A win for health and the environment in Pt Augusta

After a successful eight -year community led campaign, the SA government recently announced that the world’s largest stand-alone concentrated solar thermal (CST) power plant will begin construction in Port Augusta. This will transform a city which was powered by ageing coal fired power stations into a city with a bright future as a renewable energy hub in the 21st century. What’s more, doctors and medical students were a major driving force behind this decision, writes Dr Ingo Weber with AMA vice-president Dr Chris Moy.

Doctors for the Environment Australia (DEA), a voluntary independent medical organisation comprised of doctors and medical students and operating in all states, played a major role in the Repower Port Augusta Campaign which led to this decision.

Skeptics might say: "Shouldn’t these ‘greeny’ doctors be treating patients rather than playing energy politics?" Why should doctors and medical students get involved?

Because it’s about health

The direct health impacts of coal fire power stations on their surrounding communities are well known. Coal burning contributes to four of the five major causes of morbidity and mortality in the west:  Heart Disease, Stroke, Cancer and Lung disease. And communities living near coal fired power stations in the US and Europe have been observed to have double or triple the mortality rates when compared to communities elsewhere.

In addition, coal burning is accepted as the single biggest contributor to climate change which has been declared the biggest health threat of our times by the World Health Organisation and other United Nations bodies. 

Evidence of local health effects

Finding local evidence in Port Augusta, where the community lived with two brown coal-fired power stations in its midst for over 40 years, was a critical but difficult task. However, the lung cancer rate was found to be nearly double that of other communities (2005 -2007) while a small but well-designed study from 1993 revealed that pre-school children suffered the highest incidence of asthma, dry cough and hay fever in the state and the second highest incidence of wheeze and head colds. 

DEA (SA) also managed to obtain air pollution monitoring data and, after expert analysis, was able to conclude that not only was monitoring itself inadequate, but small particulate matter pollution limits were exceeded significantly for every year until 2010.

Taking action 

Doctors and students took action by speaking to local communities, health groups and politicians as well as to the people running and working in the coal fired powers stations. 

This was not always easy.

Understandably, there was sometimes a hostile reception from locals who felt their livelihood or employment was being put at risk by interfering outsiders.

 The approach had to take into account the importance of jobs for the local community. Employment is a critical factor in the health and well-being of individuals and the community, but also an essential consideration in being able to win their hearts and minds. 

Therefore it was important that the message about the future of Port Augusta changed from one only offering a loss of jobs (because the coal powered stations were ageing and needed to close) to one of a transitioning of jobs into renewable energy industries. Concentrated Solar Thermal (a field full of mirrors focusing the sunlight creating heat that can drive steam turbines) was an ideal proposal in this situation. Not only is the cost of this form of electricity generation now cheaper than coal (and far cheaper than gas), it would create more permanent jobs than under any fossil fuel driven technology: 650 jobs are projected to be created during the building of this one plant, with at least 60 being permanent. 

Finally it was recognized that the support of the wider medical community was required for this campaign for transition. AMA(SA) provided important backing to the work of DEA, based on the direct health benefits such a transition to renewable energies would bring.

With these compelling arguments regarding health, jobs and electricity costs in hand, the DEA was invited to present at a special parliamentary enquiry into solar thermal technology in 2013. 

Success after 8 years

Despite the strong case put to the special parliamentary enquiry, it took another three years before the decision was made by our politicians to build the largest single stand-alone CST power plant in the world, here in SA, in 2018.  This success was the result of sustained advocacy, including discussions, which had brought onside local communities, key stakeholders, unions, councils, politicians and the media. 

This campaign was a success, in the end, not because doctors wanted renewable energy, or because of politics. In the end, it was a success because this is what communities wanted. It was indeed the first ever community led campaign in the world leading to the building of such a power station

However, the unwavering support that the DEA received from other medical organisations, especially the AMA (SA),  was critical to this successful campaign to win over communities, politicians and many other key stakeholders. 

Energy politics and doctors

Let’s back to the question put forth earlier in the article: "Shouldn’t these ‘greeny’ doctors be treating patients rather than playing energy politics?"

Hopefully, this local example provides good reasons why doctors should get involved in this area. Firstly, doctors are important in identifying and advocating positively for the things that affect the health of local and wider communities, young and old, for the present and for the future. Secondly, as this example shows, this advocacy in energy politics can make an important difference.

Doctors and students from DEA, with the support of organisations such as AMA(SA), play an important part in informing communities on the issues that affect their health. Climate change and air pollution are some of the biggest ones. Our work has just begun.

The DEA is a voluntary independent membership funded medical organisation. Please join us today: www.dea.org.au 

Dr Ingo Weber was a GP before turning into a full time anaesthetist. Working at the Lyell McEwin Hospital, his interests include public health, obstetric emergencies, regional anaesthesia and pain. He lectures at both medical universities on the health impacts of climate change. He is a long-standing committee member of Doctors for the Environment Australia and led the Concentrated Solar Thermal campaign for Port Augusta from the medical side.

This article was first published in the December 2017 edition of medicSA, AMA(SA)'s magazine.
It is republished here with thanks to AMA(SA) and the authors, Ingo Weber and Chris Moy.

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