Port Augusta residents gave a resounding thumbs up for a solar powered future in a community vote in July. More than 4000 people voted for big solar plants to replace the city’s two aging coal-fired power stations, while just 43 people voted for gas power.
The Repower Port Augusta campaign says building six solar thermal power plants and 95 wind turbines would be enough to do away with fossil fuel power. This would create about 1800 jobs and cut millions of tonnes of greenhouse gases each year.
Now, a group of activists will take part in a two-week-long Walk for Solar from Port Augusta to Adelaide to press for state and federal government support for the project. The Walk will start on September 16 and reach Adelaide’s Rundle Park on September 30 to join a public rally and march for solar power.
Green Left Weekly’s Gemma Weedall asked three participants in the Walk for Solar about the campaign.
Margaret Hender, a freelance translator living in Adelaide's northern suburbs, is a founder of the “One Person Can” project.
Danny Kakoschke, a 19-year-old activist and student, is a member of Resistance, the Communist Party of Australia, Left Unity and the Climate Emergency Action Network SA.
Leonora Herweijer, a 20-year-old Adelaide-based climate activist, is the South Australian co-coordinator of the Australian Youth Climate Coalition.
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Why are you Walking for Solar this September?
Margaret Hender (MH): Why? Survival instinct! Climate change threatens the wellbeing and safety of us all, and switching from fossil fuels to renewable energy is the main thing we can do to reduce that threat. It is essential, and entirely doable.
Port Augusta is one of the solar locations identified in Beyond Zero Emissions’ Zero Carbon Australia Stationary Energy Plan — a plan showing how 100% of Australia's electricity could be generated from renewable sources (mainly wind and solar) using currently available and proven technology.
I became very excited when I first saw this plan ... less so over the ensuing months when it remained just a plan.
Now we have a good chance to get the ball rolling. Port Augusta, for many reasons, is the obvious place to start implementing a switch to 100% renewable energy, particularly since the current coal-fired power stations are closing and the electricity grid infrastructure that would be required for a solar thermal plant there is already in place.
From the safe-climate perspective, solar rather than gas is the obvious choice. But gas would seem short-sighted even from an economic perspective. Gas would require investment in a new gas pipeline, which is likely to become a stranded asset as global gas prices rise.
In contrast, once a solar thermal plant is built, fuel costs are more-or-less free, and we don’t need to ravage the countryside to harvest sunlight.
Danny Kakoschke (DK): I am walking the 328 kilometres from Port Augusta to Adelaide because it symbolises the importance of acting on climate change. It would take most people a lot to walk over 300 kilometres, and climate change is a lot.
Solar thermal power is a technology that makes a lot of sense to use in Australia. In a land both so blessed and cursed by the sun we ought use the sun for as much good as possible and trying to unfuck our planet is a heck of a lot of good.
Port Augusta is a good place to build solar thermal plants because the infrastructure already exists. Gas would require new pipelines and [other infrastructure and] provides very few jobs.
Solar, on the other hand, creates lots of jobs. This is good because it keeps Port Augusta’s economy going. Gas would be bad not just for Port Augusta but also for the environment. Methane has an effect 25 times worse on global warming than carbon dioxide.
Leonora Herweijer (LH): I'm walking in solidarity with the Port Augusta community: they’ve had enough of the pollution, health effects and uncertainty around jobs and the future of the local economy. We cannot justify energy consumption at the expense of the welfare and health of the communities affected and the environment.
Over generations, different movements have come together to create change through strong displays of community [power] and [have built] widespread support to make politicians and power holders listen. Take [US farm labour rights activist] Cesar Chavez and the striking farmers who walked 300 miles to Sacramento in 1966.
This walk for solar thermal could be a historic moment for this campaign. It will be a long two weeks but it is a necessary show of people walking for a just transition to renewables.
On a personal note, you could say I'm daughter of the gas and oil industry — my family’s livelihood has relied on the fossil fuel industry and that’s especially why I know there needs to be a just transition away from fossil fuels to large scale renewable energy.
I know that it is not about demonising individual workers but about the cultural and industrial shift to clean energy, jobs and industries. It’s about providing alternative jobs and a future and importantly a start to combating and minimising climate change.
What action should the state and/or federal government take on this issue?
MH: The Walk for Solar is not something I would normally do — it's way out of my comfort zone. I'm hoping that the state and federal governments will be inclined to give financial support to a solar thermal plant at Port Augusta if they see the cross-section of the public who are serious about renewable energy and about “doing something” towards a safe climate [are] serious enough to walk over 300 kilometres.
DK: The state government should build solar thermal in Port Augusta. Once the manufacturing facilities are set up in South Australia they should then help replace all the coal and gas plants Australia wide with solar and wind.
LH: It is the state and federal government's responsibility to look towards a future for our communities and people.
Building solar thermal in Port Augusta is an opportunity for them to take some real leadership and start that transition to 100% renewables.
We need the state and federal government to champion this issue and put their support and investment behind the Port Augusta and South Australian communities.
What do you think it will take for this campaign to win?
MH: I really don't know, but it will certainly help if thousands of people turn out to the Walk for Solar Adelaide rally to join forces with us at the end of our long walk! That's Sunday September 30, 1.00pm, meeting at Rundle Park.
DK: A demonstration of public support for building solar thermal in Port Augusta and taking real action on climate change.
LH: To win this campaign we will need our politicians to see/hear and feel the growing widespread and strong community support not only across South Australia but nationally.