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Generating electricity

By Bruce Key, member of Wodonga Albury Towards Climate Health (WATCH)

It is common to hear wind turbines described as blots on the landscape.  In addition, solar farms are often criticised for taking up large areas of agricultural land, implying that the land is taken out of production.  These criticisms have some validity, but to be fair we need to compare the renewable wind and solar generation with what it replaces, which, in Australia, is coal-fired electricity generation.

Because most of us rarely see a coal-fired generator we have little knowledge of how much land they take up and the extent of the environmental damage that they do.  The environmental damage takes three forms; the air pollution that adversely affects those living downwind, the CO2 emissions that cause climate change, and the permanent damage to the land caused by extensive areas devoted to open cut coal mining and also toxic ash storage areas.

Consider the recently closed Hazelwood power station which occupied an area of at least 40 sq km.  Despite Hazelwood being decommissioned, about half of the area will never be returned to a useful state because it is either an open-cut coal mine or an ash dump.  The permanent loss of productive land is the price we pay for coal-fired electricity.

Contrast that to a solar farm.  Even during the life of the farm, the area must be grazed to reduce the fire hazard, so it is still productive.  When the lease expires it is a simple matter to remove the panels and their supports and hence the original use of the land can be resumed.

In the case of wind turbines, they have a negligible impact on the productive capacity of the land.  Not only do solar and wind farms have a minimal long-term effect on land but they also operate without any air pollution or carbon dioxide emissions.

On the other hand, coal-fired generators physically destroy extensive areas of land and the longer they operate the greater the area becomes.  This column is titled ‘Living Lightly’ and if we were to compare generating our electricity needs using coal or renewable energy using that criterion, any reasonable person would have to agree that coal-fired generation is anything but Living Lightly.

Photo: Hazelwood power station