Unions throw weight behind big solar in Port Augusta

September 21, 2012
Photo: Repower Port Augusta

Repower Port Augusta, the historic campaign to have the South Australian town host Australia’s first solar-thermal power station, is gathering momentum, with formal endorsements from several health and union organisations.

The campaign has generated widespread public interest. In Port Augusta itself, a community vote in July resulted in one-third of residents voting for solar over gas. The result was 4053 votes to 43, a remarkable turnout for the voluntary exercise.

Supporters want Port Augusta’s dirty, ailing coal-fired power plants replaced with six solar-thermal plants (with storage) and 95 wind turbines. This would transform 30% to 40% of SA’s electricity supply.

The Repower Port Augusta Alliance, which is driving the campaign, has become an increasingly diverse coalition of groups.

This is testament to the compelling economic, environmental, and health case for transitioning from fossil fuels to renewables for the struggling but resilient town.

Not only would choosing solar over gas mean 2 million tonnes less of CO2 emissions a year. It would also resolve longstanding local health issues and significantly boost employment: with 360 permanent jobs for solar versus only 36 for gas (as well as 1500 construction and manufacturing jobs for solar over six years).

Over the past several weeks, campaigners from groups that founded the Alliance in April — the Australian Youth Climate Coalition SA; Beyond Zero Emissions; the Climate Emergency Action Network SA; the Conservation Council SA; Doctors for the Environment; and 100% Renewables — have achieved something quite remarkable for an environmental campaign: formal endorsements from unions.

In quick succession, the Repower Port Augusta campaign has won endorsements from the National Union of Workers; the National Tertiary Education Union SA; the Australian Education Union SA; and the Australian Services Union SA.

These endorsements offer the campaign the prospect of reaching and mobilising increasingly large numbers of people. This is critical if the campaign is to succeed in forcing the state government, and especially the federal government, to fund this groundbreaking project.

Also significant is the increasing interest and support from health organisations.

Besides Doctors for the Environment, which has publicised Port Augusta’s elevated rates of bronchitis, childhood asthma, and lung cancer due to air pollution from the coal-fired power stations, the campaign has also been joined by the Climate and Health Alliance, and most recently, the Public Health Association of Australia.

The campaign’s win-win-win logic — its strong economic, environmental, and health case — has not only united a diversity of community, environment, heath, local, union, and business groups (Business Port Augusta has also endorsed the campaign) and captured public interest. It also offers useful and inspiring lessons to climate campaigners elsewhere.

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