Clouds are never a good look at rallies for renewable energy. Nor is a light but constant drizzle, or the sight of a big, dirty old truck being used for a stage. Climate change activists are used to these minor ironies. They are also used – though not resigned – to continuing government inaction on an issue which enjoys massive public support for change as well as a near-complete scientific consensus.
All of these things – activists, government, a big truck, an energised public and, yes, appalling weather – came together on September 30th in Adelaide’s Rundle Park for a heartening intervention in the fight for more action on that moral challenge.
For two weeks previously, some 80 full-time and 20 part-time walkers had been making the 322 km journey from Port Augusta to Adelaide. The motley group, made up of members from a vast coalition of concerned organisations branded the Repower Port Augusta Alliance, had been rained and hailed on and had their tents uprooted by fierce winds. Their portable toilets had malfunctioned constantly. They had been woken every morning by ‘My Heart Will Go On’ played through a megaphone. My contact on the walk, the Australian Youth Climate Coalition’s Liam Ellis, cut his beard off to raise $1000. And I thought changing my light bulbs showed my fealty to the cause.
In South Australia’s seventh most populous city, the state’s energy future hangs in the balance, poised between gas and solar.
It is an emblematic but surprisingly uncontroversial struggle – the people of Port Augusta want a solar thermal plant, Mayor Joy Baluch wants it, even the owners of the Port’s soon to be shut down coal-fired power stations want it. Tacit approval has been given by South Australia’s Premier Jay Weatherill and his Mineral Resources and Energy Minister Tom Koutsantonis. What has not been forthcoming – what all the blisters and bad songs were for – is a dollar commitment. It won’t take much – Dr. Karl told the rally as it reached Victoria Square in the heart of the city that the amount of solar thermal needed to be built in Port Augusta is less than has already been built in Spain. (I have been told that Germany – not a country much associated with sunlight – derives considerably more of its energy from the sun than we do). He argued, too, perhaps anticipating a familiar objection, that a solar project would create significantly more jobs than a gas one.
This is precisely the kind of thing our politicians want to hear. Jobs. Nothing will get them – and, in turn, us – over the line faster. But it strikes me that the day isn’t really about this, that its significance seems to come out of something else, something that the newspapers will never run because it makes no sense in that world, and cannot be made sense of by politicians who can only promise the effable – cash, jobs, infrastructure.
Liam buys me lunch a few days after the walk, and he tells me about farmers in Mundoora, Snowtown and Wild Horse Plains who opened their barns and paddocks for the walkers to sleep in. He tells me of a woman called Bec, a truck stop owner in the town of Lochiel (pop. 168) who had never served a vegetarian before but at short notice put together a delicious vegan feast for the many herbivores amongst the walking party. He tells me about the walkers themselves, of students, retirees, first-aid volunteers, waiters and lab technicians who travelled from Perth and Brisbane and Hobart to be there, of the youngest walker (5), and the oldest (67). I have heard nothing which persuades me more of the pan-generational will to counter the urgent threat of climate change than these stories.
It is hoped that the construction of a solar thermal plant at Port Augusta will prove a model not just for the state and the nation, but the world. The Repower Port Augusta Alliance talks, as well as walks, big. What happened in those tiny hamlets and weather-beaten truck stops won’t decide the shape or scale of this country’s uptake of renewable energy, but it is a small reflection of a great democratic will, a desire for innovation and negotiation, and a new model of how we should power our communities. If the will for change is overwhelming even in traditional coal heartland like Port Augusta, something remarkable may have been set in motion last Sunday. Let’s hope the rest of Australia does not have long to wait – just, perhaps, to walk.