The community campaign that won solar thermal in Port Augusta

Repower Port Augusta campaigners.
August 25, 2017

After a local community campaign lasting almost a decade, the South Australian government has finally committed to build solar thermal with storage in Port Augusta. It will bring 24-hour solar power to SA, creating hundreds of regional jobs, cutting pollution and putting downward pressure on electricity prices.

It was a hard-fought campaign and its success is thanks to the great work by CLEANSA, Climate Camp, RePower Port Augusta, Beyond Zero Emissions, Australian Youth Climate Coalition (AYCC), 350.org, Doctors for the Environment, Adelaide Solar Citizens and many others. Through thousands of people hours it became a key point of debate in South Australia for some years. Now the vision has come to fruition. A 150 MW, $650 million solar thermal power plant will be built at Port Augusta. It was truly a people’s victory.

The beginning

On September 26, 2009 CLEANSA and Climate Camp members marched for the first time to the gates of Port Augusta’s satanic mill, the coal-fired power station on the edge of the town,on a desolate saltbush plain. The 50 of us were outnumbered by 70 police, about a dozen of them mounted, who lined the sides of the narrow road down which we had to march — a very intimidating scenario.

On arriving at the gates of the plant, we deposited 350 callistemon flowers, symbolic of the 350 parts per million of carbon dioxide that climate scientists believe is the limit for a safe global climate. (The current figure is 407ppm and rising fast.).

The vibe in the town that weekend was hostile, fed by false and sensationalist corporate media reports that we planned to damage the railway lines that carried coal from Leigh Creek coalmine to the power station.

That was the beginning of the Solar Thermal at Port Augusta campaign. Later that afternoon we picked up enough courage to visit the renowned Joy Baluch, then Mayor of Port Augusta. We nervously put our case.

When we had finished, she exclaimed in her inimitable way: “Thank god for you people! That's why I entered local politics 25 years ago — to get rid of that fucking thing. It’s given my husband cancer and my son asthma so bad we used to drive him out of town so he could breathe.”

We knew then that things would move, and Joy did an enormous amount of work to turn the council and the town around on this issue. She herself has since died of cancer.

The idea is ultimately traceable back to a Socialist Alliance Climate Change Social Change Conference in Sydney in April 2008, at which a series of ecosocialist presenters, including the Marxist John Bellamy Foster, emphasised the dire state of the planetary environment and the need for urgent action, particularly on climate change.

This, in turn, led a number of activists from the Ecosocialist Convergence in Adelaide to discuss whether we could organise a similar event in South Australia to raise awareness and begin practical campaigns. A six-month organising process, with strong support from the Australian Education Union, resulted in the very successful Environmental Activists’ “Climate Emergency — No More Business As Usual!” conference.

David Spratt, the well-known Melbourne climate activist and educator; Mark Deisendorf, a renewable energy expert; and Robyn Francis, a permaculture specialist, among others spoke. This was well-attended and led to the establishment of CLEANSA — the Climate Emergency Action Network of South Australia.

Within a month we were meeting, and a decision was made, in line with climatologist James Hansen’s recommendations, to focus on a “Quit Coal” campaign as the first priority, given coal was then responsible for half of global carbon dioxide emissions. In South Australia, that logically meant targeting the Playford coal-fired power stations at Port Augusta.

Port Augusta

Clearly, we also needed to present the South Australia and Port Augusta community with a viable alternative to replace the fossil fuelled plant. The expertise of Beyond Zero Emissions (BZE), that had mapped out the Zero Carbon Australia Plan, involving the extensive use of solar thermal power plants and wind farms, was absolutely invaluable here.

Inside a year we were at the gates of Playford B station, confronted by police and unsympathetic locals. However, the newspaper and radio coverage of the event kicked off the campaign and began to put the idea around.

This was followed by a number of door-knocks of Port Augusta’s suburbs, asking locals about the impact of the power station on their amenity and health. A number of people showed us the ash on their window sills and the jet-black rainwater from their backyard tanks.

Clearly it was having a serious effect on the nearby neighbourhoods. It became known, partly as a result of the campaign, that the town suffered twice the cancer rate of other regional towns in SA, probably due to the heavy metals that are inevitably emitted along with the fly ash from the smokestacks that loomed over the town.

Yet in those early stages, it was difficult to activate people to effect any change. At a meeting at the end of the first door-knock, we attracted only three people who wanted to get involved in the campaign.

However, with the persistence of BZE, CLEANSA, Baluch and subsequently the Port Augusta local council, a number of successful forums on the vision of “Solar Thermal at Port Augusta” were held in both Port Augusta and Adelaide, and momentum grew. A coalition comprising Doctors for the Environment, AYCC, CLEANSA, The Conservation Council of SA, Beyond Zero Emissions, and 350.org formed, under the snappy banner “Repower Port Augusta” (RPA).

Repower Port Augusta

Over the next few years, RPA grew in influence and a local, very active, Port Augusta branch was formed. AYCC and RPA organised a Port Augusta to Adelaide walk that drew a great deal of public attention and publicity. RPA was involved in many negotiations and lobbying and consulting processes with interested parties.

By 2012, it was clear we had broken through. A community vote in Port Augusta showed more than 90% support for solar thermal over gas generation as a replacement technology. This had partly been achieved by Beyond Zero Emissions’ 2011 release of its specifically-targeted “Repowering Port Augusta” report, which showed the proposal was viable, employment-creating and an important contribution to solving the climate crisis.

In 2015, the urgency of the issue underwent a quantum leap when Alinta Energy announced the impending closure of the coal-fired power station with the loss of many jobs. The actual closure occurred in May last year. As a result of persistent community pressure, a year later the federal government committed $110 million in equity financing in the federal Budget to build solar thermal in Port Augusta.

Then, on August 14, the South Australian government committed to a power purchasing agreement with Solar Reserve to build solar thermal with storage in Port Augusta.

This is the fruit of brilliant work from every single person involved for the past eight years — every attendee of a rally, every painter of a banner, every walker on the Port Augusta to Adelaide walk, every audience member of one of these organisations’ forums who went and talked about it further with a friend or workmate, everyone who handed out a leaflet on the topic, or helped in a fundraiser. Thanks to those thousands of people who did anything to bring this about.

You have won. You have achieved a major success in our struggle against climate change, and you have proved to others that such struggle is well and truly worth it. You have proved that the climate problem is not an inexorable juggernaut in the face of which we can do nothing. And most importantly, you have given hope to those who come after you, and who are engaged in other struggles in many other areas.

From little things big things grow. All power to those who work for humanity, and the beautiful planet we inhabit.

[John Rice is a former convenor of CLEANSA.]

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