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Air pollution inches lower as clean energy begins to replace coal power in NSW

New National Pollutant Inventory data show toxic air emissions from the state’s coal-fired power stations fell by 4% in the year to June 2021, but they are still the most polluting industrial facilities in NSW. [1]  

During the 2021 financial year, coal-fired power stations at Lithgow, on the Central Coast and in the Hunter Valley released more than 260,000 tonnes of toxic air pollution including: 

  • 101,000 tonnes of nitrogen oxides;  
  • 147,000 tonnes of sulphur dioxide; 
  • 543 tonnes of fine particles (PM2.5); and 
  • 184 kg of mercury. 

 “This data shows that coal-fired power stations are still among the most polluting industrial facilities in NSW,” Nature Conservation Council Policy Director Dr Brad Smith said.  

 “All these pollutants have a huge impact on people’s health so these facilities must clean up their operations and shut as soon as possible.  

 “These facilities are still a major source of dangerous airborne toxins, including oxides of nitrogen and sulphur and fine particles, which all cause serious respiratory and cardiovascular diseases.  

 “On the Central Coast alone, pollution from coal-fired power stations causes asthma in 650 children.  

 “The total health impact of this industry on families is colossal, especially in the Hunter, on the Central Coast and across western Sydney where many of these emissions end up.”  

 Climate pollution from NSW coal power stations fell by 2.1 million tonnes of CO2 in the reporting period, equivalent to replacing 600,000 petrol cars with electric vehicles.   

  

DATA HIGHLIGHTS 

 

NSW Power Station Emissions, 2020-21 (tonnes)  

   

NOx       

SOx       

Fine particles PM2.5  

Mercury (kg)  

Bayswater 

33,152 

46,154 

103 

108 

Liddell 

14,574 

24,071 

258 

16 

Eraring 

19,083 

32,000 

40 

27 

Vales Point 

16,008 

16,000 

96 

15 

Mt Piper 

17,702 

28,800 

47 

17 

TOTAL       

100,520 

147,025 

543 

184 

Source: National Pollutant Inventory, 2020-21  

 

 

Fine Particles (PM2.5) 

AGL’s Liddell coal fired power station was single the biggest source of PM2.5 this year, after its emissions increased by 139% on the previous year. 

  

The spike in fine particle emissions raises concerns that AGL may have stopped adequately maintaining the fabric filters which are designed to catch 99% of fine particles.  AGL closed one unit at Liddell on 1 April 2022, with the final three units to close on 1 April 2023. 

  

The air in Muswellbrook, the town closest to the Liddell and Bayswater coal-fired power stations, has breached the limits for fine particle pollution every year since the limit was introduced, meaning residents are forced to breathe unhealthy air.  

 

Vales Point generated the least electricity out of the five power stations, a reduction of 8% on last year. Despite this, fine particle pollution from the power station tripled this year from 31,000 kg  to 96,000 kg. 

 

Mercury 

This year, mercury released from NSW coal-fired power stations increased sharply. Bayswater reported an increase from 60 kg to 108 kg, Eraring doubled its mercury pollution from 14 kg to 27 kg, and Vales Point doubled mercury emissions from 7.5 kg to 15 kg, while the Mount Piper power station near Lithgow increased from 7 kg to 17 kg. Internationally, scrubbers are used to reduce mercury, sulphur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide emissions, however these technologies are not used in NSW.   

 

Nitrogen Oxide 

The Eraring power station continues to emit NOx at half the rate of other NSW coal fired power stations, due to low-NOx burners installed in 2012. The NSW EPA granted Liddell and Vales Point continued exemptions in late 2021 to continue emitting NOx at rates above the limits in the NSW Clean Air Regulation, despite calls from health and environment groups for low-NOx burners to be required at Vales Point. NOx emissions fell by 1% across the board, with an 11% reduction at Vales Point in line with an 8% reduction in electricity generation at the plant. 

 

Sulphur Dioxide  

SO2 emissions from coal power reduced by 4% last year, in line with a 5% drop in coal-fired electricity generation as more rooftop solar, and wind and solar farms connected to the electricity grid. 

 

For more details, see NCC’s report: NSW Air Pollution Insights 2022 

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