Nestled in Spencer’s Gulf in South Australia lies the small town of Port Augusta. Only 2 years ago Port Augusta’s residents’ livelihoods relied on 2 coal-fired power stations. But today, the town is home to Australia’s first solar thermal power plant, the largest of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere.

During a time when the future of our planet’s climate is looking bleak, the story of Port Augusta is comforting. A small town reliant on coal-fired power plants successfully transitioning into renewable energy – it’s a modern day Al Gore fairy tale.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recently reported that Australia needs to phase out coal power by 2050. This news came in a report that essentially stated that without drastic changes our world will undergo irreversible damage resulting from climate change. The Australian Government continues to back the use of coal-fired power plants, with Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack stating “coal mining … and coal-fired power stations do play an important part of our energy mix in Australia and will do so going forward.”

The town of Port Augusta has become an image of hope for a clean energy future and has been touted as the ‘renewable capital of Australia’. But this didn’t happen overnight.

On May 9, 2016 Port Augusta’s last coal-fired power station was turned off after operating for more than sixty years. These power plants burnt brown coal, a substance which creates more pollution than any other fuel. Residents had been campaigning for decades for its closure. Respiratory ailments such as asthma were commonplace in the town, with lung cancer rates at double the expected number.

Residents of Port Augusta rallying for solar thermal energy in 2012. Credit: Joel Dignam

Joy Baluch, the former mayor of Port Augusta, started the campaign for the town’s coal-fired power stations to be replaced with solar energy after her family experienced the effects of air pollution. Her son suffered from severe asthma and her husband, a non-smoker and power plant worker, died of lung cancer 16 years before her. She campaigned for renewable energy throughout her 29-year term as mayor before her death in 2013. Today, her legacy lives on in the form of solar thermal plants under construction in Port Augusta, with plans for more to be built in the future.

When the last power station closed at Port Augusta, 200 people lost their jobs. It’s a small town with a population just shy of 14,000 residents, so it hit the town hard. However, they embraced their options and continued Baluch’s campaign for renewable energy.

“We have incredible geography. We have everything we need to become the renewables capital of the world.” – Lisa Lumsden, Former Chair of Repower Port Augusta

From 2012-2017 the Port Augusta community banded together to rally the South Australian and Federal Government to support a solar thermal power plant. Their hard work paid off; today thirteen renewable energy projects are being built or are under review in Port Augusta.

Members of Repower Port Augusta, a community organisation formed to rally the State and Federal Government for solar thermal power plants. Credit: Repower Australia

Bungala Solar Farm is the first solar power plant to start construction in Port Augusta. It is only half complete and is already the largest solar thermal power plant in the Southern Hemisphere. It currently spans 300 hectares and will measure over 800 hectares when it is finished. It’s expected to be completed in 2020, at which time it will be capable of powering 82,000 homes. No coal needed – just the beautiful South Australian sun.

Construction is about to start on another solar power plant in Port Augusta, the Aurora Solar Power Project. When finished it will be able to store 1,100 megawatt-hours of electricity, which can be dispatched when the sun is not shining and electricity is needed. This is a big deal, as the major limitation of solar power in the past has been the lack of electricity available at night. Electricity storage solves this problem.

“The one great resource we have here in Port Augusta and the upper Spencer Gulf is this wonderful natural resource called the sun, it’s no different to having a massive uranium deposit, a massive gold deposit, a massive copper deposit.” – Sam Johnson, Mayor of Port Augusta.

Bungala Solar Farm is the largest of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere. Credit: Enel Green Power

Port Augusta not only has access to the strong Australian sun making it ideal for solar farms – but also wind and water. The town is coastal, with the power of the ocean ready to be harnessed into electricity. Plans for hydro-electric power plants are on the table. In February of this year the South Australian Government announced grants for a hydro-electric power plant with electricity storage to be built just outside of Port Augusta. The construction of an energy park with both a wind farm and solar farm will also be underway in Port Augusta soon.

“The key to lowering power prices in South Australia is boosting competition and these projects have the potential to dispatch cheap renewable energy when demand is high.” – Tom Koutsantonis, Energy Minister for South Australia

The clean energy revolution in Port Augusta will not only be beneficial for the environment, but also for the resident’s pockets. “In terms of cents per kilowatt hour, we can supply 30 to 40 per cent cheaper than new-build coal,” explains Kevin Smith, Chief Executive of SolarReserve (the company building the Aurora project). Energy Minister for South Australia, Tom Koutsantonis, stated that the South Australia Government is offering grants to renewable energy projects in order to “(boost) competition” between power companies, lowering power prices in South Australia. These projects will also create numerous jobs for South Australian residents. Energy which is cheap, projects which create more jobs and all of it saves the planet? Incredible.

The numerous renewable energy projects occurring in Port Augusta give us hope for a clean energy future in Australia. It’s time we take a leaf out of this town’s book and lobby our own State and Federal Governments for clean, renewable energy and the movement away from the use of coal. Australia has more than 21 coal-fired power stations still running. And that is 21 too many. Renewable energy is the path to a bright future for our planet.