Climate camp targets Port Augusta power plants


In the state that claims to have the greenest energy on the Australian mainland, South Australia's climate camp will confront two of the country's dirtiest power stations. The Northern and Playford B plants, fuelled by cheap but low-grade brown coal, are just outside Port Augusta, a four-hour drive north of Adelaide.

From September 24 to 27 the camp, organised by activists from the Climate Emergency Action Network (CLEAN), will operate from a picturesque site in the Flinders Ranges about 45 kilometres from Port Augusta.

The first main day, September 25, will be spent on at least seven workshops. Members of the socialist youth organisation Resistance plan to present sessions on "the capitalist road to climate catastrophe", and the rich but often neglected history of collaboration between the Australian union movement and environmentalists.

Other talks and discussions will include a forum with the local Adnyamathana Indigenous people, a report on the Angela-Pamela uranium mine near Alice Springs, and sessions on desalination and alternative energy.

On September 26, the scene will shift to Port Augusta and the power stations. Possibilities are being explored for staging non-violent direct action, and for holding a public protest meeting in the city.

Privatised since 2000 and now owned by Babcock and Brown Power, the Port Augusta plants supply 20-30% of South Australia's electricity. They have long been recognised as among the country's least efficient.

The Climate Group, an international non-profit organisation, said in July that the 240-megawatt Playford B plant was the country's worst carbon polluter in relation to its energy output.

In operation since 1960, Playford B now operates just 15-20% of the time to supply peak needs.

The coal for the Port Augusta plants comes by rail from Leigh Creek, 250 kilometres further north. A company statement in 2004 said Leigh Creek had reserves to last until only 2017.

In the next few years, Babcock and Brown will have to say whether it will spend big sums to get coal from elsewhere or shut both power stations for good.

The decision may have been made already. Since 2007, the firm has been conducting a $25 million upgrade of its 530-megawatt Northern Power Station. The re-equipped plant is now reportedly capable of operating beyond 2050.

If the interests of local residents were the priority, both plants would be shut down in the next few years and replaced with renewables. Coal-fired power in Port Augusta consumes few local inputs and provides relatively few jobs.

As late as the 1980s, about 1000 people worked in the power stations. But by 2008, the number had been cut to barely 200, with just 23 employed regularly at Playford B.

Meanwhile, Port Augusta is a logical hub for the development of Australia's geothermal energy industry, as promising "hot dry rock" are just 50 kilometres away. A coordinated push to replace coal with geothermal as the country's main source of baseload power would bring the city hundreds of clean, green jobs.

With its clear skies and developed infrastructure, Port Augusta also has exceptional potential for solar power development.

No one in Port Augusta is in more need of steady, abundant work than members of the city's thousands-strong Aboriginal community. As part of preparations for the climate camp, CLEAN members are working to expand existing links with local Aboriginal activists.

With its stress on grassroots community action, CLEAN wants to encourage climate-conscious residents of regional centres to get together and get active. The hope is that, after the camp, climate activism in Port Augusta will stop being a faintly exotic import, and become a familiar part of local debates and political life.