How the Port Augusta community helped repower the town with solar

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By Melissa Keogh

Port Augusta’s Lisa Lumsden was in the supermarket when news broke of the town securing a $650m solar thermal power plant – the biggest of its kind in the world.

The announcement of SolarRerserve’s Aurora Solar Energy Project came with the promise of 650 construction jobs, 50 ongoing positions and delivered an immediate boost in town prosperity.

“Everybody was congratulating one another,” says Lisa, a local councillor and former Repower Port Augusta chairperson.

“The community attitude shifted because we had a new future coming.”

The news of the 150mW solar thermal power plant came in August 2017, more than a year after Port Augusta’s northern coal-fired power station closed, marking the end of an era.

After a five-year push from community advocacy group Repower Port Augusta for a switch from coal to solar, the town was on track to becoming a renewable energy powerhouse.

The Repower Port Augusta Group with Premier Jay Weatherill, Energy Minister Tom Koutsantonis and SolarReserve CEO Kevin Smith during a tour of the community.

The Aurora Solar Energy Project, located 30km north of Port Augusta, incorporates eight hours (1100mW hours) of storage.

Construction is expected to start in the first quarter of 2018 and be completed by 2020.

It will involve a field of mirrors focusing sunlight onto a receiver at the top of a tower – the tallest of its kind in the world.

PHOTO: SolarReserve.

Liquid salt is pumped through the receiver where it’s heated to 565C before the salt is used to generate steam, drive a single turbine and generate electricity.

It’s designed to store between eight and 10 hours of energy, meaning it can operate when the sun is not shining.

Lisa says its widely recognised that the persistence and grit of the Repower Port Augusta Group helped secure the project.

The group advocated with both the Federal and State governments, held community forums with energy experts and worked with the local council, unions, businesses and environment groups nationwide.

The tower is the tallest of its kind in the world. PHOTO: SolarReserve.

“We were able to create a network of people around Australia to lobby for our town,” Lisa says.

“We want long-term jobs and we know that the coal-fired power station was going to close and that it wasn’t good for the environment.

“Our volunteers were putting in enormous hours and many sacrifices were going on behind the scenes.”

The Aurora Solar Energy Project is one of a handful of renewable energy projects in Port Augusta and expected to increase competition and lower power prices.

“The solar thermal plant will be the jewel in the crown but there are seven other projects under construction,” Lisa says.

“What we’ve got is quite incredible and the rest of the world will be watching.”

Current Repower Port Augusta chairperson Gary Rowbottom is a former Alinta Energy employee, having worked at the coal-fired power station for 17 years.

Repower Port Augusta chairperson Gary Rowbottom at a solar celebration event in September.

He watched the sun set on the Northern Power Station in 2016 but says the move away from coal was “crucial”.

“The cost of conventional (power) generation was going up, the cost of concentrating solar thermal down, and the convergenace of those relative costs reached a point where the gap was not much – with the benefit of no emissions and a reasonable number of jobs,” Gary says.

“I pushed the jobs line pretty hard myself, as that was a differentiating point from other forms of renewable energy, as was, in terms of scale, the amount of storage (mW hours/day) that concentrating solar thermal could provide.”

“There is no better place to build the solar thermal power plant than Port Augusta.”

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