Waiting for the sun

Port Augusta's search for a post-coal identity

EVEN THOUGH I have been lost in the pop-culture megastores of Tokyo, and touched the bronze horns of the Wall Street bull, I never truly appreciated the redemptive power of capitalism until I visited an auction of equipment from a decommissioned coal-power station. It was where I learned there is a legitimate market for 3,000-horsepower motors and semi-used spools of insulated cable. An auctioneer told me a bright-red fire door – ten feet by twelve feet of tempered steel clad with pounded aluminium – was to be re-purposed as the entrance to someone’s ‘man cave’. Whoever had the unenviable job of cataloguing this industrial detritus had alleviated his or her boredom by coming up with sarcastic descriptions for some of the more underwhelming items: ‘Divorce Pack’ (three fridges, a microwave, two heaters and a cabinet); ‘The Trap!!’ (a mysterious steel cage contraption); and ‘quantity grease tins on wall’. All of this was being sold to clear the way for the demolition of Alinta Energy’s brown-coal plant at Port Augusta, a dirty old giant of industry that had sat on the saltbush tip of the Spencer Gulf for six decades. We had come here on a cold Tuesday morning to wander through the carcass of the power plant, which had incinerated enough little brown rocks to power a few thousand homes for something like 65 million hours, and either pay our respects or make out like carrion. One guy, David, whose father had worked at the power station for two decades, had brought his camera to document this piece of local and family history.

‘When are you ever going to get to see something like this again?’ he said, gesturing towards one of the cavernous hallways.

These sentiments were everywhere in the final days of the power station. For better or worse, the plant had defined Port Augusta for sixty years. This was, after all, a town where people driving back from holiday did not feel they were home until they could see the chimney and powerhouse sitting like a decaying steel ship on the horizon. Not only did the plant dominate the skyline, ash from its furnaces and wastewater from its turbines was pumped into the salt lakes that mark Port Augusta’s eastern boundary, defining the layout and landscape of the town. It was a place integral to the lives of multiple generations and was still supplying South Australia with almost a third of its power and employing five hundred people before it was switched off for good.

Given its importance to the town, it seemed strange that most locals reacted with half-hearted agreement and a shrug at my attempts to frame the final day as significant. Sure, some people were still frustrated that the end had come sooner than expected and with short notice from Alinta. But for the most part they had moved on. Their hearts and minds had already been won over by a new vision of the city and its post--coal future, a vision of Port Augusta as a renewable-energy hub advanced by a coalition of local volunteers and national environmental campaigners calling themselves Repower Port Augusta. It’s an alliance that links grassroots campaigners and the local council with national organisations as diverse as the Australian Youth Climate Coalition, the National Union of Workers and the Australian Nursing and Midwifery Federation.

The group wants Port Augusta to host Australia’s first concentrated solar thermal power plant, a technology that uses mirrors to direct solar energy towards a tower containing a medium – such as molten salt – that can hold heat to generate electricity when the sun is not shining. Two companies have already shown an interest in the region: SolarReserve, a US company who have proposed developing a 110-megawatt molten-salt plant modelled on its Crescent Dunes facility already operating in Nevada; and an Australian company, Solastor, which has proposed a 170-megawatt plant using its proprietary but unproven graphite-storage technology.

Along with the climate and public health benefits of solar thermal, Repower claims the technology can directly replace the number and types of jobs as well as the 24-hour baseload power production of the old coal plant. This has helped the campaign garner the support of the residents, and one of the first petitions gained fifteen hundred signatures in five hours.

While the group has commissioned plenty of modelling to support its claims, among the locals there is an intuitive belief that it is Port Augusta’s destiny to be the renewables capital of the country. They point to its connection to the electricity grid, its easy access to water from the Spencer Gulf and, most importantly, the three hundred days of sunshine the area receives each year – such a bounty that producers for the 1960 movie The Sundowners spent five weeks filming in the region as they felt it was the only landscape bleak enough to look like a NSW farm destroyed by bushfire.

‘We want one half of the picture to have a background of deep green,’ remarked one of the producers, ‘the other half has to look burnt down – hence Port Augusta.’

MORE THAN ANY other group, Repower has determined the way Port Augusta sees itself in the wake of the coal plant. It’s a campaign based on Port Augusta’s identity – that nebulous question of civic and social character that occupies many regional centres and is reflected in the type of industries they accommodate, the look of the streets and surrounding landscape, the themes and sponsors of public events, how the people dress, what they value, their language, their history, which politicians they support and a whole bunch of other local quirks too minor or abstract to describe. While you could point to plenty of indicators of how this sense of civic self is manifested, most people who actually live in town just know the identity of the place.

This is part of the reason that the new renewables paradigm was easy for the residents to accept. Rather than seeing themselves as living in a coal town, they saw Port Augusta as a power-generating town – the energy source for their livelihood was beside the point. If anything, the new technology was received as an opportunity to expand their skill base and begin a new era of industry in the region. The problem for Repower has not been convincing residents of the merits of renewables, but maintaining the campaign’s momentum through the vagaries and frustrations of the political process.

‘That’s been part of the challenge for us, because this seems like such an obvious direction to take,’ says Lisa Lumsden, Repower’s spokesperson and Port Augusta councillor. This shift in collective purpose seems obvious in hindsight, but it would not have been possible without Nancy Joy Baluch, the iron lady of the Upper Spencer Gulf, who died in 2013 and is remembered in national obituaries as a ‘solar campaigner’, such was her dedication to the Repower cause in the last few years of her life. Joy’s recruitment as a solar thermal proselytiser was no small milestone, particularly for the early days of the campaign.

As the mayor and patron saint of Port Augusta for nearly thirty years, Joy earned her reputation as a hard-headed leader who used her acerbic tone and gift for plain speaking to put Port Augusta in the national spotlight time and again.

She was a hater of many things: whingers, whiners, bankers, the ‘bloody do-gooders’, political correctness, the media and sports of any kind, which she considered to be a waste of time and a national distraction that would facilitate a peaceful takeover of Australia on Grand Final day by ‘the Asians’. Joy was intolerant of the ‘soft generation’ and an advocate for setting police dogs on Aboriginal people, but also for changing outdated attitudes towards homeless shelters and domestic violence refuges.

She was known by her political rivals as ‘that skinny bitch’, by her admirers as a ‘multi-dimensional woman’, and as Joy by everyone else, partly because her mother refused to call her Nancy (her father’s choice, based on the name of his first girlfriend and also his childhood pet goat).

‘Men don’t like strong women, I’ve found,’ she once said on the subject of making enemies. But what she really opposed, more than anything else (and this is perhaps understating the considerable weight of her loathing) was the power station, which she blamed for the fatal lung cancer of her beloved husband Teofil and the chronic asthma of her son Emil.

Residents had long complained of lung cancer and bronchial disorders caused by the noxious gases and particulate matter from the power station. These claims were repeatedly denied by the state government, which instead blamed the health problems on higher rates of smoking in the area. A six-month campaign for the release of SA Health figures by the local council and Doctors for the Environment Australia revealed there was a doubling of lung cancer rates in the region compared to the expected average, despite smoking rates only being 7 per cent greater.

Like other great leaders, Joy had her own creation myth, based on a series of childhood visions where she saw Port Augusta as a great city bathed in light – a message from God that instilled her with the belief that she was destined to rule ‘for this time in history’. Although she had identified some form of renewables as the solution to the city’s health problems and industrial future, for many decades Joy’s vision of the city lacked form.

These preoccupations coalesced during a presentation in 2010 by Beyond Zero Emissions (BZE), a climate change think-tank and one of the founding members of Repower. Mark Ogge, BZE’s former operations director, remembers the ‘surreal experience’ of walking into the Port Augusta council chambers and finding an unlikely ally for their plan for 100 per cent renewables in Australia, the centrepiece of which was a solar thermal plant at Port Augusta.

‘Joy just cottoned on to the potential straight away I think, like she just thought, “Yeah this could directly replace the coal plant,”’ says Ogge.

‘Some members of the council were pretty sceptical. One of them said, “Oh well, what about the cost of all this?” and Joy just turns around and snaps, “What about the cost of treating people for advanced lung cancer in hospital, councillor?”’

Joy was later asked to speak at a public meeting organised by BZE to explain its fully costed solar-thermal proposal. Given they were in coal territory, the group toned down their pitch to limit what they thought would be a hostile reception from the crowd. Mark credits Joy’s impassioned speech – which elevated the modest proposal to nation-building fervour – as the turning point for the campaign.

‘I’ll always remember it – at the end of her speech she said, “Listen, this isn’t about Port Augusta, this is about Australia. We should be building 3,000 megawatts of this stuff here and it should be built all over Australia, it should be the new Snowy Mountain Scheme.” And I was just floored, because Joy was a pretty conservative person, but for her, it was like she didn’t hold back.’

This was the first public airing of the town’s new identity. When you hear people who once worked at a coal plant complaining about ‘importing dirty brown coal power from Victoria’, you know a profound shift has occurred.

REPOWER HAS NEEDED every bit of zealotry to sustain the campaign during a time of great scepticism towards renewables in Australia, not just through the years of the Abbott government – with its cuts to the Renewable Energy Target and Australian Renewable Energy Agency funding, attacks on wind farms and praise for coal – but also over the past eighteen months, a turbulent period in which price spikes and reliability issues have eroded public confidence in the South Australian electricity network and the state government’s renewable energy policies.

At the height of these price spikes, an Adelaide-based solar industry leader pulled out his phone during dinner at a regional development forum in Port Pirie to show me the app he uses to monitor real-time prices in the National Electricity Market, the wholesale market that covers every state except WA and the NT and accounts for roughly 90 per cent of the electricity consumed in Australia.

South Australia was an alarming shade of red on the colour-coded map, in stark contrast to the green-shaded eastern seaboard. My friend said he was rarely shocked by the app, noting that South Australia has the highest power prices in the nation. Just a few weeks earlier, the wholesale price had briefly hit $9,000 per megawatt hour, about a hundred and fifty times the yearly average, on one of the coldest winter nights of the year. It was a perfect storm of the factors that contribute to high power prices in South Australia. The state is a world leader in renewable energy, with 40 per cent of its power coming from wind and solar. When these are not generating power, the network relies on a fleet of expensive gas generators supplemented by an interconnector link with Victoria, which was offline for several months for upgrades.

The keynote address at the Port Pirie forum was delivered by Greg Hunt, former federal environment minister. He delivered a brief, folksy narrative detailing his links to Hastings, a steel-producing region in Victoria, before resuming his monomaniacal quest to enshrine the death of the carbon tax as a victory for the environment. He painted a picture of an electricity network in chaos and described South Australia as ‘the test case for everything we warned about’, to a chilly reception from the assembled renewable energy specialists in the room.

In September 2016, Hunt’s ‘canary in the coalmine’ mentality resurfaced when a once-in-fifty-year storm caused a statewide blackout. South Australia was still in darkness when renewable critics – Nick Xenophon, Barnaby Joyce and Malcolm Turnbull among them – began blaming wind power, despite the electricity market operator reporting the storm had damaged twenty-two transmission towers and severed the network in two.

Such attacks on the state’s energy policy have become commonplace. Although various commentators have pointed out that the market dominance of gas generators and the high price of gas, the lack of competition in the privatised electricity network and the regulation of the National Electricity Market all contribute to high power prices in South Australia, the vast swell of noise about the issue has been directed at renewables.

Repower’s Lisa Lumsden says she has learned from similar episodes in the past that the sniping of ideologues is correlated with subdued activity for the campaign.

‘It really had an absolutely direct effect on the amount of interest we were getting,’ she says. ‘A lot of international interest is taken in Australia and the big companies are listening to every word the politicians say, and if it doesn’t sound like there is a supportive leadership they go elsewhere, where there is.’

It’s not just big companies that are paying attention to the attacks on renewables; Repower’s grassroots supporters are listening too. One of the effects of the blackout was to give weight to the experts who have claimed the falling cost of solar panels and home-battery storage means the future is in a decentralised power network with less reliance on the grid – a direct challenge to the idea of large-scale power projects like solar thermal. All of this has lead to Repower’s base becoming restless about the future of the campaign.

‘People are asking, rightly enough, “Well, we’ve done quite a few of these petitions, when is something going to happen?”’ says Repower chairman Gary Rowbottom, who joined the campaign after a seventeen-year career at the coal plant.

They at least have a new target during these trying times. Letterbox drops, sixty-second TV spots and a billboard in Adelaide have all been deployed to win the ‘contest between clean solar thermal and gas’ for the contract to supply three-quarters of the state government’s energy needs. Repower wants this to be allocated to a solar-thermal project, believing this would ‘get this campaign over the line’. Instead, the state allowed the owners of the mothballed Pelican Point gas generator to also tender for the contract.

The government’s decision is being billed as a ‘make or break’ moment that could set the Repower campaign back at least three or four years.

‘It would be a massive blow economically. All the jobs and the skills we have here would end up moving out of town or be lost,’ says Lumsden. ‘The community is in dire straits and we need a future.’

WITH ALL OF this anxiety over solar-thermal investment in Port Augusta, there’s a certain irony that a 40-megawatt solar tower already dominates the skyline on the drive into town. Rather than producing electrons for the grid, the Sundrop Farms tower is being used to grow millions of tonnes of hydroponic tomatoes in the desert using only seawater and solar energy. This is probably one of the most advanced farming operations in the world, producing 40 per cent of the truss tomatoes supplied to Coles (about 15 per cent of Australia’s tomatoes) from a twenty-hectare greenhouse sitting in the arid saltpans on the outskirts of town.

The Repower website mentions Sundrop, but its homepage also states that Port Augusta is a ‘town at a crossroads’. The statement refers to the choice between coal and renewables, but also alludes to another transition that has so far gone largely unremarked. Port Augusta’s location – where the national highways from Perth to Sydney and Darwin to Adelaide cross – and its role as a service centre for remote communities in central Australia have contributed to the town becoming a regional hub for Aboriginal people from around the country. Thirty-six nations are represented here at any given time. A 2012 study by the Australian National University noted the Aboriginal population has increased from 5 per cent of the total population to 20 per cent in just a few decades, so that Port Augusta now has the highest Indigenous presence of any regional centre in Australia other than Broome and Alice Springs. It is an example of the demographic shift taking place in many inland towns, driven by a ‘dual dynamic’ where the movement of Aboriginal people into urban centres is combined with the out-migration and ageing of the non-Indigenous residents.

According to the ANU study, current trends would result in the Indigenous population increasing a further 38 per cent by 2031. The authors considered the need for different jobs, policy responses and the possibility of a ‘demographic dividend’ as the relatively younger Aboriginal population goes through the same ageing processes as the rest of Australia. All of this is to say that if the identity of Port Augusta is being remade, then clearly Aboriginal people – a prominent and rising share of the city’s population – will play an important role in its post--coal future.

It remains to be seen whether this is on their terms. A separate ANU report, produced following a community dialogue event in 2010, outlined the ongoing marginalisation of Aboriginal people from local politics and the community. It alludes to the construction of identity, one where Aboriginal heritage and culture ‘have yet to be celebrated and highlighted in the image and nature of the town’.

Maybe the civic sense of self is just like the individual one, in that it ignores uncomfortable realities and outside perspectives to maintain a sense of purpose and cohesion. It relies on a kind of blindness – to alternate histories, to the notion that having your identity located in a coal stack is to align yourself with the death of the world.

‘You know the way I see it, the community for sixty years exchanged their health – particularly for the first forty years when it was absolutely filthy – for economic security,’ says Lumsden. ‘I think it was a “hallelujah” moment for me, really, to learn that we didn’t have to live with coal any more but could still transform our community.’

There was a time here when three quarters of the male workforce were employed in government agencies (a greater proportion than in Canberra at the time) and thousands of people worked in the Commonwealth Railways workshop, which was later shut down at the expense of a fifth of all jobs in town. With this in mind, what does it mean to say that Port Augusta’s future is at stake if it is no longer a power-generating town? Regional development researchers bemoan the tendency for regional towns to place all their efforts into attracting ‘white elephants’ – the grand and risky projects that will supposedly save the town and its future. Instead, they say regions can grow, can be successful, by relying on diverse jobs and small improvements that make a place liveable. This is not an argument against building a solar-thermal plant, just to say that identity can occasionally be a distraction. A limiting of possibilities.

When the coal stack came down at Playford A, the first of the three power station chimneys to fall, people hooted and hollered, clapped and cheered, saying ‘there she goes’. SolarReserve visited town shortly after for a public meeting to outline their grand schemes for six towers of 660-megawatt total capacity that would support twenty-four thousand jobs during construction. ‘I really hope if it’s built that they name the tower after Joy,’ says Mark Ogge, reflecting on his years with Repower.

Just a few weeks later, Sundrop officially opened its facility, holding a ceremony to celebrate the first trucks laden with tomatoes rolling out to Coles supermarkets around Australia. Some people were already saying the farm’s solar tower had replaced the old coal chimney in their hearts.

Get the latest essay, memoir, reportage, fiction, poetry and more.

Subscribe to Griffith Review or purchase single editions here.

Griffith Review