Will Port Augusta Point the Way to the Future of Solar Power?

This week’s column will take you into the realms of fantasy (if you’re a talk radio shock jock or anti-renewable pollie). Yes folks we’re treading into the dangerous territory of the concept of solar energy as baseload electricity.

For years one of the constant carping criticisms aimed at renewable energy in this country has been that it won’t provide baseload power resource in the same way as good ole fossil fuel-derived power. The argument goes that when the sun stops shining, or the wind stops blowing, renewable energy cannot deliver.

While the criticism may well have been a smokescreen thrown up to keep high polluting coal plants in operation, the point is valid: how can you rely on a source of energy if the power it creates cannot be stored?

Obviously storage is a vital factor and this is where we bring in an unlikely source — the Playford and Northern power stations in Port Augusta, South Australia. The Playford coal-powered station is considered to be the most polluting of its type in the country and one of those targeted under the government’s carbon pricing policy. Efficiencies forced on power stations such as Playford should make them almost unviable and the plant’s owners Alinta Energy have confirmed that they have tendered under the government’s “Contract for Closure” program.

However rather than be de-commissioned or converted to a slightly less polluting power source such as gas, a radical plan have been suggested from the not-for-profit organisation Beyond Zero Emissions. If implemented, this will see the Port Augusta plant turned into a concentrated solar power station similar to the Gema solar plant recently opened in Spain.

Here’s where the baseload solar power comes in as the plant in Spain has the ability to store heat from concentrated reflectors in a molten saline solution. Gemasolar made history when it opened earlier this year by becoming the first thermosolar power plant in the world to supply uninterrupted power for a 24-hour period.

A series of mirrors reflect sunlight onto a tower containing the fluid which heats to a level of 500 degrees C before cooling to 300 degrees C as the energy is released. The steam is stored to produce steam to drive generators.

According to Beyond Zero Emissions Strategic Director Mark Ogge, interviewed on the ABC’s Stateline South Australia program, the technology allows for the ability to generate energy whenever it is required.

“It is able to store [the] energy as heat…it’s essentially baseload or dispatchable power. You can’t get that with wind or solar PV because they’re variable,” he said.

Beyond Zero’s aim to replace the Playford fossil fuel-powered site with this new technology is in line with their plan to develop models for a renewable energy future in Australia. Crucially the model has received support from the owners of the plant as well as Joy Baluch, mayor of Port Augusta, who has praised the plan as visionary.

A 2009 joint study carried out by Greenpeace International, the European Solar Thermal Electricity Association and The International Energy Agency found that solar thermal has the potential to power 25 percent of the world’s energy needs by 2050 (see full report here under publications — Concentrating Solar Power).

Australia, like world solar thermal leaders Spain and the United States, would appear to be very suited to CSP with our wide spaces and abundance of sun. Does Beyond Zero Emissions project appear to be the right answer to de-commissioning the worst of our polluting fossil fuel-powered stations? What do you think of CSP as an alternative for our coal-powered stations?


  1. margaret staunton says

    i don’t know if this is the right place to make this comment. I don’t know why the electricty companies don’t put solar on all roofs to collect electricy, charge us less and then they would not have to use so much fossil fuel and so save carbon, i don’t know if this makes sense.

    • Finn Peacock says

      Hi Maggie,

      Thanks for the comment. If the price of PV continues to fall at the current rate then it is not beyond the realms of possibility that electricity companies will be jostling to rent your roof space so they can install their own solar panels and then sell the electricity back yo you and your neighbours!


      • The worst thing about governments is that people KEEP on electing the bloody things to rule over them, and pay taxes to feed them.

  2. For all the tech-type advances, the storage of power sill always be a bugbear.
    I still reckon Oz has the natural resources to produce hydro-power 24/7, which can be regulated to suit the need at any given time.
    Between tidal rips and larger river-systems ~ and exploiting the water resource in Tasmania, we could produce more than enough power for our needs and have enough left over to make it worthwhile to export.
    eg. The Murray-Darling system alone provides a head of over 2000 metres over a length of over 4000km.
    Try working out how many dams (or part-dams) could be built to produce electricity, using the same water over and over again.
    Mind you, it’d undermine the solar industry like termites in a house built of pine…….and we can’t have that, can we?!

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