Associate Professor Melissa Nursey-Bray
Convenor, Adaptation, Community, Environment (ACE) Research Group
Department of Geography, Environment and Population, University of Adelaide
South Australia has had a bumpy ride on the road to regional development recently. The State entered 2017 facing the prospect of layoffs of over 25,000 people from the closure of Holden and the potential closure of the local steel industry. Additionally, between 1984 and 2014 around 80,447 people left the State – a trend that continues with roughly 20 – 30,000 people departing annually. The 2017 Australian Bureau of Statistics figures show South Australia’s population growth well below the national average, with only the Northern Territory lower. Regionally, population growth has been focussed in and around the Adelaide metropolitan area and our age structure highlights a much lower share of 15 – 24 year olds so the structure rather than the ageing of the population will be critical to economic growth in the future. Specifically, more incentives and opportunities to build skills are needed to encourage young people to stay in the State, and particularly in the regions. Employment and migration remain serious issues for regional South Australia, yet it is the question of energy that grabs headlines: the closure of coal fired power station and the hit to employment for regional Port Augusta added grist to the political mills. Yet energy may also provide some solutions.
South Australia, like all places across Australia is subject to the impacts of climate change, it will get hotter and drier yet more temperamental in relation to rainfall. These impacts will have multiple health and other related effects for the regions. However, South Australia was the first Australian State to legislate for a specific target to reduce greenhouse emissions with the Climate Change and Greenhouse Emissions Reduction Act 2007 and in 2009 committed to a target of 33% of South Australia’s electricity generation from renewables by 2020. In late 2014 South Australia actually exceeded this target and generated 39% of its electricity from renewable energy and set a further target of achieving 50% by 2025. The South Australian Climate Change Strategy 2015 – 2050 Towards a Low Carbon Economy, also sets an ambitious target of net zero emissions by 2050. All these initiatives took a hit with the State wide power cut in September 2016 and which caused political mayhem to the reputation of renewables and South Australia overall.
However, in a canny move, the state government developed an AUD$550 million energy plan, and asked for expressions of interest to build and operate a big battery. Consequently it has supported “the world’s biggest” lithium ion battery, to be built by Tesla and French company Neoen. Connected to Hornsdale Wind Farm near Jamestown in the state’s north, the array of lithium ion batteries will be capable of an output of 100 megawatts (MW) of power at a time and the huge battery will be able to store 129 megawatt hours (MWh) of energy. Under the deal, the South Australian Government has the right to use the battery to help prevent last year’s load-shedding blackouts which, leading into a State election in March, the current Premier of South Australia Jay Weatherill is keen to avoid this coming summer. To date, the battery is half built and seems set to be finished within the 100 days as promised and Weatherill notes: “There were lots of people that were making jokes about South Australia and making fun of our leadership in renewable energy. Well today they’re laughing out of the other side of their face”.
A solar thermal power plant to be built in Port Augusta also vaunted as ‘the world’s biggest’ similarly promises regional advantages and the promise of revitalisation. The Port Augusta solar thermal power plant will potentially supply all state government power needs, create 650 construction jobs and 50 ongoing positions. The 150 megawatt plant, due to be operational by 2020, will dispatch energy to the grid even when the sun is not shining. As Gary Rowbottom, a former coal-fired power station worker and chairperson of Repower Port Augusta noted: “Building solar thermal with storage in Port Augusta will create new jobs, on-demand solar power, reduce emissions and put downward pressure on power bills.” Further, businessman Sanjeev Gupta, already a major player in South Australia’s energy market has purchased the Whyalla steelworks via his company Liberty House, and a controlling stake in renewable firm Zen Energy and approved AUD$700 million for solar, battery storage and pumped hydro.
So, despite starting the year in the doldrums, regional communities in South Australia now face some exciting opportunities to grow, rejuvenate and make a significant contribution both to their own communities and to the State as a whole.