The NSW far-north coast town of Mullumbimby describes itself as the “biggest little” town in Australia, but it also has another surprising claim to fame: it installed the first community power station in the country, nearly a century ago.
In 1926, local residents were so tired of the repeated delays from the state-owned power utility to electrify the town that they stumped up the then considerable sum of 22,000 pounds to build their own hydro-power station, on the Wilson River.
The 288 kilowatt hydro power plant operated for nearly half a century, and now local community groups want to bring the station back to life, hoping it can play a key role in their push for 100 per cent renewable energy.
Last week, Community Owned Renewable Energy Mullumbimby (COREM) announced that a pre-feasibility study conducted by engineering firm Entura – despite highlighting some key issues such as heritage orders and water rights – had given enough confidence for the group to now seek funds for a full feasibility study.
“We now have a real chance of getting this project up, with the right government support, it is definitely technically possible and there is a great deal of support and interest in the community,” project leader Svea Pitman says.
Pitman told a community meeting last week that it was too early to estimate the potential costs of the project – that will be the subject of the full feasibility study – but it may be that it becomes a hybrid facility.
That means that for part of the year it will be a “run-of-river” hydro facility, but will likely also need a “pumped hydro” element to protect the integrity of the town’s water supply.
Pitman highlighted the numerous regulatory barriers that need to be overcome, particularly the Water Act of 2000.
But if it does get up, it has the potential to provide nearly 70 per cent of the town’s night-time needs. That is a big help as the town looks to source the equivalent of 100 per cent of its consumption through renewables by 2020 – mostly via solar.
The Entura report suggested that the existing 144kW Pelton turbines could be returned to service, powered by excess solar power, including potentially a large scale community solar array, and could provide 401MWh of daytime energy and 833MWh of night-time energy from natural in-flows.
“The pumping scheme would require considerable capital input, as it would require a new reservoir, pump station and pipeline. Low cost of capital or generous subsidies would be required to allow the scheme to be sustainable,” it notes..
The idea appears to have the support of the local National Party MP Ben Franklin, who is also the parliamentary secretary for renewable energy in the state’s Coalition government, and says he will advocate for funding for the study.
Franklin said he was excited by the project, and has already organised visits to the site by energy minister Don Harwin and water minister Niall Blair.
“It takes something pretty special to get a National Party member and and as far as I can see, an anarchist, to get on exactly the same page,” Franklin told the meeting.
“That’s because this issue is not about politics, it shouldn’t be about the partisan divide … this should be about our energy and environmental future which is more important than the da-to-day rubbish and the three word slogans that are thrown around in the political debate.
“How many more of these extreme weather events, that are becoming more and more regular and more and more extreme need to happen before people understand and start acting.
“If a number of leaders won’t take action, then it’s up to us and the community, and individuals.”