With brown coal supplies likely to run out by 2030, the power stations owners Alinta Energy, has been exploring the option of converting the plants to gas. However, Beyond Zero Emissions’ strategic director Mark Ogge said gas would be too costly and there was environmental concerns linked with its extraction.
“As Australia starts exporting more and more gas, prices will be linked with global prices and the risk is that if we link our electricity generation to gas prices we’ll start getting the same volatility and uncertainty at the light switch than we’re already getting at the petrol pump.
“Gas reserves are also diminishing and a lot of it is now coal seam gas, which has a lot of issues surrounding it, especially in Queensland where it is being extracted from prime agricultural land.” Mr Ogge said the plan to convert the power stations to solar thermal was achievable as it would require similar equipment to the existing coal plants.
“Concentrating Solar Thermal Power plants are similar to coal plants in that they use turbines and generators but instead of burning coal to produce heat and make steam it uses mirrors to focus the sun’s energy on to a receiver that has a liquid in it. “This heats the liquid and makes steam which drives the turbine and produces electricity.”
The existing power stations currently produce 40 per cent of the state’s electricity demands, an amount that Mr Ogge said a solar thermal plant could exceed. He said another plus was that the existing workforce could be retained. “We have estimated it would create 1,300 jobs during construction and 250 permanent ongoing and maintenance jobs.
CLEAN and BZE argue that concentrating solar thermal (CST) power plants are the logical way forward for Port Augusta and its workforce.
Mark Ogge told Green Left Weekly: “There is a big opportunity to actually get some solar thermal built in Port Augusta, because a range of factors line up perfectly — you have a coal power station that is likely to be closing down soon, a great solar resource with perfect weather conditions and an easily convertible workforce.
“The people currently employed by the coal-fired power station could be employed in solar thermal plants as a lot of the jobs are the same.
“There is also a crucial political opportunity at the moment with the Clean Energy Finance Corporation’s $10 billion clean energy fund, which is part of the carbon tax package, as well as funding to close down 2000 megawatts of coal-fired power stations.”
Ogge presented these ideas to the Port Augusta Council in a special meeting. The response was overwhelmingly positive.
In an exciting development, the council agreed to support and promote a public forum in Port Augusta on October 29, where Ogge and local speakers will present the solar thermal option to the local community.
Over the weekend, CLEAN and BZE ran street stalls, erected displays and carried out door-knocking in Port Augusta, spreading the word about this new, clean technology that provides baseload power.
The activists forged connections with union delegates, the Port Augusta Business Association, church groups, local teachers and health workers. “The response from the community was really encouraging” said CLEAN activist Gemma Weedall.
“People are a lot more open to the idea of renewables than on our previous trips. They know that Alinta, the company that owns the plant, is looking for alternatives.
“When we tell people about the workforce potential of solar thermal, they really get interested.”
BZE estimates that replacing both power stations with solar thermal would create about 1300 jobs in the construction phase and 250 ongoing operations and maintenance positions, similar to the size of the current coal-fire power station workforce.
The weekend was an affirmation of the importance of grassroots campaigning. Most people approached in Port Augusta were fed up with the health problems associated with coal dust, but were not aware of the clean, solar thermal alternative.
The use of display boards with big pictures of the 24-hour power Gemasolar plant, which is now operating in Spain, was an effective way to inspire an alternative vision of Port Augusta’s future.
“It’s really great that grassroots activists are out there doing the hard work building community support for this vision because but we’re never going to win this unless we get the community on side,” said Ogge.
“You can have all the meetings with ministers that you like, but there is no substitute for genuine community engagement.”
BZE and CLEAN will return to Port Augusta on October 29 for a public presentation and forum at the Cooinda Club, 3.30 to 5.00pm. For details phone Gemma on 0437 714 786.