ReWired Podcast: Episode 1

A quiet revolution in large scale solar is unfolding across the country. Discover how it is rewiring our electricity grid and transforming local communities.

By: ARENA

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From gold rush to renewable energy hub: Kidston is set to boom again

At its peak, in 1909, Kidston was a thriving and rowdy gold mining township of a few thousand with two hotels, two halls, a school, a police station and the Kidston State Battery which was built to help manage growing demand and is now heritage listed.

George Ryan’s family is fifth generation in the area and his great grandfather owned the hotel at Kidston during the gold rush. Today George runs cattle on two properties that have been in the family for two generations. Like hundreds of others, he worked at the modern gold mine, which operated from 1986 to 2000.

“Although it was fly-in, fly-out, it provided local jobs and many local grazing families benefited from the regular income of a mine job,” George’s wife Miranda says.

When the open cut gold mine eventually closed, most people left the area. Today the town of Kidston sits quietly along a dirt road; only a few houses remain and you would be hard pressed to know it was once the biggest gold producer in Australia.

The Ryan family live in the town and there are a handful of others in the surrounding area including Owen Campbell who is said to have driven the last load of gold out of the Eldridge pit. He and his wife Jenny decided to stay in the area and run a 142 square mile cattle station and tourism accommodation at the former mining camp which they bought in November 2001.

The local community is excited by a unique renewable energy venture about to ramp up in Kidston which is set to create jobs and boost the region’s economy.

You wouldn’t think a disused gold mine would be the ideal candidate for a makeover but that is exactly what is happening at the Kidston site where Australian company Genex Power is building a solar farm alongside a proposed pumped hydro facility.

The Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) is providing $8.9 million towards the $126 million Kidston Solar Project. It is the first phase in the development of the Kidston Renewable Energy Hub which, when complete, will have an output of 145 GWh and be able to power the equivalent of more than 26,000 average Australian houses though the National Electricity Market.

The 50 MW Kidston Solar Project is the first to break ground of six Queensland solar farms to be funded through ARENA’s competitive large-scale solar round. The Queensland developments will deliver 750 jobs; in total the 12 ARENA-funded solar farms will deliver close to 1500 jobs across as well as flow on effects to local businesses and regional economies.

Owen and Jenny’s former mining camp, for example, is getting a significant makeover to house the workforce of up to 90 on site to build the solar farm.

Genex is leasing the Oaks Rush Outback Resort from the Campbell’s, which is some 7 km away from the solar farm site, and will spend $1.8 million refurbishing all the existing facilities including the kitchen, cold rooms, gymnasium, tennis court, water treatment plan and back-up generator.

The original facility had 250 rooms but most of them were dismantled and sold before Owen and Jenny bought the camp. The remaining 16 accommodation units will be refitted and a further 68 ensuited rooms will be added. At the end of the lease, the camp will be returned to Owen and Jenny to run as a modernised tourism facility next to the Kidston Renewable Energy Hub which is expected to be a major attraction in a historic part of north Queensland.

There was a definite buzz in the air at the February sod-turning event to mark the start of construction on the Kidston Solar Project. One of the “local” publicans and owner of tourism operation Cobbold Gorge, Simon Terry, drove more than 100 kilometres to join the festivities and help out driving visitors around the site.

“The mood is buoyant within the Etheridge Shire – the project is great in a number of ways – for many of the little communities where work has come and gone morale has been low so this will certainly be good,” Simon says.

Another local Glynis Ryan, who grew up in the area, watched on with a big smile as the crowd gathered. She said she was looking forward to the project getting underway and the jobs it will bring – her youngest son Luke has put in an application and hopes to work on the solar farm and the pumped hydro project.

“It’ll be great for the area. Unemployment around here is quite high – this is probably the best thing to come along since the closure of the mine,” Glynis says.

While Genex Managing Director Michael Addison said North Queensland locals would be prioritised for employment opportunities, Miranda Ryan explained the benefits to the community also extended beyond that.

“As far as our family is concerned, it will be good to know there may be jobs for our children in the future and for other local families. The camp will also provide a place for local families to go and have a meal of a weekend and a sociable night out as the closest town is Einasleigh, about 100km from us,” Miranda says.

For George Ryan, new infrastructure is just part of the story. The Kidston development means hope for Kidston’s townsfolk that a new prosperity is just around the corner.

“When the Kidston mine closed down a lot of locals were left unemployed here and it left a vacuum,” George says. “This project will throw them a lifeline. There’s going to be modern-skilled jobs that will be available for locals.”

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