Townsville in the driver’s seat for renewable energy

The scramble is on among regional cities to harness the prospects – and government subsidies – of renewable energy.

Townsville in North Queensland is laying claim to the title of “Australia’s home of renewable energy” boasting a growing and varied list of renewable energy projects, and a population it says has embraced household solar.

“If you fly over Townsville, there is so much solar,” Solar Citizens campaigner Stephanie Gray says.

“There are two big solar farms, and the Townsville zinc refinery Sun Metals solar farm produces about one-third of the company’s needs.

“But what’s really exciting is how community ownership has shifted in the last couple of years.”

Last year, Solar Citizens commissioned a survey of 610 Townsville residents. The polling revealed 85 percent of residents supported the Townsville region becoming a hub for renewable-powered industry and manufacturing.

The survey also found 55 percent of respondents agreed new clean energy industries, such as those producing renewable hydrogen, would be major employers across regional Queensland by 2030.

Townsville’s renewable energy potential is not lost on economic development body Townsville Enterprise.

Claudia brumme-smith
Townsville Enterprise CEO Claudia Brumme-Smith

“Study after study identifies Townsville North Queensland as the home of renewable energy with the best solar and wind resources in Australia,” Townsville Enterprise CEO Claudia Brumme-Smith says.

“Townsville North Queensland has the potential to lead the nation’s green energy revolution.

“Our credentials in hydrogen, critical minerals and battery production will enable us to be a major contender domestically and internationally – but not without government support.”

The Queensland Government recognised Townsville’s value in the Enabling Queensland’s Hydrogen Production and Export Opportunities report released in October 2022, noting the region’s potential to produce 1.15 million tonnes per annum of hydrogen with 24.3 gigawatts of renewable energy capacity.

But this interest in Townsville as a renewable energy power is not new.

The federal government included Townsville as one of seven “Solar Cities” under its Solar Cities Program in 2006. The program trialled options for homes and businesses to save money and energy.

Townsville Mayor, Jenny Hill, said at the conclusion of the project in 2013 it had proven an “exciting journey”.

“In the last four years, our CBD has gone from barely demonstrating one new idea in sustainability, to the recognition that good design existed in Townsville 30 years ago in our city centre – we even had ‘green walls’. We only needed a renaissance in thinking,” Cr Hill said in the final report.

“Looking around the city today and experiencing the change is remarkable. Innovative and smart technologies abound from solar panels to sensor networks. Townsville is now recognised as a world leader in implementing collaborative sustainability projects in an emerging business model.”

Fast forward nine years and there is a long list of proposed renewable energy projects and studies for the region.

Among them are:

  • The Lansdown Eco-Industrial Precinct – the infrastructure masterplan for this manufacturing precinct was endorsed by Townsville City Council this year. Council has secured $16 million in funding with another $12 million in the pipeline.
  • The Hells Gates Pumped Storage Hydro Scheme – the project could generate up to 808 megawatts for North Queensland. To be located 120 kilometres north of Charters Towers. This is at feasibility stage.
  • Edify Energy’s hydrogen project – Townsville City Council has approved the first development application in the Lansdown Eco-Industrial Precinct. Edify Energy proposes to build and operate a renewable hydrogen production facility as well as a behind-the-meter solar photovoltaic and battery storage facility at the precinct.
  • Hydrogen export – A memorandum of understanding has been signed between Edify Energy and the Port of Townsville to explore exporting hydrogen at the port. It includes plans for up to 1 gigawatt for future export of up to 45,000-150,000 tonnes per year of hydrogen.
  • Sun Metals Hydrogen Queensland SunHQ Project – construction of a renewable hydrogen facility at the Sun Metals refinery.
  • Origin hydrogen export project – Origin is working with Kawasaki Heavy Industries on a 300 megawatts project to produce 36,500 tonnes per annum of green liquid hydrogen using renewable energy and sustainable water.
  • Ark Energy renewable hydrogen plant – project includes refuelling equipment to service five hydrogen fuel cell electric prime movers.
  • Haughton solar farm – 60 kilometres south-east of Townsville and will have an installed capacity of 500 megawatts.
  • Among projects already operating are: the Ross River Solar Farm producing 300,000 megawatt hours of energy a year; the Sun Metals Solar Farm with a potential peak output of up to 143 megawatt alternating current.

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Claudia Brumme-Smith says close to $50 billion in renewable energy project investment has been identified for the region over the next 20 years.

“We have more than 35,000 megawatts of wind and solar resource to be harnessed above ground and more than $700 billion of identified reserves of copper and critical minerals needed for advanced manufacturing and clean energy under it,” she says.

“For the Prime Minister’s ambition for Australia to be a renewable energy superpower, he can rely on the North.

“While the NSW Government has recognised the importance of new transmission infrastructure, the investment in transmission infrastructure in North West can connect more renewable energy and connect it sooner.”

The renewable push has also been welcomed by the North Queensland Conservation Council.

Council co-ordinator Crystal Falknau says it is critical to transition from fossil fuel dependence to mitigate climate change, but there is reason to be cautious.

“We have concerns about the potential environmental impacts of this transition, and are calling on government to ensure that all developments (including mining, renewable energy production, energy transmission, manufacturing) are held to the highest environmental and social standards,” Falknau says.

“We don’t want to see new mining and energy industries repeating the patterns of the past.”

She says while mining of new minerals for clean energy is likely to take place, it will need to be innovative to minimise impacts, and must comply with the “highest environmental standards”. Recycling of the minerals is also critical, Falknau says.

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Brumme-Smith is calling on the federal government to make good on pre-election promises and allocate funding for projects such as the Hells Gates Pumped Storage Hydro Scheme and CopperString 2.0, a 1000 kilometre high-voltage network line connecting Mt Isa, Cloncurry, and the North West Minerals Province to the national grid.

Solar Citizens’ Stephanie Gray agrees strong support is needed from government.

“The Townsville region is well-placed to become Australia’s first renewable energy-powered manufacturing and minerals processing hub, which is why we’d like to see the state and federal governments commit to do a planning study looking deeper at the region’s renewable hydrogen and manufacturing potential,” Gray says.

“To unlock Townsville’s exciting clean economy and jobs potential we need all levels of government to work together to develop a comprehensive manufacturing plan for the region to best meet the emerging infrastructure and labour training needs.”

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