Community campaigners rallied in Port Augusta on April 30 to make a final call for the South Australian government to build a new solar thermal power plant in the town.
The rally was the culmination of a five-year-long campaign to Repower Port Augusta, started by the Climate Emergency Network South Australia (CLEANSA) and Beyond Zero Emissions. It was carried forward more recently by partner organisations Solar Citizens and the Australian Youth Climate Coalition. Other endorsing organisations included Doctors for the Environment, SA Unions, Port Augusta Council, Friends of the Earth, and the Conservation Council of South Australia.
The South Australian government will make a final decision in June whether it will enter a power purchase agreement with US solar thermal company Solar Reserve, or build a gas fired power plant. The plant proposed by Solar Reserve has a capacity of 110MW and 15 hours of heat storage, meaning the plant can be run “on demand” over a 24-hour period. The plant would partially replace the two coal fired power stations that have closed in recent years and provide an ideal source of emissions free back-up power for the greater region’s wind farms.
A significant achievement
If the plant goes ahead it will not just be a win for the Port Augusta community and the many skilled power station workers who still live there. It would put South Australia on the map as a global renewable energy innovator and would fuel a peculiar socio-political contradiction.
Australia is the world’s biggest coal exporter, a reality reflected in the deeds of pro-mining Liberal and Labor governments. Yet Australia is also one of the most obvious places on the planet to transition to 100% renewables, because it has a fairly small population spread over a wide area, and vast solar and wind resources. Port Augusta and the surrounding areas are, in turn, one of the best spots in Australia for both wind and solar, plus it has the skilled workforce and grid connections as a legacy of the coal fired plants.
A couple of countries have small demonstration plants but to date only Spain and the US have utility-scale solar thermal tower plants with molten salt heat storage. Other utility-scale solar tower plants are being built in Israel, China, South Africa and Chile.
If the Port Augusta plant goes ahead, Australia will become one of a handful of countries to have an on-demand solar tower and it will gain useful experience ahead of the curve in a technology that is likely to become as commonplace as wind turbines and solar panels in the decades to come. It would also contribute to reducing the cost of the technology as more plants are built and the construction process is refined.
Battery free storage
Recent developments in battery technology and mass production have meant batteries are now a cheap partner to solar photovoltaic panels and a viable alternative energy source for vehicles. This is a welcome development.
However the processes for extracting the (finite) rare earths and lithium used in these batteries are ecologically destructive. The nitrate salts used for heat storage in solar thermal plants — basically fertiliser products — are far more readily available and less damaging to manufacture.
Battery technology is an important piece of the decarbonisation puzzle but is not a silver bullet for electricity systems. Solar thermal is also a more efficient form of energy storage than batteries as it adds stability to the grid.
Getting the solar thermal plant built at Port Augusta is essential if the Labor Party is serious about achieving its policy goal of 50% renewable energy by 2030. Australia will need dozens of solar tower plants like the one planned for Port Augusta to make meaningful headway towards repowering the electricity system with renewables.
A craven deal
The success of the Repower Port Augusta campaign in galvanising broad community support for the project across South Australia has meant that the campaign looks more and more likely to succeed. Consequently, politicians traditionally opposed to, or ambivalent towards, renewables have sought to associate themselves with the project. To have former foes switching effortlessly from attacking renewable energy to pretending to support it is an unusual place for renewable energy campaigners to find themselves.
It also presents new risks and challenges.
On March 30, South Australian Senator Nick Xenophon voted with the Turnbull government to pass company tax cuts for companies earning up to $50 million a year. This will deprive the federal treasury of an estimated $24 billion over the next decade.
Xenophon sought to disguise his opportunism with a solar tower shaped fig leaf, announcing he had extracted a $110 million concessional loan for solar thermal at Port Augusta.
The economics of this obscene deal beggar belief. A $110 million concessional loan is small fry to the federal government, and it had already promised the loan during last year’s federal election. Losing $24 billion of tax revenue, on the other hand, entrenches the under-resourcing of schools, universities and hospitals and the ongoing decline in real terms of already sub-poverty line welfare payments. GetUp! and the ACTU were quick to denounce the deal.
For its part, Repower Port Augusta welcomed confirmation of the $110 million concessional loan brokered by Xenophon, but avoided any mention of the $24 billion in tax cuts. This is problematic.
It is important that climate and renewables campaigners do not allow renewables projects to be played off against other necessary services like health, education and welfare. Conservatives have been able to gain traction by cynically promoting the idea that renewables are a middle class “greenie” indulgence that poor and working class people cannot afford.
Xenophon’s craven deal and Repower Port Augusta’s lacklustre response aside, it remains the case that the campaign has every chance of succeeding. If it does it will be a win for the community and a step forward for the climate movement and for the project of campaigning for a just transition in communities that have historically relied on coal for employment.
It took five years of campaigning to bring solar thermal in Port Augusta to MPs attention, not Nick Xenophon or any other politician.
A 24-hour on-demand solar thermal tower in Port Augusta will provide a real life, working example of how we can get to 100% renewable energy. It will add stability to the South Australian grid and give a glimpse of what tomorrow’s energy system looks like. Renewable energy is already supported by a solid majority and this project will only galvanise that further.