Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Windorah's spot in the sun

Thursday 3/12/2009 Page: 5

A SOLAR farm in the outback town of Windorah is proving to be more than just a saviour for the community's energy supplies it is also a tourist attraction. The five mirrored dishes, each 14m in diameter, at the entrance to the southwest Queensland town will produce 300,000 kW hours of electricity a year and will cut diesel consumption in the town by more than 100,000 litres a year. Windorah is the first town in Australia to make a large-scale attempt to rely on solar energy.

Barcoo Shire Mayor Bruce Scott says the structure is drawing the attention of curious onlookers. "It's quite an attractive entrance for visitors and its certainly created interest in the tourism industry and also with people who have got an interest in cleaner energy," he says. "There hasn't been one person who has said that it looks awful. People find that it's good that we are dipping our toe in the water for renewable energy technologies that we're part of the big picture."

The Queensland government, which has invested $3.5 million in the solar farm (the federal government tipped in $1m) estimates the project will stop about 300 tonnes of greenhouse gases a year being pumped into the atmosphere. It is confident the trial can help revolutionise the way power is produced for remote communities that rely on diesel power stations.

Scott says Windorah is a natural choice for the trial given its climate and the fact that Barcoo Shire, incorporating Windorah, Jundah and Stonehenge, has already embraced alternative energy sources such as geothermal power. "We get quite a lot of sunlight and we've got quite a low average rainfall and our days of sun are quite high," he says. "And Barcoo has had an interest in renewable energies for quite some time."

Project developer Ergon Energy started construction of the solar farm in late 2007 and it officially began operating in October. The electricity giant has drawn on its experience of other eco-friendly initiatives such as a wind generation plant on Thursday Island in far northern Queensland. Gavin Lee, group manager energy conservation and demand management at Ergon, says the biggest difficulty has been ensuring that diesel generators and solar systems interact seamlessly.

The farm's photovoltaic dishes follow the sun from sunrise to sunset. At night, or when there is significant cloud cover, the diesel generators kick back in with the aid of battery power to ensure sufficient capacity to supply the town's energy needs. The ultimate aim is for the town to reply completely on solar energy.

Scott believes the Windorah community can act as an inspiration for other towns or cities eager to embrace renewable energy sources. "People who do act locally and think globally are going to be the key to our state, our country and the world making the step to a cleaner environment and reducing our consumption of fossil fuel."