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SA's coal era ends, but what's next?

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The coal era has ended in South Australia this morning with the closure of Alinta’s Northern power station in Port Augusta as debate rages over the state of SA’s energy supply and jobs prospects for the town.

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Port Augusta’s largest employer, Alinta Energy, shut off the Northern Power Station at about 9:30 this morning.

According to Alinta, 139 employees will leave the plant in a “staged departure” over the next fortnight while the site is secured.

Australian Services Union State Secretary Joseph Scales told InDaily today was particularly sad and difficult for employees who had worked at the plant for decades.

He said there were a number of multi-generational members of individual families that were losing their jobs today.

“It’s not easy for them to walk away from something that has been such a big part of their lives,” said Scales.

“It’s a really tough day for the workers and their families.”

While he praised Alinta for agreeing to fund financial and careers advice, extra training for employees that were to lose their jobs and generous redundancy packages, he said the company could have been more sensitive to the needs of its longest serving employees.

Alinta Energy CEO Jeff Dimery said: “There is no doubt that today is a sad day for our people, with the cessation of generation signalling the end of an important and proud era for Alinta Energy”.

“When we announced the closure, we made a commitment that our people would remain our number one priority throughout this transition.

“… Alinta Energy committed over $3.5 million in funding to provide a suite of transitional support services to our people, in addition to the $75 million of redundancy benefits and entitlement packages.”

A spokesperson for Alinta said that the closure would have “no impact” on the supply of electricity to residential and business customers in South Australia.

But Opposition Leader Steven Marshall warned that SA electricity prices were only going in one direction, blaming State Government “mismanagement”.

“Every single independent forecaster of energy prices in South Australia … says the prices are going to go through the roof,” Marshall told 891 ABC radio.

“We’re heading for extraordinarily high electricity prices here in South Australia and for one reason only, because of this Government’s mismanagement of the energy strategy for South Australia”.

Treasurer Tom Koutsantonis said it was a “sad day” but the Port Augusta plant was based on outdated technology.

“It is a sad day for our state to see such an important investment close but it’s an old coal-fired power generator that was past its day and unfortunately for whatever reason no one is going to reinvest in a coal fire generated power station, no one’s going to upgrade the plant, it’s old technology …”

He said cheap renewable energy had made Port Augusta’s coal-fired power station unprofitable, but it was the privatisation of the electricity supply under the last Liberal Government that had caused South Australia’s high energy prices.

“Cheap power … [is] the reason why coal-fired generation can’t work in this state,” said Koutsantonis.

“Green power can come on to the grid and sometimes at negative prices.”

He said he wasn’t concerned about baseload power in South Australia, with the Victorian interconnect providing capacity that “far exceeds” what the Port Augusta power station could provide.

Employment Minister Minister Kyam Maher told reporters this morning that there were good jobs prospects in Port Augusta in clean energy generation.

“We are seeing movement from this old technology to what the future might look like,” he said.

He said the Government had spent $6 million aiding the transition of Port Augusta from “old technologies to new technologies”.

“We have Sundrop Farms with 23,850 reflective mirrors [that reflect] the sun to a 15 metre high solar thermal collection tower to power 20 hectares of greenhouses to grow tomatoes,” he said.

“This will provide up to 150 jobs.”

Opposition Mineral Resources and Energy spokesperson Dan Van Holst Pellekaan urged the Government to announce its position on a solar thermal plant proposed for Port Augusta – which proponents argue would create up to 1000 temporary and 50 permanent jobs in the city – and other possible job-creation projects such as an “intermodal freight hub” to more efficiently transfer freight between Perth and Sydney, and between Adelaide and Darwin.

Greens SA Senator Robert Simms said the construction of a solar thermal plant in Port Augusta could “create 1000 construction jobs in a region where they are badly needed”.

“It’s critically important that we look at how we can use the skills and experience of these workers and create new jobs for the region.”

Independent Senator Nick Xenophon said he wanted funding from the Commonwealth renewable energy fund ARENA to “kick start” the solar-thermal plant.

“The closure of the Alinta Energy power stations today highlights the urgency of getting this funding,” he said.

“Discussions I’ve had today with Port Augusta Mayor Sam Johnson indicate that a $100 million investment from the Commonwealth will trigger $900 million worth of investment from global renewable energy company SolarReserve. In turn, this will lead to many hundreds of jobs in the construction phase, with a significant flow-on multiplier effect, as well as longer-term jobs in operating the power station.”

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