Future historians will no doubt remember 2020 as the year of Covid-19. But according to veteran climate campaigner Bill McKibben, they may also view it as a turning point, the year the world moved decisively towards “the transition everyone knew we needed to make”.
McKibben told the recent Global Smart Energy Summit 2020 has been a year of “extraordinary convergence”, from the images of Australia’s bushfires, seen around the world on New Year’s Day – “like something out of Hieronymus Bosch” – to unprecedented developments such as China’s commitment to achieve net zero emissions by 2060, the EU’s pledge to make its Green Deal and Є100bn Just Transition Fund the centrepiece of post-Covid recovery, and the US $15tn divested from fossil fuels.
Closer to home, there’s extraordinary convergence between business and state governments on the need to speed up Australia’s energy transition.
Tim Reed, president of the Business Council of Australia, wants a “national, bipartisan commitment to net zero emissions by 2050”. Most states have already made this commitment, and South Australia is leading the pack.
The state’s energy and mining minister, Dan van Holst Pellekaan, says SA will aim for 100% net renewable generation by 2030. Rapidly expanding wind, solar and battery storage capacity in SA’s Upper Spencer Gulf region will play a key role in achieving that aim.
But energy transitions are not just about panels, turbines and targets. They’re processes of social as well as technological change.
The people of Port Augusta, Whyalla and Port Pirie know all about this. The Upper Spencer Gulf has become a social laboratory for Australia’s energy transition.
The gulf once known as the Iron Triangle was a manufacturing powerhouse. Whyalla had the steelworks, Port Pirie the lead smelter and Port Augusta the coal-fired power plants which drove them. But in 2015, Alinta Energy announced it was closing the power plants and the Leigh Creek coalmine. Less than 12 months later, all three had shut.
The closure wasn’t completely unexpected. Local Liz Zyler says she knew the end was coming when her husband, Kym, an electrician who worked at the mine, told her they weren’t buying any more dynamite. “I just realised: coal was finished. They were going to close”.
Like many local people, Liz was angry that Alinta promised the plants wouldn’t close before 2030, and then pulled the plug without warning.
“They pulled that Band-Aid off real quick” says Liz. For a while, she became severely depressed, and recalls fighting with Kym nearly every day.
“Our kids were still at school, and I’d just turned 50”, says Kym. “That’s not a very employable age”.
Many of Kym’s older colleagues took a payout. But he and Liz decided the money wasn’t enough. In the end, he got a government job in Adelaide. He still works as an electrician, but only returns to Port Augusta on weekends.
Liz had seen the writing on the wall years before. “I started to realise gas, oil and coal were on the way out, and we were going to be stuck with a stranded asset”. In 2012, she joined Repower Port Augusta, a grassroots initiative set up by local people to plan for a future after coal. The push for renewables came from the community.
“We had a vote on whether we wanted a gas-fired power station or solar thermal. 4,000 people voted for solar, a quarter of the population of Port Augusta, and that was huge.”
Repower Port Augusta won the backing of then Labor premier, Jay Weatherill, and electricians union the CEPU.
According to Ben Jewell, CEPU SA branch organiser, renewables were seen as “the next big thing that was going to return the jobs that Leigh Creek and the power station had lost”.
But Repower Port Augusta’s bold vision was dealt a body blow in 2019. The planned 150 MW solar thermal plant was scrapped. Despite a $110m federal government loan, Solar Reserve, the company behind the project, announced it could not raise enough bank finance.
Other projects have gone ahead – such as the Bungala Solar Farm, on land owned by the Bungala Aboriginal Corporation. The project promised to create 350 jobs during construction but, according to Ben Jewell, few of those went to locals.
“We went out there and there were 150 guys employed and 140 of them were backpackers” says Jewell. “This should have been an opportunity for Port Augusta to build their skill base, give the locals transferable skills because it was going to be a renewable energy hub. But that just didn’t happen”.
Bungala is just one example of a broad trend our research has identified across renewable energy projects in regional Victoria and NSW: most jobs come in the construction phase, and don’t always go to local workers.
Liz says regions and state governments “need to think smarter about the next generation”. With more pre-planning, she and Kim believe Port Augusta’s transition could have been better handled, with more good quality jobs for locals.
But despite the problems, there’s no doubt a major transformation is happening in the Upper Spencer Gulf.
The 35 turbines of stage 1 of the 126 MW Lincoln Gap windfarm are already operating just outside Port Augusta. Stage 2 (94MW, 24 turbines + 10MW battery storage) is under construction, while the even larger stage 3 is awaiting approval. Other projects, such as the Port Augusta Renewable Energy Park, and Energy Connect, an interconnector that will link the gulf to NSW, should begin construction in 2021.
These developments foster a sense of pride and purpose, a feeling the gulf is leading a much larger transformation which the whole country will undergo over the coming decades. But the gulf also has valuable lessons for other regions facing transition, such as the Hunter Valley: unless local people see jobs and other benefits for their communities, there’s a danger support will falter, and the legitimacy of Australia’s energy transition will be undermined.
• Tom Morton, Climate Justice Research Centre, UTS; research Lisa Lumsden