Renewable history is rich in Australia’s outback

As renewable energy becomes mainstream, young Australians might believe we are just beginning to harvest the sun, wind and water. But our country’s venture into innovative energy goes back more than a century – with most of the breakthroughs taking place in regional Australia.

My own great uncle, Roger Morse, was among the country’s renewable energy pioneers. The CSIRO’s Director of Solar Energy Studies between 1974 and 1978, Morse is known as the man behind solar water heaters, and for leading a world-renowned solar research team.

But before that, Great Uncle Roger (who we knew as a supplier of lollies who lived in a very large house) is credited with building and installing the first domestic solar water heater in Australia, at Meringa Station near Cairns, in 1941.

The Cane Growers Quarterly Bulletin from July 1941 reported it would provide enough hot water for the household for 300 days, with a 1.9m2 collector area and 180 litres storage.

Great Uncle Roger wasn’t the only renewable energy pioneer at work in regional Australia by a long chalk. Australia’s first hydroelectric scheme produced the street lighting for Thargomindah’s streets in outback Queensland in 1893. Thargomindah was the third place in the world – behind Paris and London – to produce hydroelectric power for street lighting.

A bore drilled to a depth of more than 808m produced water at a temperature of 84°C that powered a water turbine coupled to a generator. This operated until 1951, and visitors can still take a tour of the hydro power plant.

Thargomindah edited 1
You can still visit the Thargomindah hydro power plant in Queensland – the third place in the world to power its street lights with hydroelectric power.

About the same time the lights were going on in Thargomindah, enterprising types in WA were solving another problem – not strictly an energy problem – helping the world go round by setting up an early desalination system.

A super-sized condenser converting salt water to fresh water was established at Coolgardie, capable of turning 545,000 litres of salt water into 455,000l (using 100 tonnes of wood) per day.

This was a long way ahead of Australia’s first full-scale desalination plant in Perth, which opened in 2006.

Fast forward to the 1980s, and former pilot David Frederiksen and his friend, American physicist Bob Collins, are building Australia’s first solar pond, starting with Frederiksen’s backyard pool in Alice Springs.

The two then built a 40m x 40m in-ground solar pond that pumped water to a vineyard and powered the property’s home and restaurant.

Geothermal power plant

Frederiksen and Collins applied their knowledge to help build a geothermal power plant at Birdsville in outback Queensland that remained Australia’s only utility-owned-and-operated geothermal power station, until it was decommissioned in 2018.

Also in the 1980s, Australia’s first commercial wind farm opened at Salmon Beach, near Esperance in WA. It included six turbines and operated for 15 years, with a single turbine remaining as a souvenir of Australia’s first foray into wind energy.

The Clean Energy Australia Report 2022 stated Australia’s renewable energy industry accounted for 32.5% of the country’s total electricity generation in 2021. At the end of 2021, 66 large-scale wind and solar projects were under construction or financially committed, an extra 3.3GW in small-scale solar capacity had been added, along with an extra 3GW in large-scale wind and solar capacity.

It’s not hard to believe it was a direction regional Australia saw coming.

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