The Australian Mining Town that’s Leading the Way in Solar

The small, isolated mining city of Broken Hill in New South Wales has found itself home to one of the most ambitious solar farming projects in the world. Transitioning from having generated nearly $75 billion via mineral mining, the town is taking advantage of the increasing global interest in solar power—and blazing a trail for others to follow.

A Tiny Town Giving Birth to A Larger Industry

The tiny town, 700 miles west of Sydney on the Australian outback, has a population of around 20,000 and has since the 1880s, primarily made its money by being the world’s largest known lead-zinc-silver deposit. Known as “The Silver City,” it is perhaps best known globally for being featured in the 1994 film The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert. However, the continuous mining sapped reserves for decades until now when only two mining companies remain in operation.

Yet the cessation of mining has brought opportunity: AGL Energy and First Solar have combined forces to build a 140-hectare solar farm featuring 678,000 solar panels and sending enough electricity to the national grid to power 17,000 homes a year. This makes the project the largest of its type in the southern hemisphere.

“It’s giving birth to the large-scale solar industry in Australia,” said Adam Mackett, AGL’s project manager, speaking to Bloomberg Business. “Hopefully, from Broken Hill’s point of view, they’ll see this as the start of something bigger.”

“We’ve been so rich underground, we shouldn’t ignore what we have above ground,” said Esther La Rovere, a Broken Hill native and co-owner of the Palace Hotel. “Broken Hill does need to reinvent itself and be part of new technologies and ways of doing things — and we’ve got plenty of sunshine.”

Sunlight: Broken Hill’s Reliable Resource

As minerals have dried up, Australian officials have turned their attention to one as-yet-untapped natural resource: the sun. With wide, flat expanses, Australia gets more solar radiation per square meter than any other continent, making it an ideal match for the reliability and durability of solar paneling.

“Two things we have plenty of are sunlight and wide-open spaces,” said Broken Hill Mayor Wincun Cuy. “If we can become the capital in Australia for solar, that would be pretty impressive.”

Government Grants

The project has been boosted by a variety of government grants, including $232 million in grants from the New South Wales state and federal governments. The Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) and the Clean Energy Finance Corporation (CEFC) are currently working together to offer grants to get Australian-based solar projects up and running.

This mirrors a global and domestic increased interest in government-funded investments in research and implementation of solar initiatives.

“Projects seeking funding from ARENA and debt finance from the CEFC will benefit from our organisations working together during each stage of the application process,” remarked ARENA chief executive Ivor Frischknecht to the Sydney Morning Herald. “To minimise transaction and due diligence time and costs.”

CEFC executive director calls the next five years in solar development “absolutely crucial” in bridging the gap between wind farms and other forms of developing renewable energy sources.

Yet with Australia poised to see a 15-fold increase in large-scale solar capacity by 2021, the Broken Hill project could be just one of many farms supporting the growing worldwide initiative to embrace clean, renewable solar energy.

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