THE end of coal came swiftly for Port Augusta in South Australia, even while politicians pointed to mine approvals stretching out to 2030.
First a coal-fired power station closed in 2012. Then the mine that produced the brown coal that serviced the power station shut in November 2015. Then the area’s second power station announced it was shutting, in May.
While federal politicians were struck dumb for awhile once the penny dropped that coal was finished in Port Augusta in 2016, and not 2030, the community was already five years ahead with a plan for a new Port Augusta based on renewable energy.
It is pushing the federal government for support from the Clean Energy Innovation Fund for a large scale solar thermal plant to create new jobs and on-demand clean energy. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull has indicated it may receive federal backing.
One of the people who pushed for a new Port Augusta, Daniel Spencer of Repower Port Augusta, is in the Lower Hunter from Friday for the third annual Beyond Coal and Gas national conference. Information on the conference and program click here.
The experience of Port Augusta is a warning for Australia in general, but particularly for the Hunter region, Mr Spencer said.
“What do people in the Hunter want to be known for in 20 years – a sound transition from coal or a community facing an emergency?” he said.
The theme of the conference at Myuna Bay Sport and Recreation Centre is Transition is Now. The message is “Communities fighting coal and gas projects and driving the unstoppable momentum to a clean energy future.”
Speakers include American farmer John Fenton, star of the movie Gaslands, whose town now has its drinking water trucked in after the US Environmental Protection Agency found that fracking for shale gas had poisoned the water.
Mr Fenton is touring Australia with a warning about the dangers of fracking, and to provide support for local communities campaigning against coal seam gas.
Queensland woman Helen Bender is a keynote speaker, after the suicide of her father, farmer George Bender, in October after 10 years of fighting against coal seam gas drilling on his land.
Another keynote speaker is Indian campaigner Ramesh Agrawal, who was shot while fighting to stop one of the largest proposed coal mines in his part of the sub-continent.
The conference will also include discussions with leading renewable energy expert Professor Mark Diesendorf, Richard Denniss of The Australia Institute, author and journalist Elizabeth Farrelly, Lock the Gate founder Drew Hutton and Wangan and Jagalingou traditional owner Adrian Burragubba, whose people are fighting the giant Carmichael coal mine in Queensland.
John Hepburn, executive director of The Sunrise Project which is convening the conference, said the coming together of people from around the world from Friday to Monday was part of a global movement of people who accepted the reality of climate change and the need for a change to renewable energy.
“The bubble has burst. It is now accepted that coal is in structural decline and a massive transition is underway, as the world turns to renewables. Meanwhile a social movement continues to defend communities, our natural heritage and the global climate from the impacts of the fossil fuel industry,” Mr Hepburn said.
New polling this week showed for the first time that a majority of people in NSW believe coal mining does more harm than good, with 84 per cent wanting farmland, water and the environment protected from coal and coal seam gas.
“The Beyond Coal and Gas Conference boasts a great lineup of national and international speakers who’ll join with over 350 people from all walks of life, involved in some way with the social movement to phase out fossil fuels and transition to a future powered by renewable energy,” Mr Hepburn said.
Mr Spencer said the sudden collapse of coal in Port Augusta meant there was a significant focus on the area and how communities and governments responded, which also represented opportunity.
Port Augusta Council, business leaders, unions, environmental groups and community groups developed plans for the area to become a renewable energy centre based on a new solar thermal power plant.
Mr Turnbull acknowledged the opportunity the sudden end of coal in Port Augusta represented, by specifically identifying the solar thermal power plant as a possible project that could be supported under the federal Clean Energy Innovation Fund.
Hunter communities needed to consider the region’s future as jobs are lost in the mining industry, multinationals increasingly sell off assets, and dire predictions of mine closures and stranded assets – that were ridiculed only five years ago – seem more likely as the price of coal continues to drop, Mr Spencer said.
“It would be of unbelievable national significance to transition the Hunter from coal to renewable energy,” he said.
“The sad part of the experience in Port Augusta is that if governments had responded quicker to what the community was calling for from 2012, more people would not be forced to leave town because we would have had a plan in place.
“Port Augusta was once part of the iron triangle, an old industry place like Newcastle. It’s now trying to rebrand its image and capitalise the fact that it’s being forced to embrace the new.”