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The cost of coal

Coal power plant Source: Money Sharma

The Australian government claims that coal will play a vital role in bringing cheap energy to Indias poor. But is that really the case? A recent report published by three Brisbane-based researchers has tested Australian governments claims and they say ultimately coal-fired electricity would not improve health outcomes nor provide cheap electricity for the rural poor.

Three Brisbane-based Australian researchers, Lynette Molyneaux, Professor John Foster, and Dr Liam Wagner, have calculated the cost of delivering coal-powered electricity from Australia’s Galilee Basin to the Indian state of Bihar.

With an annual gross domestic product of about US$565 per person, Bihar has India’s highest proportion of households, roughly 75 million people, without access to electricity.

More than 1000 people in Bihar's Turki village have been living with almost no electricity, according to a community correspondent. This is despite grand promises by both the state and national level politicians since India’s independence, including the present Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

Lynette Molyneaux, Research Officer at the Global Change Institute of the University of Queensland, says that the infrastructure required to produce a modest amount of electricity for each household for a 20-year period amounted to a staggering US$29 billion. While the investment required for coal-fired electrification in Bihar worked out to a cost of 13.6 cents per kilowatt-hour.

This is almost half of what Queenslanders pay for the electricity that they get from coal-fired generation.

The large margin of difference, according to Dr Liam Wagner of Griffith University, is because of the network costs in Australia and average daily income of people in Bihar.

In India, a major contributor to air pollution is the practice of burning wood, cow-dung and kerosene for cooking and heating. These are associated with fires, severe burns, carbon monoxide poisonings, and other respiratory diseases.

Burning coal at high temperatures has its own set of emissions including the harmful Nitrogen oxide and sulphur dioxide.

A research by Professor Michael Brauer at the University of British Columbia (Canada) shows that more than 5.5 million people die prematurely every year due to air pollution. Professor Brauer told Eureka Alert that more than half of deaths occur in China and India.

So, ultimately coal-fired electricity for Bihar would not improve health outcomes, nor provide cheap electricity for the rural poor.

But, Liam estimates that developing the local resources for electrification in Bihar will create jobs for locals and also boost economic development.

Lynette suggests renewable alternatives which are cheaper and have no additional health costs associated with pollution.

Now, time will tell if the people would realise the cost of coal and opt for cheaper alternative renewable sources that as Professor Brauer says can help clean our air.