Support for solar power grows in Port Augusta

Friday, November 4, 2011

“When I meet with [climate change] minister Greg Combet next week I will be taking my prescription pad with me and I will be writing a prescription for solar thermal for Port Augusta, not just three times a day but permanently,” said Dr David Shearman of Doctors for the Environment Australia (DEA) to a 120-strong crowd in Port Augusta’s Cooinda Club on October 29.

Shearman was one of several speakers at the forum, which was organised by the Adelaide-based Climate Emergency Action Network (CLEAN), the Port Augusta City Council and Beyond Zero Emissions.

Shearman discussed research from the US (very little research has been done in Australia) that showed the higher incidence of heart and lung disease and cancer in people living close to coal-fired power stations.

He said: “The government tells us that coal is cheap, I’m telling you it’s the most expensive fuel we can use. It costs around $3 billion a year in health costs alone.”

The previous night, a story aired on the South Australian edition of the ABC’s 7.30. It covered the growing support for Beyond Zero Emissions’ proposal to build a concentrated solar thermal plant in Port Augusta.

The program featured local farmer Bruce Nutt, who has begun negotiations to make part of his land available for a solar thermal plant.

As part of its carbon price package, the federal government has said it will close Port Augusta’s Playford Power Station. Playford is the dirtiest power plant in the country per unit of electricity produced.

Beyond Zero Emissions’ Mark Ogge told the October 29 forum: “We’re at a fork in the road. Playford will probably close. We’re going to go one of two ways. There will either be a gas plant built to replace these power stations or we will have renewable energy.”

Ogge explained the problems with gas-based power. Much of Australia’s gas reserves are unconventional gas, mostly coal seam gas. CSG takes a very heavy environmental toll.

Ogge also said that as Australian gas prices become linked to world prices, “we will see the same volatility that we’re currently getting at the petrol pump at the light switch”.

Shearman said switching Port Augusta’s power generation to gas would still fail on public heath: “With gas, there is less disease but there is still disease and DEA will not support gas on health grounds.”

Ogge explained the merits of concentrated solar thermal plants. They provides base load power, which can be dispatched as required to meet demand peaks. He said the technology is ready to go and plants are already operating around the world.

Tim Kelly of the Conservation Council of South Australia also spoke at the forum. He said the federal government’s new Clean Energy Finance Corporation, the Clean Energy Future Fund and the Renewable Energy Demonstration Fund meant there was an opportunity to fund a Port Augusta solar thermal plant.

He also said support support for the idea runs from Alinta Energy (the operators of the Playford and Northern power stations), to the Port Augusta City Council, to advocacy groups such as Australian Youth Climate Coalition, and many thousands of individuals.

Port Augusta Mayor Joy Baluch told the forum: “No city has more to gain from this shift to renewable clean energy than Port Augusta. It has first-rate resources of solar power, dependable sea breezes and an existing high capacity grid connection … all of the ingredients to become an energy hub.”

Referring to the health impacts if coal-fired power, she told the crowd: “Thousands in our community have died providing cheap power to this state, the incidence of lung cancer in Port Augusta is double the state average … and it is an insult to our intelligence that the [South Australian] minister for health attributes these statistics to tobacco smoking.

“Coal fired power stations cause lung cancer and dirty coal causes more lung cancer.”

Baluch said a solar thermal plant in Port Augusta “could be a win-win for everyone and an opportunity for politicians of all persuasions to write their names into the history books and become leaders in clean, solar thermal power generation.”

Organisers were thrilled with the strong turn-out for the meeting. Robyn Waite, an activist with CLEAN SA, chaired the forum. She told Green Left Weekly: “We’ve worked very hard over the last couple of years to raise awareness in the community about the economic and health benefits of a shift to renewable energy.

“Now we have a massive opportunity to provide an important international example of how communities like Port Augusta can move away from fossil fuels and contribute towards a safer climate future for all of us. We are committed to winning the campaign for a concentrated solar thermal plant in Port Augusta”.