Life Science Coal-fired power plants disrupt rainfall and threaten human health, study shows
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Coal-fired power plants disrupt rainfall and threaten human health, study shows

Scott Morrison and Barnaby Joyce play with a lump of coal in parliament.
Barnaby Joyce has called for the Morrison government to bankroll a new coal plant, despite health and environmental concerns. Photo: Getty
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Coal-fired power plants can pose a bigger threat to human health and the environment than cars, a groundbreaking long-term global study has revealed.

Modern coal-fired power stations emit higher levels of dangerous pollutants known as “ultrafine dust particles” than urban road traffic, and can even redistribute rainfall patterns, researchers from Australia and Germany have found.

While road traffic has long been considered the main source of ultrafine particles (UFP) in urban areas, the 15-year study showed that coal-fired power stations clearly emit larger amounts of UFPs through filtering technology of exhaust gas.

UFP concentrations in the atmosphere have increased continuously since modern coal-fired power stations were commissioned in many locations around the world, the study published in the Bulletin of the American Meteorological Society showed.

Nationals demand taxpayer-funded coal plants

Coal plants emit more dangerous pollutants than road traffic, research shows. Photo: Getty

The research comes as former Nationals leader Barnaby Joyce demanded the Morrison government build a new taxpayer-funded coal-fired power station in Queensland should the Coalition win the upcoming federal election.

Mr Joyce, who relinquished the deputy prime ministership last year after it was revealed he was having an extramarital affair and a child with a former staffer, has long advocated for coal-fired power over renewable energy sources.

“I have always been absolutely forthright about making sure we believe in coal-fired power. And I want to continue that fight,” Mr Joyce told ABC’s 7.30 last year.

Queensland Nationals are insisting that Coalition Energy Minister Angus Taylor must include coal generation projects on a shortlist of projects in line for taxpayer subsidies, the ABC reported on Monday.

UFPs: How coal pollution changes the weather

With a diameter of less than 100 nanometres, UFP have an enormous effect on environmental processes, the research showed.

Led by Professor Jorg Hacker of Flinders University in South Australia, and Professor Wolfgang Junkermann of the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology in Germany, the study’s key findings were that:

  • Modern coal-fired power stations emit more UFP than urban road traffic
  • UFP can harm human health
  • UFP can affect rainfall distribution on local to regional scales by increasing the condensation nuclei count
  • UFP can be transported in layers with high concentrations for hundreds of kilometres and then lead to localised “particle events” (dramatic spikes in short-term particle concentrations on the ground) far away from their source.

“The UFP offer surfaces for chemical reactions in the atmosphere or may influence the properties of clouds and precipitation,” Professor Junkermann said.

In nature, forest fires, dust storms or volcanic eruptions produce fine particles, but mostly not in the nanometre range, he said.

‘Flying laboratories’ measured coal plant plumes

The researchers used two innovative ‘flying laboratories’ kitted out with state-of-the-art instruments to measure the dust particles and trace gases emitted by coal plants.

Measurement flights took place in Australia, Europe, Mexico and Mongolia using the world’s “most comprehensively instrumented motorglider” in Australia and a German-built trike believed to be the world’s smallest manned research aircraft worldwide.

“Our two research aircraft are particularly suitable to follow the plumes from the smoke stacks downwind for hundreds of kilometres and study their behaviour in great detail,” Professor Hacker said.

The scientists then linked the data with meteorological observations and used dispersion and transport models to trace back their origin.

“In this way, we found that fossil power stations have for many years become the strongest individual sources of ultrafine particles worldwide,” Professor Hacker said.

They massively influence meteorological processes and may cause extreme weather events, including intensive rain events.”

By redistributing rainfall, UFPs can lead to drier-than-usual conditions in some places and to “unusually heavy and persistent strong” rainfall elsewhere, Professor Hacker said.

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