From smoke stacks to solar: Port Augusta
‘Now, there will be something for the children,’ thought Ursula Meese, an elderly and committed member of Repower Port Augusta, as she danced around her living room. She had just heard the news that the world’s biggest solar thermal tower with storage had been given the green light, thanks to the Repower campaign.
Ursula was one of many locals in Port Augusta who had spent over five years campaigning for the South Australian and Federal Government to reconsider its carbon footprint. For decades, two coal-burning power stations had served the region, provided jobs but impacted upon the health of both the community and the climate. Now, with the two coal stations being demolished, and a new solar plant in their place, Port Augusta has a bright future ahead as a clean energy hub.
This didn’t just happen overnight, of course. Between 2012 and 2017, swathes of community organizing and advocacy went into clinching this victory. There were local votes; a 328 kilometre walk from Port Augusta to Adelaide; rallies; trips to state and federal parliament; and online actions taken by thousands of people.
When the news rolled in that the smokestacks were to be replaced, the excitement and relief from local campaigners – and supporters around the country – was palpable. Lisa Lumsden, a previous chair of Repower Port Augusta, reflected on the rollercoaster journey. ‘This campaign was deeply personal,’ she said. ‘It was about the future of our town.’
It was that drive for a new future that led group members to persist through job losses, mental health issues and the deaths of three
key campaign members.
Repower’s persistence has not only inspired people around Australia – as a true story of a coal town embracing a new future in solar energy – it has also inspired a new generation of campaigners.
When the local group formed, Lisa’s son Lachie was only a few months old. Now, when hearing news about Australia’s treatment of refugees, he suggests a rally. This is one of the things Lisa says she is most proud of – that others, especially young people, will hear of the success story of Port Augusta’s campaign for solar thermal and know that they can make a difference as well.
As SolarReserve, the company behind the solar plant, begins construction, Port Augusta is once again set to be an energy powerhouse for South Australia – but with a difference. The project will be the world’s largest of its kind and a vision of the future. Anyone driving north of Port Augusta, they will catch a glimpse of a monumental tower surrounded by a vast field of mirrors capturing and storing the region’s abundance of sunshine – making the project a perfect match for the South Australian electricity grid.
The solar thermal plant will store heat in insulated tanks of molten salt and is an innovative 21st-century solution to provide clean, affordable and reliable power. It will also make South Australia less reliant on skyrocketing gas prices. The new plant is estimated to be running by 2020 and will take A$90 million ($70 million) a year off wholesale electricity prices.
Port Augusta’s victory shines a light for other communities as an example of what people power can achieve. The campaign built unusual alliances and, after a whole lot of persistence, has resulted in a $650 million investment in the town’s future and secured a new clean, affordable and reliable power source for South Australia.
Dan Spencer is an activist who worked as a community organizer and campaigner for the Australian Youth Climate Coalition and Solar Citizens with Repower Port Augusta from 2012-17.