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.