Hundreds rally to launch 14-day walk for Port Augusta solar thermal

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The campaign to replace SA’s only coal-fired capacity with solar thermal got moving over the weekend, with the launch of the 300km Walk for Solar.

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The public campaign to replace South Australia’s only coal power capacity with solar thermal power moved up a gear over the weekend, with a rally in Port Augusta on Sunday to launch a 14-day, 325km 100-person pilgrimage to Adelaide’s Parliament House, where another rally will call for the state government to replace the town’s two ageing coal-fired power plants with Australia’s first solar thermal plant.

Between 200-300 people gathered on Sunday in Gladstone Square in central Port Augusta to show support for the community-generated proposal to convert of the town’s Playford B (240 MW) and Northern power stations (520 MW) into solar thermal facilities.

The two brown-coal burning plants – which provide 20 per cent of the state’s electricity, and are responsible for 50 per cent its electricity-related emissions – are slated for closure.  Their owner, Alinta Energy, has taken both off-line, with Northern possibly returning for the summer high demand. Its application for a buyout in the contracts for closures scheme was rejected, creating further uncertainty about when they would be permanently closed.

According to the blueprint for a two-phase replacement scenario, put together by renewables thinktank Beyond Zero Emissions, a concentrating solar thermal plant with energy storage capability, such as molten salt storage, would offer “a direct alternative to baseload coal and gas plants,” allowing for “the reliable dispatchable generation of renewable electricity 24 hours a day.”

This concept has since gained huge support – including from high-profile figures like entrepreneur Dick Smith and ABC radio’s Dr Karl Kruszelnicki – with a July poll coordinated by community group Repower Port Augusta (the same group behind the Walk for Solar) turning up 4053 votes from local residents in support of the solar thermal plan, while just 43 voted for gas-fired power to replace the coal.

A spokesperson for Repower Port Augusta – an alliance that includes the Port Augusta council, small business groups, Beyond Zero Emissions, 100% Renewables and other health and environmental organisations – said around 20 locals yesterday joined the first leg of the Walk for Solar, along with around 80 others who would be doing the full two-week trek.

Gary Rowbottom, a 50-year old lifelong Port Augusta local who has worked at the Port Augusta power station for 13 years, said he was participating in the walk because he believed in the value of the project, which had been shown to be technically and commercially feasible.

“The beneficiaries of this project in order of impact breadth are the power station employees and their families, all residents of Port Augusta, South Australia, Australia and then planet earth. In order of true priority the order runs the other way. All of these are very important to me.”

Encouragingly, the plan has also gained the support of South Australia’s Mineral Resources and Energy Minister, Tom Koutsantonis, who last month said he was willing to lobby the federal government and Alinta Energy (although Alinta is also said to be supportive of the solar plan, given government support) to invest in solar thermal after he visited Nevada in the US to research the technology.

But despite this support from inside government ranks, Repower says state and federal governments have yet to commit to supporting solar thermal and have instead continued to direct funding to Australia’s fossil-fuelled power plants.

“The federal government is giving $4.5 billion to our dirtiest coal power stations for them to remain open – even if they only function for one day a year,” said Repower spokesperson Daniel Spencer. “They should re-direct this money to building a big solar plant in Port Augusta, which will keep jobs in the town.”

Beyond Zero Emissions estimates that replacing both power stations with solar thermal would create about 1,300 jobs in the construction phase and 250 ongoing operations and maintenance positions – similar to the size of the current coal-fired power station work force – and would reduce long-term carbon dioxide emissions by some 100 million tonnes.

Repower says the first step in this process would be for Alinta to build a 50MW demonstration plant with storage, and that money towards this could come from ARENA, CEFC or from redirecting some of the above-mentioned carbon compensation billions, of which $60 million is earmarked for the Port Augusta power stations.

“The Port Augusta community has made their choice clear – now the government needs to make it happen,” said Ellen Sandell, national director of the Australian Youth Climate Coalition, a member of the Alliance. “Building solar thermal will keep jobs in the town and have health and climate benefits. The council, businesses and even the power company, Alinta, all want to see this built.”

Meanwhile, more people are expected to join the Walk for Solar as it heads to Parliament House in Adelaide to further discuss the proposal and the community vote with politicians. Repower Port Augusta says over 300 people signed up for the walk.

Nick Taylor – an 28 year-old engineer with a background in power generation technology, who retired to form the WA arm of the Australian Youth Climate Commission – is one of those walking the whole 300km.

Speaking to RenewEconomy from the campaign trail, Taylor said he joined the Walk for Solar after becoming disillusioned with the slow pace of change in energy generation and cleantech development in Australia. “I’m very proud to be a part of this social movement,” he said, adding that part of the campaign’s purpose was to show how many young people in Australia care about the issue.

But the main goal, he says, is to highlight the fact that the closure of the Port Augusta coal plants provides a key opportunity to get Australia’s first solar thermal power station up and running.

“For us this is very much the most winnable location to get this technology up,” Taylor said. “With the right demonstration of support, if we can get this up, what this could mean for Australia… it could be the start of something big.”

A national petition is also available online for people around  Australia to add their support.

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10 Comments
  1. Beat Odermatt 7 years ago

    I am currently spending already over six weeks on a study tour across Europe looking at the best options for a low carbon economy. A massive Government funded project such as wished for by a few from Port August and looks about being the most wasteful and expensive option.

  2. jd 7 years ago

    Actually, I think the idea is that business does the heavy lifting. Governments role is to create an investment environment that makes it viable through mechanisms such as feed in tarrifs etc Designed well it doesn’t have to be a massive financial burden for taxpayers. The pay-offs of kickstarting a CST industry in Oz would be enourmous and pay the country back many times over.

  3. John D 7 years ago

    If we are to move 100% renewables, solar thermal with molten salt heat storage will have a key role in providing reliable power. Pt Augusta is a logical place to build a commercial size plant.

  4. Steven 7 years ago

    Actually I’m rather disappointed at how the PR for this worthwhile campaign is going. The report that the AYCC, BZE, and others are relying on in the Repowering Port Augusta campaign is just a scoping study to show the concept, not at the caliber of a bankable feasibility study. It even says this in pt. 5.2.5 in the report. Any figures derived from it are estimations based on assumptions that are at best “back of the envelope”. Thus they are not concrete enough to make a final decision on.

    However the Repowering campaign has used these as canon to garner public support. It is misleading to the public that, lets be honest, won’t read the full report in depth let alone understand it in context. If the did they would see it is a scoping study and still awaiting site specific modelling around Pt Augusta to get exact employment, mitigation, cost, technical, and size figures.

    What tipped me though was the the voting slip. I was fortunate enough to be in Pt Augusta when they had a stall, picked up a slip and was shocked to see that it was so cognitively biased that no wonder they got 4,000 odd votes for Solar.
    If two options are put on a slip, put all pro’s for one and con’s for the other the pro will always get a higher polling, it’s how you fix surveys without doctoring the results after polling. You use behavioural psychology to get the answer you want. Sometimes this can happen with the people setting up the survey due to personal cognitive bias, and they don’t pick up they did it because they are so passionate about it (which I suspect it happened here). That is why polling companies are hired to do polls as they know this can occur and avoid it to get pure results. What needed to be done was a list of all the options (Solar, Wind, Gas, Hydro, Geothermal, and Nuclear) devoid of bias.

    Then to state the government and company support it as if they want this specific project to go ahead is a bit disingenuous. What about the Solar Oasis project at Whyalla, that is Solar Thermal, that the government supports. They’ll support most bespoke projects as they will be something unique, not because they like what you are doing, rather they can see the political mileage out of it. Then try to convince a minister you want to raise electricity prices to pay for it, even if it’s 1c/kWh it still is an increase that will be played on.
    The company who owns Northern when prompted about other options such as solar did state solar thermal could be an option, they didn’t specify what solar thermal technology, but it was an option to consider. As you do to not leave anything off the table when doing this sort of analysis. A feasibility study was not done for replacing Northern by the company. The most likely ST tech would be what is being built at Kogan Creek Coal plant, a solar thermal booster on the coal burners to increase steam temp to lower fuel consumption and hence cost. The coal plant is still there with the Solar Thermal around it.

    At the end of the day it all comes down to a commercial consideration for the operator. They need to be able to sell the electricity on the market to make a return on the plant. Currently this proposal cannot do that, it needs significant ($100/MWh+) subsidies to do so in the form of FiTs and loan guarantees. Much more than any other tech. Why would the government bother when it can spend less (let’s not forget it’s fiscal position, it did just reneg on $5.5bn compo to these coal plants) on other projects that emit lower CO2 like gas. The US is down to around 1960’s emissions (from plants) because all they did was go from coal to gas! I’d prefer 0 CO2 but it still is impressive.

    I was going to join the AYCC as I am in my early 20s but after seeing how they bais results, inflate support to boost their pet project, and rely on a report that isn’t robust in technical and economic terms, I just can’t do it. My engineering education just won’t let me, it’s a furphy at it’s current state. Then to say it’s a great report and will be a game changer, please. Even the online AYCC youth decide survey is skewed to get particular answers, I had to quit out doing it. It’s exactly like saying “cake or death?”, Izzard was right on this one.

    • adam. 7 years ago

      These are all good valid points.

      However, those organisations you’ve mentioned are political ones and their objective is to rally such support to create political outcomes.

      I don’t mean at all to appear patronising but there are a lot of interest groups out there on all sides that distort the truth to represent a situation to their benefit. Granted AYCC/BZE are particularly zealous but they all do it.

      “At the end of the day it all comes down to a commercial consideration for the operator.”

      That’s partly true. Although if through political pressure Repower Pt Augusta and supporting NGO’s can facilitate a funding agreement b/w State and Fed govts etc then this will substantially alter the economics for Alinta, perhaps enough to make it worthwhile.

      “What needed to be done was a list of all the options (Solar, Wind, Gas, Hydro, Geothermal, and Nuclear) devoid of bias.”

      From what I recall, solar thermal can be retrofitted utilising the existing turbines etc. which is why they’re pushing this (i.e., it IS the most economical option in this case).

      • Steven 7 years ago

        I fully agree. The retro-fitting to existing turbines is known as a Integrated Solar Combined Cycle plan, in terms of gast (I mentioned in a comment below). What Repowering Pt Augusta allinace are planning are central tower solar thermal plants with no storage.

        They may get one solar thermal plant built, however the Solar Oasis project at Whyalla has been on the books for years, and it is only 40MW. I don’t know if the project can get up, it’s equivalent to tripling the current world capacity in solar and building another lake bonney sized wind farm with towers the size of Westpac House in the CBD. Factoring in that the main areas for wind in the area already have turbines with planning approval for those sites. It looks unlikely.

        Other than that I fully agree with your comments.

  5. Mario 7 years ago

    Beat – good call

  6. Terry Mc 7 years ago

    The people in Port Augusta had 2 weeks to vote. It was up to them to check if they agreed with the lay out of the voting slip or not. Some did not vote. If you had of stopped and talked to a few people in town you would of found out why there was such a huge response. Its because of the terrible result of burning brown coal near the town which has resulted in a shocking rate of cancer and other illness in the town. Now theres a chance to build a clean energy source and keep jobs in the town which would be good for the town, business and yes engineers because some one will have to engineer it. The BZE plan may not be with out it faults however it a start. It gives us ideas on costs, what is needed (like a feed in tariff) and what it might look like. For people with vision this is the power generation of the future the same way coal power stations were expensive 65 years ago. Renewable energy will have to be built soon one way or the the other whatever happens the people of Port Augusta have suffered enough the government should have switch off these power stations years ago. Port Augusta has kept the lights on so people in Adelaide can get degrees and now its time they get better. At the end of the day you can not eat coal it wont cost that much with a FiT and it will start a new industry for us to transition into or am i just trying to engineer the future.

    • Steven 7 years ago

      @Terry: I wish I could have stayed longer, but I was on my way to the west coast. I fully agree that coal has issues with it’s particulate emissions that can cause negative health effects. I have no issue with the BZE or Repower reports being a scoping study, what I have an issue with is them used as tools to garner support when the final feasibility study may be much different. For example this is what I can remember beign on the voting slip:
      Solar – 360 permanent jobs, 0 emissions, no health issues, unlimited sun, and energy security.
      Gas – 76 permanent jobs, 2Mt emissions, helath issues, fossil fuel use, non-secure resource
      Then in the report it states:
      Solar – 40 permanent jobs per plant, 0 operating emissions, no health issues, sun resource, no detail on energy security.
      There is a difference. I only realised this after reading the full report at my destination.

      Not included: Solar – 0.7c/kWh FiT, LCOE $250/MWh, Gas – No FiT, $100/MWh. Or a Gas/Solar Thermal hybrid plant – No FiT, $111/MWh. I’d have chosen the Hybrid plant that would have ensured stability of supply, reduced relaince on fossil fuels, reduced emissions, and no FiT. Technical name is a Integrated solar combined cycle (ISCC).

      The 360 jobs figure is for 6 plants and all the wind turbines, the slip did not state “wind and solar”. There are life cycle emisisons in manufacturing and mining of the materials to make the plants (which I think was noted as a footnote). Health issues can’t complain with. Sun is a resource when it is there, there is no discussion of storage, and relying on wind to make the gap. Thus energy security is not secure, there has to be an engineerd solution ot get realiability of supply, which is a tenet of energy security. With gas it is there 24/7, no need to engineer solution. They did cite the Varnus gas island explosion, in 2004 one happend at Moomba. Gas supply was ensured due to the SEAgas pipeline. Gas supply in SA is secure due to the number of interconnections in the East Australia network. This report ignores the recent gas discoveries in the Cooper basin which have just secred supply for many decades to come. Then they cite the connectivity with international gas markets. Yes exposure to an export market does increase domestic gas prices, however not to the export price. Look at WA. Also it ignores long term supply contracts that are utilised in the generation industry.

      The point I was making is that, either by accident or not, the voting slip garnered a specific response due to its inherent cognitive bias, as I have showed. No wonder they got 4000+ votes, surveys can be worded and constructed to get differing results. There is a bunch of psychological literature out about this.

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