South Australia’s Fork in the Road

In late 2013, General Motors sent shock waves Down Under by announcing the closure of its last remaining Australian factory. For over 60 years, GM had built cars for the Australian market. That was all about to end.

The news reverberated through the dozens of blue collar manufacturers that surround the GM-owned factory in the economically fragile northern suburbs of Adelaide, the capital of the state of South Australia. Companies like Precision Components, which had built its business on supplying car parts, were facing the loss of 70% of their work.

What happened next is fascinating. Fourteen months ago, Precision started producing heliostats: computer-controlled mirrors that track the sun and enable its power to be harnessed and directed towards specially-designed towers. The concentrated sunlight is then used to create super-heated steam, which drives a turbine for generating renewable electricity.

The factory that once made parts for gas guzzling cars is now building parts for cutting-edge clean energy plants.

How this company is transforming itself is part of a much larger story for my home state. It’s a story of economic shock driving innovation and change, and the potential for revival as traditional manufacturing and extractive industries stagnate.

“The driest state in the driest inhabited continent on Earth”

Perched in the middle bottom of the Australian island, South Australia is surrounded by endless desert and scrubby mallee bush on three sides, with the vast expanse of the Southern Ocean at its southern border; next stop, Antarctica.

Despite its isolation, South Australia didn’t start its colonial life as a British penal outpost as other parts of Australia did. Instead of convicts and guards, the state was first colonized by a private company that took the land from its traditional owners without any treaty or acknowledgement, promoting it to European settlers.

Mining and agriculture dominated the economy for much of the 19th and 20th centuries. Early copper and gold rushes saved the new colony from bankruptcy, creating a lasting folklore of salvation below ground. After the Second World War, the state tried a robust government-led economic path, privatizing the state’s electricity supply and building vast tracks of public housing in order to attract overseas corporations with cheaper energy and labor costs.

For a time, it worked: Chrysler and General Motors built factories and blue-collar manufacturing was strong. But in a pattern deeply familiar to great swaths of North America and Europe, the corporations eventually fled to cheaper places.

A palpable sense of gloom mixed with fear has descended on the state’s government and business community as the old economic rule book splutters with no immediate replacement in sight.

A story of alternatives

Meanwhile, the state’s electricity supply has seen a quite extraordinary transformation. Over just the last 10 years, the percentage of wind and solar has gone from next to nothing to over 40%. On some days it reaches 100%. Well over a quarter of houses have rooftop PV solar, with the figure likely to soar to more than 50% within 5 years. We are a genuine green power world leader.

A combination of great wind and solar resources, supportive government policies, and some clever entrepreneurs has proven that such a high percentage is affordable and reliable. And now credible analysts are saying that South Australia and its 1.4 million people could be powered by 100% non-hydro renewable energy within 15 years.

With some imagination and focus, the state could chart an energy transition road map for the rest of a world that is desperate for some climate good news.

Extractive threats

But the traditional extractive cabal is also clamoring, cajoling, and seducing its way around the state, pushing its case that the path to the future is more of the past.

In the Southeast part of the state, fracking companies are eyeing the rich terroir of one of the world’s most famous red wine regions, the Coonawarra. While farming communities on the east coast of Australia have been battling coal and coal seam gas for years, South Australia has been spared so far.

Off the state’s Southwestern waters lies the Great Australian Bight—a place of unparalleled natural beauty boasting the longest line of sea cliffs in the world. Along with an amazing array of largely unexplored marine life—85% of the species in the deep waters are found nowhere else in the world—the head of the Bight is one of the world’s largest and most important whale breeding grounds, with endangered southern right whales making a yearly migration from Antarctica to give birth.

Now BP, Chevron and others are demanding access for oil exploration, in waters rougher and deeper than the Gulf of Mexico.

There’s even a push to accept the world’s nuclear waste. Earlier this year, the state government announced a special investigation, a Royal Commission, into expanding its nuclear activities—including the possibility of offering Aboriginal country in the north of the state as a toxic waste dump.

A fork in the road

The thing is, none of these projects have actually happened. So far, there is no fracking in the Coonawarra, BP and Chevron have yet to obtain the necessary approvals to drill in the Bight, and there is no nuclear waste dump.

That’s why South Australia is such a fascinating case study: there is a real choice to be made. We are at a fork in the road, staring at two very different paths ahead of us. And there is a genuinely exciting alternative story bursting to life.

We have a rich history of social innovation to draw upon. We were the first place in the world where women could stand for Parliament and to ban marital rape, and one of the first to introduce universal suffrage; our land title system—which revolutionized the traditional method of recording land ownership, reducing neighbor disputes and simplifying processes, has been adopted worldwide.

Instead of going nuclear or hauling up more polluting carbon from deep underground, South Australia could deliberately choose to be a renewable energy incubator for the world.

As our level of sun-rich power increases so does our responsibility to ensure it’s safe, reliable and the benefits are shared by all.

Seizing the moment

Things are happening very quickly. The state’s largest coal fired power station is scheduled to close within months, and the local Port Augusta community is pushing strongly to replace it with a new solar thermal plant.

IMG_4432_Group-shot-with-Tom-Koutsantonis

Meanwhile the story of Precision Components points to a renewables-driven buildout of the next generation of energy and transport infrastructure. The circle would be complete if the heliostats used to concentrate the sun’s power into energy at Port Augusta were manufactured right here in South Australia.

Our biggest obstacle is imagination.

In a state of fear, it’s hard to imagine a different economic story than the one that has been constantly told and retold for decades.

But with rapid change comes opportunity; the key is ensuring that critical decisions about our energy future are made by the people of South Australia, not in the boardrooms of BHP Billiton or BP.

A better path beckons, if we choose to take it.