including Yallourn A, B, C, D, E and now, Station W – which received a $500 million upgrade in 2001.

What is the biggest power station in Australia?

Loy Yang Power Station

The largest power station in Australia by capacity is Loy Yang – located in Traralgon, Victoria – which consists of Loy Yang A and Loy Yang B. Both sites generate around 3,200MW which powers half of Victoria’s energy requirements, according to AGL. Situated next to a coal mine, Loy Yang A is owned by AGL, while Loy Yang B is owned by Chow Tai Fook Enterprises – owner of Alinta Energy.

Loy Yang’s primary fuel source is brown coal with both plants – A and B – due to cease operating in 2047. The power stations’ closure date coincides with the Victorian government’s plans to be completely carbon neutral by 2050.

Top 10 countries for coal capacity in the world

When it comes to coal on the global scale, Australia doesn’t rank that highly. Below is a list of the top 10 nations for operating capacity in megawatts (MJ).

  1. China
  2. United States of America
  3. India
  4. Russia
  5. Japan
  6. Germany
  7. South Africa
  8. South Korea
  9. Indonesia
  10. Poland

Pros and cons of coal-fired power stations

There are numerous pros and cons of coal and how it helps power Australia. Most of the advantages of coal-fired power stations revolve around accessibility of coal and how it’s cost-effective when compared to other resources, while the disadvantages are centred around its negative impacts on the environment.

Pros of coal power Cons of coal power
No global shortages of coal expected in the medium term Not a renewable source of energy and relies on a finite resource
Australia is a major exporter of coal Stations emit carbon dioxide
Most energy infrastructure supports coal Aging fleet of power stations
Generally cheaper to run than renewables Mining of coal can harm natural habitats

Is coal-fired power being phased out in Australia?

To cut a long story short, coal power plants still play a vital role in Australia’s electricity generational capabilities, with it still being the major resource behind keeping our nation’s lights on. That being said, it’s not to say the little black rock isn’t on borrowed time, especially as Australia looks to transform its energy system and reach net-zero emissions by 2050.

Given there is continuous research and investment into green energy production, it’s safe to argue that coal-fired power stations may cease to exist once they’re past their use-by date. While renewable energy produced by wind and solar power seem to be some viable ways of replacing coal, there are counter arguments that these types of renewables cannot meet or handle Australia’s electricity demand. With its future hanging in the balance, there’s no doubt this dirty fossil fuel will remain a sore talking point for many years to come, particularly as Australia as well as many other world economies shift to a more sustainable future.

Image credits: r.classen/, Wikipedia Commons, Robert Biedermann/, kezza/

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