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South Australia’s remarkable renewables success story
Words and Images by: MEG SOBEY

The massive solar thermal plant already switched on in Spain

Nearly one in four South Australian houses has solar panels installed on their roof, the highest rate of all the states. South Australians may not be the only ones embracing ‘home made’ energy, but they are certainly outshining the rest of the country – and even the world.

Everyone likes a good news story, and South Australia has a remarkable story to tell. It is little known both within and outside its borders that South Australia is a world-leading success in renewable energy.

In the past year wind and solar power combined has risen to 32.1 percent of South Australia’s electricity mix – nearly a third. That is close to the state’s offi cial target of producing 33 percent renewable energy by the year 2020 – and with six years to spare. Reaching 100 percent renewables production in less than a decade could well be within South Australia grasp, according to leading analyst Giles Parkinson of RenewEconomy.

Favourable state and federal government policies up until now have supported South Australia’s fastest growth in renewables in the country. But much of this progress has been driven from the rooftop up. A staggering 168,000 homes in the state now have rooftop solar, with 27,000 putting up panels in the past year. That is a lot of people seeing the light.

After all, renewable energy is real people power. We all have a direct relationship with the sun and the wind. Centralised, corporate-controlled power generation is already struggling to compete with the promise of alternative energy that can be produced on-site for free. It is owning versus renting, and it is obviously making sense to South Australians. They have welcomed the control over their own energy supply and demand and increased independence from the power companies. The advantages of real choice and ensuring their own energy stability, with resilience to shocks and security from future price rises, are much appreciated.

Not to mention reducing their bills. After initial upfront installation payments, the ongoing costs of zero dollars mean  ‘solar citizens’ are ahead financially. Renewables are an investment now for the future, and this investment is delivering exactly what the experts said it would: lowering wholesale energy prices to the wider public. Unfortunately, these real savings are not yet flowing through to households. They continue to pay for expensive ‘gold plating’ upgrades to the traditional electricity grid, which did not predict the remarkable rise of renewables and are now unnecessary.

Wind farm Waterloo - Photo by David Clarke

South Australia’s wide-open spaces are not only sun-drenched; they are also wind-blown. The state has around half the wind turbines in Australia. Combined with the spread of solar panels, this has made for a dramatic change in what power is being produced and consumed.

Back in 2000, South Australia relied on gas, coal and importing electricity from interstate for its energy needs. Fast forward to 2014, and there has been a rapid evolution. Wind power is now meeting 20 percent of power demand, providing more than coal;  meanwhile solar power makes up 10 percent of the mix, creating more electricity than the state has to import.

Despite wind and solar being an enormous change in the energy system, contrary to fear mongering, it has occurred without any disruption or inconvenience to reliable supply. In fact, renewables are significantly reducing overall demand on the network, particularly during peaks and heatwaves. A lot of assumptions and myths have been turned on their head by the real-time experiment occurring in South Australia. The only thing wind and solar energy advances are disruptive to is the status quo of the dominance of traditional, monopolising power companies. With gas prices set to spike, and coal costs becoming prohibitive, fossil fuels are increasingly being pushed out of the market by the competition with renewables. The economics of renewables are so strong it is crazy to insist on continuing to use outdated fossil fuel technologies and systems that were built last century with last century thinking.

Of course a major motivation for adopting renewable energy is the need to stop using fossil fuels to reduce our climate change impact. The trend in South Australia is quite clear that carbon emissions are down by one quarter over the last five years. Renewables are working.

The Repower Port Augusta campaign for SA to be the solar state - Photo by Michael Kubler

Renewable energy has long moved on from any futuristic utopian ideal. The transition to renewables is a reality, and it is happening here and now. It is even being referred to as the third industrial revolution. And South Australia is at the forefront.

In the state’s north, the industrial town of Port Augusta is at a crossroads. On its outskirts two of Australia’s oldest coal-fired power stations, like many others of their kind, are coming to the end of their use-by date. Now is the opportunity to decide on  a replacement, and the Port Augusta community is hoping for it to be the country’s first solar thermal plant with integrated energy storage.

A poll has shown 98 percent of people in Port Augusta want a solar future. In 2012, almost 100 people made the 328 kilometre journey from Port Augusta to Adelaide on foot in the Walk for Solar. It is a powerful call from a community. In response, the South Australian Government established a select inquiry, leading to Alinta Energy, owner of the current coal stations, to undertake a feasibility study for a solar thermal plant.

The Port Augusta community wants to put the old coal station behind them

Port Augusta represents the intersection of the fight for a safe climate and the need to support communities to transition to a clean, sustainable energy future. Particularly a town long dependent on burning coal.

The solar thermal plant construction and operations would create 1800 local jobs, with many of the 1000 workers from the coal stations able to transfer directly across. It is also a chance for a healthier shift for the community away from coal-dust air pollution. Port Augusta has a rate of lung cancer twice the national average, and its children have had higher prevalence of asthma, dry cough and hayfever compared to surrounding areas. Port Augusta could have all these social and economic benefits while also saving five million tonnes of carbon emissions every year.

Sundrop Farms solar greenhouse in the desert - Photo by Sundrop Farms

The technology of solar thermal plants with integrated energy storage is undoubtedly new for Australia, but it is known to work, having been built and proven viable overseas in Spain and California.

Indeed, other countries are making the switch and powering ahead. Many consider now is the time for Australia to take a  similar bold and bright move toward the future. Port Augusta shifting from coal to solar energy production would be an impressive demonstration for the rest of Australia to drastically increase its confidence in renewables.

Local renewable companies are leading the charge. Despite all the solar panels that are being installed in the state, most of the technology is coming from overseas. If Australia is going to lead the way with renewables, it makes sense to be taking control from the bottom to the rooftops. Adelaide-based Tindo Solar and Zen Energy are just a couple of companies to step into a booming industry dominated by international competition; with the aim of major scaling up of local renewables innovation and production.

South Australia has had its fair share of major setbacks to the economy and employment in recent years, with the collapse of historic industries such as automotive manufacturing. The renewables industry has the potential to be the state’s next major profit and jobs boom. There are visions for a new renewables manufacturing industry that would benefit from skills already existing in the state. South Australians are fiercely loyal to local production, and would do well to take ownership and pride in renewables.

While the Repower Port Augusta campaign continues, just up the road there is already a renewable win, and it is nothing short of extraordinary. Towards the arid top of Spencer Gulf, with its lack of fresh water, degraded pasture land and harsh climate, conditions are far from ideal for traditional agriculture. Yet right here, vegetables are being grown from seawater and solar energy. In a world-first, Sundrop Farms built its greenhouse in 2010, using technology the company has developed to responsibly grow food crops in the world’s driest regions using abundant renewable resources. This South Australian start-up is leading the way in sustainable horticulture in a time when climate change and conventional farming practices are putting significant pressure on water and food security in many regions of the world.

On the wind power front, other exciting developments for South Australia include the approval to for the development of  two massive wind farms: the Hornsdale project near Jamestown in the mid north and Ceres Project, on the west’s Yorke Peninsula. The latter would be the largest in the southern hemisphere if built. Together they would power 405,000 homes, roughly 20 per cent of the state’s population. They would also create 800 jobs in construction and operation. Not to mention the combined reduction of emissions of up 3.75 million tonnes every year.

The Australian Energy Market Operator has identified over a dozen other wind power projects that could be built in South Australia before 2020. It also predicts rooftop solar generation in the state will triple in the decade. There is then the potential for ocean wave, hot rock geothermal and biomass energy projects to be further pursued. Energy storage is finally achievable, a critical component of a renewable energy grid, enabling constant power with no need for fossil fuel backup. Breaths are being held as electric cars get closer to commercial scale. A massive change is certainly blowing in.

However, these advances simply would not and could not happen without the national Renewable Energy Target. The RET is designed to reduce carbon pollution from the electricity sector while developing the renewable energy industry. In both endeavours it has been a resounding success.

South Australia has been one of the biggest winners over the last decade, with enormous investment of $5.5 billion in wind and solar infrastructure, particularly in regional areas. Now it could be one of the biggest losers in the federal government’s plans to weaken the RET. A further $4.5 billion investment for South Australia is at risk, all but stalling the building of wind farms and installation of rooftop solar.

The RET ticks all the boxes. It provides investment certainty, critical for economic growth, while creating thousands of jobs. It reduces the costs of living, with modelling showing that by 2020, householders will pay $50 less on their annual electricity bills with the RET and savings will continue to increase. All in all the RET is supporting renewables advancement and cutting down emissions for a very low price.

It makes no sense for the federal government to wind back all this progress. Indeed, with benefits left, right and centre, the only ones to gain from cuts to the RET are the old fossil fuel power companies being sidelined by the upstart renewables. Australia can surely not afford to lose such a cutting-edge and profitable industry at such an early stage of its development. Australians agree, with the majority polled by The Climate Institute supporting the RET.

Food grown from seawater and sunlight - Photo by Sundrop Farms

Renewables have proven to be delivering the beneficial environmental and financial impacts they are intended to do. Jeremy Rifkin, author of The Third Industrial Revolution, told the ABC in an interview for Four Corners: “It’s ridiculous. Australia’s the Saudi Arabia of renewable energy. There’s so much sun, there’s so much wind off the coast, and so it makes absolutely no sense when you have an abundance of renewable energy, [to] rely on a depleting supply of fossil fuels with all of the attendant consequences to society and the planet.”

South Australia could really be a literal ‘superpower’. It is already shining the light on solar and blowing the rest away with wind. The choices made now about renewable energy will have a huge impact on state’s future prosperity. There are great opportunities and large challenges - and it is critical to get it right. Indeed, one day we may well look back to this moment in history to when and where one of the greatest global shifts occurred, and point to South Australia. The renewables revolution is here.

Solar trees at Adelaide Festival Centre - Photo by Ikhwan Zailani

Tags: Solar SA South Australia Communication Wind farm Waterloo Power Electricity Port Augusta Coal
Category: Features
Written: Sat 01 Nov 2014
Printed: November, 2014
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