After many years of lobbying and activism, the fight to get a solar thermal power plant at South Australia’s Port Augusta has been won.
The former coal town will now become home to the world’s largest concentrated solar power (CSP) plant – Solar Reserve’s Aurora development – a 150 megawatt, $650 million power plant that will power all of the state government’s needs (peak load is 125MW), at a levelised price of $75/MWh and no more than $78/MWh.
It will also have eight hours of battery storage so the plant can provide synchronous renewable energy to the grid when needed, which the government said would improve grid security and stability.
Australian National University associate professor Hugh Saddler said the contract price was not much higher than recent wind generation, and at or below that for solar PV – neither of which came with storage.
“It is also well below the estimated cost of any new coal-fired power station in Australia, and well below the spot wholesale price of electricity in the SA market region, which has averaged between $110 and $120 per MWh since March this year,” he said.
The project, due to start construction in 2018 and completed in 2020, will be developed with the help of a $110 million concessional loan from the state government, with the state signing a 20-year contract and providing land for the development 30km from Port Augusta’s centre.
How it works
Solar thermal works by reflecting sunlight off thousands of mirrors (heliostats) onto a central receiver at the top of a tower. The energy is used to heat a molten salt that can then generate steam to drive a turbine. The salt can also be stored to provide eight hours of electricity at full load after sunset.
Premier Jay Weatherill said the plant would help reduce emissions, while driving down costs and increasing grid stability.
“We are supporting this nation-leading renewable energy project because it will deliver more competition into our energy market and put downward pressure on power prices for households and businesses,” he said.
“The Port Augusta story is a stark example of the transition of the South Australian economy, with the closure of a dirty coal fired power station, and now the commissioning of this world-leading renewable energy project.”
He said the project would also generate 700 jobs in the region, with requirements in place to make sure local workers were hired.
Community action groups are overjoyed, with the fight to get solar thermal at Port Augusta going back to at least 2011 with the Repower Port Augusta Alliance.
“This is an incredible people powered victory that the local community, people across SA and the whole country have campaigned for over the last five years,” Solar Citizens national director Claire O’Rourke said.
“Building solar thermal not only creates new jobs in the local community, it sends an inspiring message to Australia that we can have renewable energy, on-demand day and night.”
Doctors for the Environment added that it was also good news for local health.
“Coal had to go for it was a scourge on the health of Port Augustans,” spokesperson Dr David Shearman said.
“The [Port Augusta power station] chimneystack was approximately 3km from the edge of the town of 15,000 people, exposing the people of Port Augusta to a cocktail of noxious gases and particulates.
“The lung cancer rate was nearly double that compared to other towns and the respiratory illness in children was amongst the highest in the state.”
Government support was crucial
Dr Ariel Liebman, deputy director for Monash Energy Materials and Systems Institute at Monash University, said the project probably would not have been economic without significant government support, but that de-risking early stage investment was the role of governments, and it would help bring down costs as industry learnt how to roll out the technology at scale.
University of South Australia Professor of sustainable energy engineering Wasim Saman said storing energy thermally would be substantially more economical than battery storage.
“While this technology is perhaps a decade behind solar PV generation, many future world energy forecasts include a considerable proportion of [CSP] in tomorrow’s energy mix.”
New industries eyed
Dr John Pye, a senior lecturer in the Solar Thermal Group at the Australian National University, said the project would not only help the technology come down the cost curve, it could also help with the establishment of new export industries.
“Beyond CSP for electricity, at ANU we think that CSP will one day be the answer to decarbonising a wide range of industrial heat applications, and maybe even a way for Australia to export higher-value renewably processed metals, instead of raw materials like ore,” he said.