And the winner is: solar power. Residents in the South Australian town of Port Augusta have voted overwhelmingly for solar over gas to replace the town’s coal-fired power stations.
The result, announced on July 22, was 4053 votes for a concentrating solar-thermal power plant, 43 for gas. In the end, 98% of voters favoured solar.
The result is testament to newly-formed local group, Repower Port Augusta, whose dedication ensured that almost one-third of residents voted, an impressive outcome for the voluntary exercise.
The original goal of 2000 votes was rapidly exceeded as news about the historic vote spread throughout the town.
The result also reflects how compelling the case is for Port Augusta to host Australia’s first solar-thermal power stations, which use fields of mirrors to concentrate solar radiation on “power towers” and can provide 24-hours base-load power. They already operate in Spain and the United States. The case ticks all the boxes.
Solar-powered energy would eliminate longstanding health impacts generated by the coal plants, impacts that would continue, albeit to a lesser extent, were a gas plant built in Port Augusta.
Research by Doctors for the Environment Australia shows that particulate pollution from the coal plants is responsible for the town’s elevated rates of lung cancer (between 1.45-2 times South Australia’s average rate), childhood asthma and other respiratory ailments.
Critically, much of the particulate pollution generated by coal burning would also be generated by gas burning, especially the smallest particles, known as PM2.5 (as they are less than 2.5 millionths of a metre in effective diameter).
They lodge into the lining of the lungs when inhaled, and then into blood vessels where they can cause obstruction, leading to strokes when such obstruction occurs close to the brain.
A transition to solar would keep more skilled jobs in the region than gas, and revitalise manufacturing in the region.
The Repower Port Augusta report, released in April by independent renewable energy research group Beyond Zero Emissions (BZE), said 360 permanent jobs would be created if the electricity generated by coal was generated by solar-thermal power instead.
Most of these jobs would be similar to the maintenance and operations jobs at the coal plants, allowing those currently employed to transition relatively simply from the coal to solar industries.
BZE also estimates that 1300 construction and 225 manufacturing jobs would be created over six years. If solar-thermal plants are built elsewhere, Port Augusta’s head start will allow it to become one of the centres of the big-solar industry, and the renewables industry generally.
The replacement of coal with gas, however, would be an employment disaster for Port Augusta. Only 36 workers would be employed, compared to 250 employed in coal.
Climate change fightback
Given the desperate need for greenhouse gas emissions to “drop off a cliff”, to quote author David Spratt, if we are to maintain a safe climate, Port Augusta’s coal power stations, which have provided 30-40% of South Australia’s electricity, must be replaced with zero-emissions energy sources.
Gas is an unacceptable substitute for coal and oil, even as a so-called transition fuel.
The replacement of Northern and Playford B, Port Augusta’s coal plants, with a gas-fired power plant, would lock-in almost two million tonnes of emissions annually for the next 30-50 years.
And these emissions are best-case scenario figures. They do not include fugitive emissions, leakages during extraction and production.
The lengthy lifetimes of gas plants — and the fact gas power is only marginally less emissions-intensive than coal power, and sometimes worse — are serious problems for those who consider gas a transition fuel, a stepping-stone between coal and oil, and solar and wind.
Can anyone sincerely believe investors would fund the construction of a gas plant that they knew would be closed within, say, 10 years, decades before the end of its life and before full returns from investments can be recouped?
And while South Australia can source gas from traditional sources like the Cooper basin, given current consumption rates, these reserves will likely be exhausted within 13 years, according to the BZE Repower Port Augusta report.
Afterwards, gas would probably be sourced from coal seam gas (CSG), probably from Queensland. CSG, besides local environmental impacts on water quality and prime agricultural land, generates significant fugitive greenhouse gas emissions.
There is much uncertainly about the extent of these emissions but according to a recent National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration study, they could be as high as 4% of total yields, and possibly higher.
That would make a gas plant at Port Augusta more emissions-intensive than Northern (the larger of the two coal plants, the only one still officially operating), and increase emissions when they need to decline dramatically and rapidly.
To replace coal plants with gas plants, whether in Port Augusta or elsewhere, is to move closer towards locking-in irreversible, runaway climate change.
On July 20, two days before the close of the vote, power station owner, Alinta, announced it’s considering a solar-thermal pilot program, as an addition to the Northern plant.
This is an important concession, motivated by Alinta’s expectations of rising gas prices, bad news for its profit margins and for SA’s electricity consumers.
Alinta’s plan is smaller than the plan favoured by the community, which seeks to have all electricity now generated from coal to be generated from solar with wind back-up.
Alinta’s cheaper, modest proposal is more likely to be supported by South Australia’s Labor Premier, Jay Weatherill, and the federal government.
The Repower Port Augusta campaign must remain committed to a complete transition away from coal and resist attempts to be wedged into a “compromise” that fails to deliver the full economic, environmental and health benefits of renewable energy.
The massive pro-solar result of the community vote is consistent with the public support for renewables nationwide, as noted by BZE’s Leigh Ewbank. It should inspire climate activists and concerned members of the public to intensify their struggles. Not only in Port Augusta but throughout Australia.