Right now, there is an great opportunity to cut Australia’s carbon emissions by 5 million tonnes per year. The city of Port Augusta in South Australia has all the right conditions to make it the country’s first baseload renewable energy hub.
The two coal-fired power stations at Port Augusta are getting old and industry experts say they may be forced to close as soon as 2015.
A new report by climate research group Beyond Zero Emissions (BZE) says all the conditions are right to replace the two plants with renewable energy.
The Port Augusta region has excellent sunlight and consistent, strong winds which makes it a perfect candidate for a combination of solar thermal and wind power.
BZE says that to replace 60% of Port Augusta’s coal plant capacity, it will take six large solar plants, which will use fields of mirrors to concentrate solar radiation in a central tower.
State of the art big solar plants can store excess energy for use during cloudy periods or overnight. BZE says this means: “Electricity can thereby be dispatched as needed, to our homes, businesses and industry while the sun isn’t shining.”
Similar big solar plants are already operating or being built in Europe and the United States.
The remaining 40% can be met with 95 wind turbines. These advanced turbines, each with a capacity of 7.5 megawatts, are already operating in Europe.
Repowering Port Augusta with renewable energy is also the job-rich option. The report estimates the power plants would create 360 permanent jobs in the city — more than the 250 jobs connected to the two coal-fired power stations that will be lost.
Building big solar and wind power would also create 1300 construction jobs over six years. It also makes sense to set up big solar manufacturing capacity in Port Augusta, which BZE says will add a further 225 ongoing jobs.
The other energy option for Port Augusta would be to replace the coal-fired plants with gas-fired plants which would be job-eliminators.
A newly built 550 megawatt Mortlake gas-fired plant in Victoria employs a meager 10 permanent staff. If Port Augusta’s 760 megawatts of coal power were replaced by gas plants, it would be disastrous for local employment.
The gas option also comes with a lot of problems for the environment. Recent studies measuring emissions from gas over its entire “life cycle” — from extraction to burning — say it could be as bad as coal as far as climate change is concerned.
South Australia’s conventional gas reserves in the Cooper and Eromanga basins are running low. This means any gas-fired plants at Port Augusta would rely on unconventional gas, especially coal seam gas (CSG).
But due to its large impact on the environment, the CSG industry is under fire from farmers and communities. The process needed to extract much of the gas will pollute the soil, air and water.
The CSG industry is also uses a massive amount of water. The federal government has estimated the industry alone will use about three times more water than the whole of Australian households use each year.
The BZE report also warns that gas-fired power ensure much higher power bills. As Australia begins to export gas to overseas markets, domestic gas prices are expected to rise dramatically.
Overseas gas prices are much higher than in Australia, giving gas companies little inclination to sell for a lower price in Australia than they would charge elsewhere.
The big gas companies are expected to link future gas prices to the constantly fluctuating global oil price. BZE says this means that if gas-fired power was built at Port Augusta: “South Australia will begin to experience the same price volatility at the light switch that they now experience at the petrol pump.”
The BZE report gives several different funding options to repower Port Augusta with renewables. The federal government has already set aside a new $5 billion fund to finance renewable energy at low interest rates. BZE says this money could be enough to do the job.
Another option discussed in the report is a feed-in tariff, which levies consumers to guarantee a higher price for renewable electricity generators. BZE says such a feed-in tariff would add about 0.34% to power bills across the National Electricity Market. This rise, “is one 30th of the electricity price rises predicted to occur by the Australian Energy Market Commission out to 2013”.
BZE says the arguments for big solar and wind in Port Augusta stack up, but the project needs state and federal government support before it can commence.
“This proposal outlines a pathway to energy security, power price stability, increased jobs, emissions reductions, and beneficial economic and health outcomes … It is a once in a generation opportunity that all South Australians, and all Australians, should support.”