'We want solar thermal', say Port Augusta residents

A model of a solar array. Photo: Michael Kubler (@kublermdk) and Felescia Schemmer (@flikdesign)

"Making Solar Thermal Happen" was the theme of a forum on August 5 at the University of South Australia, hosted by Repower Port Augusta and Climate Emergency Action Network of South Australia (CLEAN SA).

Speakers explored the benefits of the community proposal to build solar thermal power stations in Port Augusta from the point of view of jobs, manufacturing, health, climate and regional development.

The discussion was timely, with Port Augusta’s future remaining uncertain after the recently announced forthcoming closure of its coal-fired power stations.

Apart from community members and students, the 250 audience members included MPs from the Labor and Liberal parties, and representatives from the Greens, the Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union and the corporation Santos.

Dr Keith Lovegrove, a Canberra-based solar thermal expert and Head –Solar Thermal of the British-based renewable energy consulting firm ITPower, was the keynote speaker.

Lovegrove said that, given the growing demand for renewable energy, new technology can overcome the previous barriers faced by renewables. Concentrating solar thermal with storage is now proven technology, which provides reliable, dispatchable energy in several locations around the world.

Lovegrove, who has been researching the potential of solar thermal for more than 20 years, including at the Australian National University, said the technology is becoming cheaper and Australia should be reaping its benefits.

“We’ve seen solar PV and wind energy come down the cost curve dramatically in recent years; solar thermal is ready to do the same but we need to build it,” Lovegrove said. “Solar thermal would provide great new opportunities for the region and establish a new industry for South Australia."

Darrin Spinks, from HeliostatSA, spoke about the need to develop local manufacturing in the large-scale renewable sector and the opportunities that a solar thermal industry could bring to South Australia.

“Solar thermal not only offers opportunities to transition from coal in Port Augusta, but the opportunity for the car industry to transition,” Spinks said.

“A large solar thermal plant in Port Augusta would provide fantastic employment opportunities for South Australia and provide the potential for the state to become a global player in an industry currently exceeding all growth targets.

“With the changes in the car and energy industry, we saw the opportunity to transition to manufacturing heliostat mirrors for the solar thermal industry.

“HeliostatSA is already exporting mirrors to solar thermal projects overseas. If SA was able to build a large solar thermal plant in the Port Augusta region, we’d love to be involved and establish a new manufacturing base here.”

Dr Peter Burdon, senior lecturer from the Adelaide Law School, emphasised the need for a just transition away from coal and criticised the federal government's policies on climate change and renewable energy.

Gary Rowbottom and Liz Zyla, members of the local Repower Port Augusta group, gave personal accounts of why they are active and what solar thermal could mean for the future of the town.

Zyla, a nurse who has lived in the Leigh Creek and Port Augusta area for more than 20 years, originally became involved because of the serious health impacts of coal dust and fly ash from the ageing power station on the community of Port Augusta.

The wife of a Leigh Creek coal miner, Zyla spoke of the devastating impacts the forthcoming closure of the mine would have on workers and families in the region. She was angry that a transition plan had not been put in place earlier.

Rowbottom, one of the 400 workers at the Alinta coal-fired power station who could lose their jobs within a year, said there was an urgent need for the government to commit to building solar thermal.

The future of Port Augusta is at stake, he said. “The early closure of the coal-fired power station and associated mines makes the move to solar thermal even more important. Our community has been behind this for a long time and it’s critical that the South Australian and federal governments support solar thermal so we have the opportunity to transition," he concluded.

[Gemma Weedall is a founding member and activist in CLEAN SA. She is a member of the Socialist Alliance. Visit Repower Port Augusta here and CLEAN here.]

All photos: Michael Kubler (@kublermdk) and Felescia Schemmer (@flikdesign).

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