In Port Augusta, two ageing coal-fired power stations are scheduled to retire. We have a choice: either replace them with gas-fired power stations or take the opportunity to switch to renewable energy. Research by Beyond Zero Emissions (BZE) shows that six solar thermal power towers and 90 wind turbines could be built in Port Augusta to generate the same amount of electricity as the current coal stations.
Here are five reasons why solar is better than the gas alternative.
Building solar in Port Augusta would create 1800 jobs. Concentrated solar thermal is already used in Europe, and is available to be used in Australia right now. This would secure the 250 jobs that exist in the power stations now, and create 1300 construction jobs and 225 manufacturing jobs for South Australia.
Compared with the renewable industry, gas needs far fewer workers. A gas power station would provide only 76 permanent jobs, meaning fewer jobs for current workers. Gas would create only 380 construction jobs, and no manufacturing jobs because the components for the gas plant would be imported.
Building solar would make Australia a world leader in renewable energy, taking advantage of our sunny weather. It would also help start the industry in other cities and towns.
Switching to renewables would be great for people’s health.
Port Augusta residents have long-suffered serious health impacts from the town’s two coal-powered plants; the region has double the number of cases of lung cancer compared with the state average. Lung cancer, bronchitis, asthma and sinus problems are some of the health problems caused by the power stations and the high levels of coal dust in the air.
It is likely that gas used to power a new gas-fired power station in Port Augusta would use coal seam gas produced in Queensland. The chemicals used in CSG production pose health risks to communities who live near production sites, including air pollution and contamination of local water supplies.
The effects of climate change are already being felt. Extreme weather and the melting of the Arctic sea ice at an unprecedented rate are serious warning signs. Switching rapidly to renewable energy is a necessary step for a safe climate.
If renewables were built in Port Augusta, we would cut 5 million tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions a year.
Gas is not a low emissions fuel. Recent studies show that emissions from gas over its entire “life cycle” — from extraction to burning — are as bad for the climate as coal.
BZE has shown it is possible to power Australia entirely on renewable energy. But to get there we need to challenge the power of some of the richest people in the country, those who own the coalmines and power stations. Building large-scale renewable energy infrastructure in Port Augusta would show that renewable energy is achievable and would put us on the path to dramatically cutting Australia’s emissions.
Port Augusta has excellent sunlight and consistent, strong winds. Solar thermal is state-of-the-art technology that can provide baseload power. It does this by storing surplus heat in large vats of molten salt, and this heat continues to produce electricity 24 hours a day, even when the sun goes down.
Wind power can provide a back-up if the sun were blocked by cloud cover for days at a time.
If we continue with gas or coal, the price of electricity will continue to rise as these fossil fuels become scarcer. In comparison, solar and wind energy is free and the cost of producing it will come down over time, giving households stable electricity prices.
Over the next 50 years — the expected life of a power plant — Australia’s domestic gas prices are expected to rise sharply. Overseas gas prices are much higher than in Australia, giving gas companies little reason to sell gas in Australia for a lower price than they can get elsewhere. As Australia begins to export gas to overseas markets, the domestic price of gas will also rise.
Additionally, the more big solar thermal plants are built, the cheaper it is to build more of them around the world, meaning renewables become more available for everyone.
How could this be built?
This project needs direct government investment to ensure that it gets built. If we leave it up to private investors to decide whether they can make a profit out of it, it won’t happen.
Past infrastructure such as the Snowy Mountain Hydro-electric scheme, railways and telecommunications were built with public money. A survey in July of Port Augusta residents showed that 98% wanted this renewable project to be built. With such overwhelming community support, and with the benefits so obvious, it is up to state and federal governments to show leadership and back this project.