Solar thermal can cure what ails Port Augusta

There is an important public health message for power producers and governments. It is no longer appropriate to harm people by burning air polluting fossil fuels when there are healthy alternatives.

The Port Augusta power stations, the most polluting in Australia are due for renewal and in making a decision on replacement all should be aware of the health impacts on Port Augusta over many years. The chimney stack is approximately 3km from the edge of the town of 15,000 people.

The community led by dedicated mayor Joy Baluch has complained long and hard about illnesses which they see related to pollution. Recent independent analysis of health data for the period 1998-2007 showed the incidence of lung cancer to be 1.45 times and for 2007-2009 twice the expected number.

The community was angered to be informed by government that they were smoking too much and that air quality data measured by the operator Alinta was within EPA standards.

A new analysis of the data by experts from Doctors for the Environment Australia indicates that the level of smoking is insufficient to account for the increase in lung cancer and that significant pollution is occurring.

Research from many countries has shown that communities in the vicinity of coal-fired stations suffer a range of heart and lung diseases and increased mortality. It has always seemed incongruous that Port Augusta had escaped these health impacts which arise from a cocktail of noxious gases and particulates; these are inhaled, absorbed through the lungs and harm many organs.

Although other medical studies in Port Augusta have been limited for unknown reasons, there is data dating from 1993 that the incidence of childhood asthma symptoms was greatly increased.

Port Augusta is an important test case for the use of renewable energy in Australia. The health costs of coal burning amount to billions of dollars in Australia, and these externalities are not included in the cost of electricity. They are carried by health services and individual suffering.

Over the years Port Augusta has produced 30 per cent of South Australia’s energy and has been vital to the energy security of the state. There were no alternatives. The situation has now changed; there are alternatives for clean energy which provide energy security. Under these circumstances it is medically unethical to continue pollution.

Decision makers should be aware that gas still produces particulate pollution; deaths and illness are much less but still occur. Medical research shows increasing concern over the harm from particulates produced by fossil fuel combustion.

There are additional concerns. The mining of gas carries many public health risks as detailed in a comprehensive report to the Senate.

The green house emissions profile may not be much better than that of coal and the IEA states that gas, as a replacement fuel, will not allow humanity to curtail global temperature rise.

We all live by, and most accept, the economic model of Milton Friedman of the Chicago school. A company is a legal entity with a responsibility to shareholders. Society subsidises many companies by not charging them for externalities. Which company is going to offer to pay?

On the basis of cheaper construction costs, Alinta will build a gas-fired power station and the community will suffer and pay the health costs for another 30 years. So when governments say “that’s the company’s decision, it is a commercial decision,” then we have to ask why we have government.

As always in these situations, there is a community dilemma, in that the power stations and mining of brown coal are a leading form of employment in the town. Unemployment and displacement are health hazards. Comprehensive assessment is needed involving current health, risk assessment, employment, future technological opportunities; these decisions affecting people’s lives and the national interest should not be left to accountants in company boardrooms.

It would not be possible to find a more appropriate solution to the health and employment issues in Port Augusta than solar thermal with storage. Beyond Zero Emissions (BZE) had has made a comprehensive study of this technology for Port Augusta Health impacts and green house emissions will be eliminated and the existing 250 jobs will be secured; Australia would move into the 21st century with its energy policy.

Doctors for the Environment Australia (DEA) believes that the patient, in this case the community, should always get the best preventative health policy. DEA will be presenting a seminar on these issues to the Parliament of South Australia on May 3.

David Shearman E/Professor of Medicine is Hon Secretary of Doctors for the Environment Australia an independent public health organisation of medical doctors


17 responses to “Solar thermal can cure what ails Port Augusta”

  1. Beat Odermatt Avatar
    Beat Odermatt

    The proposal to build a large scale solar power station at Port Augusta is a game played trying to rescue funds sunk into Playford Power Station. The operators believed that peak prices would remain as high as during the late 90th and that the investment to refurnish Playford would pay handsome returns. The widespread uptake o f rooftop solar installations and the construction of highly efficient gas powered peaking plant made the investment go sour. It remains a scandal that funds allocated to improve the environment should be used to bail out bad management decisions.
    The construction of large scale solar power stations is not in the best interest of our community. It is far better to distribute electricity generation across Australia instead of wasting funds on high profile photo opportunities for politicians. It is far better to invest in new technologies such as Ceramic Fuel Cells, wind power and more rooftop solar power. It is interesting the health impact of a power station several kilometres from the city of Port Augusta is noted, but the impact from all the traffic through the city is ignored. All the traffic from the east of Australia to Western Australia is passing though Port Augusta and nothing has ever been done to by-pass the city.

    1. Mark Ogge Avatar
      Mark Ogge

      Yes, solar PV is great, and we should be putting it on rooftops all over Australia. Germany, not known for it’s sunshine, installed twice Australia’s current capacity of PV but it’s really important to have some firming power on the grid, and solar thermal with it’s storage capability is perfect for this. Ceramic fuel cells to replace baseload coal plants? A novel idea!
      Certainly the road creates particulate pollution, and should be dealt with- as should traffic in our cities- by shifting to EVs and hybrids. But we are talking about old coal plants burning 3 MILLION TONNES OF LIGNITE every year -a few Kms from the centre of town. I think dealing with that is the priority!

      1. Beat Odermatt Avatar
        Beat Odermatt

        Don’t worry too much. It only takes a big storm in the catchment area of the Leigh Creek Retention Dam and the Leigh Creek Coalfields will be flooded. If Leigh Creek Coalfields will be flooded, so it will be the end of electricity generation at Port Augusta. Clever engineers had designed a bund wall which should have saved the coalfields. They did not realise that water is unlikely to run uphill. They had also the bund wall cut to allow direct access for the bitumen road to the mines administration area. Right now, parts of the coalfields are already flooded and it is not a question if, but when the whole coalfield will be under water.

  2. Richard Simpson Avatar
    Richard Simpson

    David Shearman.
    I was involved with WorkCover in relation to Asbestos related diseases for over a decade.
    I agree with you regarding the poewerplant, however why are we not banning trucks and motor vehicles and the resultant fine particulates?
    Deaths from same would appear to be outstripping Asbestos.
    Read the BZE proposal, needs subsidies and even then cost per KW is .25 to.30 dollars per KW.
    Does not make sense.
    The place is awash with gas.
    Also why not look at better technology, eg . gasification of coal until the economics of CSP make sense.

  3. Martin Nicholson Avatar

    For Professor Shearman’s suggested CSP solution from the BZE plan he will need biomass backup – particularly in winter and extended cloudy days. Biomass means burning wood so it may reduce but not eliminate the small particulate problem of coal plants.

    Port Augusta power station is 520 MW. The perfect size and location for Australia’s first nuclear power plant. This will certainly fix the fine particulates issue completely. I am sure Professor Shearman, as a true medical man, will be well aware that nuclear plants around the world are much better for the health of the local people than coal or gas or biomass. He would be the perfect person to assure the residents of the health benefits of nuclear over coal and maybe even CSP with biomass. He could also assure them that radiation risks with nuclear are miniscule and even less than their current coal plant (coal is naturally radioactive).

    1. Mark Ogge Avatar
      Mark Ogge

      You don’t need biomass in Port Augusta. You would consider biomass if you needed a completely stand alone power plant at Port Augusta, but its connected to the grid, and which has huge excess capacity in SA for the winter as it is sized for summer peaks. This is illustrated clearly by the fact Alinta are planning to close Northern during winter.Dispatchable solar thermal with storage is ideal for meeting summer peaks.
      Nuclear. Well we could build 2nd generation- but noone else in the developed world would
      We could go for 3rd generation. Maybe and EPR, like Olkilouto or Flamville, the only two 3rd gen Nuclear to be attempted to date in the west.
      Both have blown out by over double the cost and double the construction time.
      4 the generation is not offered commercially by anyone, anywhere in the world.
      Nuclear is a complicated way to boil water, Better to go with a technology that we know what it costs, have been shown to meet or exceed construction time-lines, and is well suited to the grid requirements and local conditions

      1. Martin Nicholson Avatar

        I would have thought that using 30 sq kms of mirrors to boil water (about what you would need to replace the Port Augusta coal plant with 24 hour solar) was a much more complicated way to boil water than nuclear.

    2. Andrew Avatar

      Nice one Martin. But ask the Finns how their nuclear plant at Olkiluoto is looking. Cost blowouts, anyone? Delays? Major contractors pulling out? It’s a lawyers’ picnic, as they say.
      And this in a country well used to nuclear.

      Plenty of sun in beautiful Port Augusta.

  4. Richard Simpson Avatar
    Richard Simpson

    Martin Agree.

  5. glen Avatar

    Here is a link to an excellent PBS documentary by the good people at Frontline.
    An excellent reminder that the radiation risks with nuclear are not, in fact, minuscule.

  6. Gillian Avatar

    Concentrating solar thermal (CST)at Pt Augusta makes sense in the context of a national plan to use CST across the country to provide baseload power. Initial builds are expensive, but the cost comes down with implementation. As part of a national plan, the cost for the first facility is an investment in future ones. As a one off it makes less sense.

    This is why the decision shouldn’t be left to ‘market forces’ to decide on the basis of individual projects. Govt should provide large vision leadership that can guide individual decisions for long term national benefit.

    The draft Energy White Paper certainly isn’t up to the task of this kind of strategic thinking. So I suspect that gas will be the choice, even though there is some evidence that gas won’t contribute much to reducing greenhouse gas emissions over the next 90 years. We need to remember that the motivation to close coal fired generators is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. And reductions need to happen quickly and dramatically.

    While CST is more expensive than gas, even with a carbon price, it is the best option for providing renewable baseload electricity. And it is much cheaper than the ‘do nothing’ alternative.

    1. Jim James Avatar
      Jim James

      Yes agree, and some place has to be first for CST in Australia, so why not Port Augusta.

  7. Richard Simpson Avatar
    Richard Simpson

    Glen, pleae check out your referenced sites before posting.
    As a safety profesional, I would advise you that radiation is not the problem that people think it is.

    Regarding quoting web sites.
    This may help.
    @Gillian, even BZE qoute 25 to 30 cents a KWH including subsidies.
    How do you propose to pay for same?
    Market forces allow you to live a comfortable life, and support those who are less fortunate than you.

    1. glen Avatar

      Richard I don’t really understand your comment? My referenced site is the Public Broadcasting Service in America. Frontline has a reputation for even handed, award winning journalism similar to the BBC in the United Kingdom and the ABC in Australia.
      Fukushima may not be the best example to outline the persistent carcinogenic effects of nuclear radiation leaked into the environment, although it is a good example. The following link outlines a better example due to the time that has passed since this particular nuclear accident.

  8. Beat Odermatt Avatar
    Beat Odermatt

    The issue is in fact if tax payer’s money should be used to bail out a private company or not. Port Augusta is close to some of the largest mining development in the world and it is a city which will suffer from an acute skilled labour shortage. Health problems in the area numerous and some issues have been swept under the carpet many years ago. Mining for Uranium and Radium in the Flinders Ranges was stopped when it became uneconomical. What did happen to all the stock piles of radioactive materials in Copley and other places? To what extend were rail facilities at Dry Creek in Adelaide and Port Augusta affected? When was de-contamination carried out and by whom? We have many questions and very few reliable answers.

  9. Richard Simpson Avatar
    Richard Simpson

    Mark Ogge,I believe the APR1400 being built in Korea is third generation?
    Cost has not blown out, and construction time is 48-51 months.
    First one comes on line 2013.

  10. Richard Simpson Avatar
    Richard Simpson

    Re third Generation,add the AP1000 being built in China.No indication of cost blowout or delays?

Get up to 3 quotes from pre-vetted solar (and battery) installers.