Remote W.A. pub to sell beer and solar, in community push away from diesel

Image Credit: SVENJA CLARE courtesy of Midwest Solar Power

A rooftop solar array installed across two turn-of-the-century buildings in Meekatharra in Western Australia’s Gascoyne-Murchison region is hoped to form the beginnings of a community energy trading platform for the remote goldfields town.

The project, described as “the result of several years’ hard work and learning curves,” installed PV systems on the roof of the town’s Royal Mail Hotel and the Made in Meeka art and souvenir shop.

The installation was spearheaded by the hotel’s owner, Gitte Heij – who is also a lawyer, and shop owner Anna Johnson, and installed by Rob Hanson of Midwest Solar Power.

The team – which call themselves the Meekatharra Solar Consortium – say the main goal is to take advantage of the town’s large roof spaces, to provide excess solar power to their smaller-roof (and no-roof) neighbours.

“It’s literally power to the people, by the people,” said Dr. Heij. “The first cheque will be framed and displayed at the pub, as a symbol of what we hope to be sharing in the near future with our neighbours when we achieve a community trading platform – our own power company, owned and run by local people for local people.”

On that side of the equation, the organisers say the project has including detailed negotiations with Horizon Power, technical advisors, energy lawyers, and local government.

Happily, Horizon is somewhat of a trail blazer on thinking outside the square on energy supply, having rolled out microgrids to replace poles and wires at far-flung and bush fire-prone parts of the grid.

The state-owned utility has also embraced renewable energy microgrids as an economic strategy, to chip away at monstrous fossil fuel subsidies that guarantee regional customers pay no more than the 26c/kWh charged in Perth.

In Meekatharra, where diesel-fueled generators still produce most of the towns power supply, Horizon last year installed around 450kW of solar capacity alongside the 1.8MW diesel plant, reducing the town’s reliance on diesel by around 20 per cent.

The addition of the rooftop solar, says Johnson, will further reduce Meekatharra’s consumption of the costly and polluting fuel.

“We’re taking ourselves into the future instead of waiting for it to come to us,” Johnson said.

The plan going forward is to add battery storage to the rooftop array, to maximise solar sharing and consumption within the community.

As it happens, Meekatharra is home to the world’s largest undeveloped vanadium resource, so the consortium has been liaising with VSUN Energy, a subsidiary of one of the companies developing the massive rare earths find, Australian Vanadium Limited.

“Having early dialogue with AVL and VSUN means we’re already looking ahead to the add-on potential of vanadium redox flow batteries and other energy innovations,” said Dr. Heij.

Heji said this would provide scalability, as well as “smooth, safe and uninterrupted power flow,” which she described as a ground-breaking add-on for all levels of renewable energy systems.

For the time being, however, the Royal Mail and Made in Meeka will get to work generating electricity to cover their own needs, and feed the excess back to the grid at an agreed payback rate.

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