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ATSE Hidden Costs Electricity report

ATSE Hidden Costs Electricity report

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04/20/2013

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Te concept of life cycle assessment is best introduced with simple examples. Battery-powered electric
vehicles, with no tailpipe emissions, are sometimes unquestioningly regarded as pollution-free and
environmentally friendly. While the vehicle itself generates no emissions, the ‘pollution-free’ claim is
wrong because it ignores, inter alia, the emissions at the power station where the electricity needed to
charge the car’s batteries is generated, and the cost of disposal of battery waste. Again, the promotion of

THE HIDDEN COSTS OF ELECTRICITY

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The Hidden Costs of Electricity: Externalities of Power Generation in Australia

hydrogen as a ‘clean abundant fuel’ and an ‘inexhaustible source of energy’ overlooks the external impacts
of processes needed to produce hydrogen.

In general, in order to paint an accurate picture of the externalities, complete life cycles and production
systems need be analysed. With electricity generation, external impacts can arise at many stages: in the
exploration, mining and transport of the fuel; during the construction or manufacture phase of the
generation plant and its components; in the operation of the generator; in the course of delivering or
storing the electricity; or in later recycling or disposal stages.

Life cycle assessment, or analysis, (LCA) is a well established specialised feld of engineering. Sometimes
life cycle assessments are described in terms like “from the cradle to the grave” or in the case of
transportation systems “from well to wheel”. In Australia there is an Australian Life Cycle Assessment
Society (http://www.alcas.asn.au/) and an associated project on creating an Australian Life Cycle
Inventory Database (www.auslci.com). LCA, as the Australian website says, “is an internationally
recognised method for evaluating environmental impacts of products and services and the implications of
production and consumption
”.

LCA can be a complex and difcult process with a large number of inputs. Performance of detailed life
cycle assessments is outside the scope of the present work, which draws on the many reputable studies
available in order to draw its conclusions.

Te LCA process must deal with the fact that some aspects of a lifecycle can seem benign today yet
damaging tomorrow. Carbon dioxide emissions are the prime example. It is interesting to recall that
not so long ago electricity was sponsored by governments as the cleanest fuel, as was the all-electric
home. Only within the past two or three decades have CO2 emissions emerged as a major environmental
issue, afer re-evaluation of their efects. Historically, the basic science of the greenhouse efect is old,
dating from the early 1800s. Recognition of a possible additional efect of man-made emissions from the
burning of fossil fuels also has a long history (see for example Arrhenius 1896). However, it took until
the 1950s for developments in climate science and the unprecedented growth in fossil fuel usage to raise
concerns once again about climate change.

kEy MEssAgE: External impacts of an energy technology need to be assessed
over its complete life cycle. Ignoring this will lead to wrong assessments and to
misconceptions about the environmental credentials of a fuel, a technology or
a product.

Much of what follows relates to externalities specifc to a particular technology. Tere is a further stage
to which the consideration of externalities should be taken in future, particularly where a generating
technology is intermittent in nature. For example, wind and solar power will usually require either
electrical storage or some form of back-up from a base load generator, or both. In those cases estimation
of the externalities of the fnal product (electricity) needs to consider the whole generation/storage/back-
up system. Tose externalities will be specifc to the site and characteristics of the particular integrated
system, so a single technology-dependent external cost fgure cannot be expected.

THE HIDDEN COSTS OF ELECTRICITY

16

www.atse.org.au

The Hidden Costs of Electricity: Externalities of Power Generation in Australia

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