SA electricity generation: Good news, and better to come

By Ben Courtice

Chain Reaction #115, August 2012, www.foe.org.au/chain-reaction/editions/115

In May, EnergyQuest broke the news that wind power supplied 31% of South Australia’s electricity in the last quarter. Solar panels added another 3.5% to put renewable energy’s share in that state well above coal (26%) and getting close to gas (39.5%).

31% wind energy is up from 21% 12 months ago. In less than ten years, this has come up from close to zero. Now, wind energy is feeding through the interconnector to other states at some times, reversing the old trend of importing extra, dirty coal power into SA.

And SA is still building wind farms. The next stage of the Snowtown wind farm is one that has been given the green light. But the really exciting direction for SA is not just more wind: it’s replacing their old baseload coal power plants at Port Augusta with solar thermal power.

Renewable Energy think tank Beyond Zero Emissions have released a report on how a combination of the latest in solar-thermal power plants, with some wind power, could easily replace the Playford and Northern power stations.

Modern solar-thermal power plants, like the Gemasolar plant in Spain, or the Tonopah plant being built in the US right now, are round-the-clock operations. They concentrate and store the sun’s heat in giant insulated tanks of molten salts, and can draw on this heat to switch on the generator at any hour of night or day.

“Replacing the power stations with renewable energy will create 1800 jobs, improve the health of the local community, provide lower and more stable energy prices and will save 100-200 million tonnes of CO2 emissions over the lifetime of the project, compared to gas or coal ” according to BZE’s Mark Ogge.

The smokestacks are only 3km from town residences at Port Augusta. David Shearman of Doctors for the Environment has pointed out that “independent analysis of health data for the period 1998-2007 showed the incidence of lung cancer to be 1.45 times and for 2007-2009 twice the expected number” in Port Augusta.

“The community was angered to be informed by government that they were smoking too much and that air quality data measured by the operator Alinta was within EPA standards,” he wrote.

There is currently a battle on between renewable energy and gas for which energy source will replace the brown coal generators. BZE’s research shows that building baseload solar thermal power in Port Augusta will result in lower and more stable electricity prices. It will also provide better energy security.

These are important considerations. Leigh Creek coalmine, which currently supplies Port Augusta’s coal, is expected to run out in the coming decade. Gas will be available, but linked to expensive and volatile export prices.

The idea of repowering Port Augusta has struck a chord. It has proved popular with locals. Unionists concerned for securing jobs have found that the low-employment model offered by gas is not so appealing. Local concern about cancer has also boosted the campaign. As has the inspiration of the round-the-clock solar-thermal power technology.

The Repower Port Augusta Alliance has been founded with local and statewide participation. Key state groups are already involved, including the Port Augusta Regional Council, Climate Emergency Action Network (CLEAN SA), and the SA branch of the Australian Youth Climate Coalition. A campaign group has been set up in Port Augusta itself.

The report by Beyond Zero Emissions and more information about the campaign can be downloaded at repowerportaugusta.org

Ben Courtice works on the Friends of the Earth Melbourne renewable energy campaign, and is currently the media co-ordinator at Beyond Zero Emissions.