Friday, July 31, 2015

Silverton: A Ghost Town Lives On

We have driven 25 km out of Broken Hill to the almost abandoned town of Silverton. It is hard to believe that in the late 1880’s Silverton was a bustling mining town with a population of 3,000 people. Today, even the buildings that once used to line these streets are no more—many having been transported to Broken Hill. A small population of about 60 people keeps the town ticking. Broken Hill’s mining boom actually began in Silverton but today, it is the artist’s galleries that draw visitors here. 

An eclectic mix of old world housing, rusted cars and dusty streets is what you see when you first drive up. But step inside some of the galleries and you are drawn into the colourful world of the outback and you begin to understand why artists have chosen to live in what is now almost a ghost town. The beauty of the outback is not apparent right away.  You have to stay here awhile and scratch below the surface to discover it.  Perhaps after you have witnessed a few sunsets that set the big skies alight or slept under the stars and woken up to the most brilliant views of the Milky Way, you may begin to appreciate why so many people have fallen in love with the Australian Outback.

The variable climate and low rainfall has prevented these towns from developing. Yet, as we travel through we feel there is so much more potential in the outback than meets the eye. We have driven past the Mundy Mundy plains where so many movies were filmed—Mad Max 2, Priscilla, Queen of the Desert and countless commercials—to sleep at the Umberumberka Reservoir.  While in Broken Hill we learnt that though the average rainfall in this catchment is only about 250mm a year, the average evaporation rate could be around 2,000mm a year!  This poses great challenges for managing the population and again I wonder if some of the permaculture techniques we learnt about like the water retention landscapes might not be of benefit here. 

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Broken Hill: Mining, Solar Panels and a Love for Art

We are in Broken Hill - the Silver City. The silver that was found here became one of the most valuable mineral deposits in the world, together with lead and zinc deposits that were also discovered.  In the early 1900’s the discovery of these minerals led Broken Hill to be the second largest settlement in NSW after Sydney.  With more than 125 years of mining history, it has made history as one of the longest continual mining towns in the world.

Today, the red sunsets, the wide-open spaces, the rusty colours of the desert have also attracted many artists to the town.  Our first stop is at the Living Desert Sculptures—massive sandstone sculptures carved out of rock by 12 artists from 5 countries. They slept up here for weeks to carve these works and it reminds us that often we need to escape our normal routines to discover our creativity. You can’t escape the mining memorial, which looks over the town from on top of the Line of Lode. Its hard metal exterior reminds us of what work in the mines was all about and the white roses signify the price these pioneers paid. Over the more than 100 years of mining history more than 800 miners lost their lives. One consequence of these harsh conditions was that Broken Hill also pioneered the rise of the union movement.  Eventually, the miners won the right to a decent wage, the 35-hour week and compensation for those who lost their life at work. 

We were pleasantly surprised to learn that AGL is constructing two large-scale solar PV power plants in NSW with a total capacity of 155 MW.  The project at Broken Hill will deliver 53 MW and the project at Nyngan the rest.  The total cost of this project is estimated to be $440 million and when completed will be Australia’s largest.  We also learnt that AGL is Australia’s largest integrated renewable energy company with a mix of hydro, wind, biomass and solar assets. It makes sense to build solar power stations in places such as Broken Hill, given its high level of solar radiation. It is great to see projects such as this being constructed in Australia.  While this project will enable Broken Hill to be more resilient with respect to energy, and it is a win for the environment, it still does not provide the economic and social benefits that a community solar scheme can deliver to its residents.

While in Broken Hill we also visited the Royal Flying Doctor outpost. While the majority of people in Australia live along the coast, there are many people who still choose to live in remote communities.  Their lives would be a lot more risky without this service—the best of its kind around the world. Looking around the Broken Hill outpost reinforced for us the work they do in ensuring the best of care is available to people 24 hours a day.  The Royal Flying Doctor Service also led to the creation of the school of the air, another invaluable service to the children who grow up in these remote stations in the vast outback.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Steven & Nilmini on Skid Row

Just before we left Sydney and right after our talk to the Newtown Greens, we were interviewed by Colin Hesse on his program Close to Home on Radio SkidRow, Sydney. If you are interested about the ideas of a circular economy, and how we can be more resilient as a community have a listen. We are passionate about finding news ways of integrating our lives in a more wholistic way that will allow us to grow as individuals rather than just focusing on economic growth!

Have a listen:

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Solar Power, Pineapples & a Community in White Cliffs

We woke up to a beautiful sunrise in our perfect camping spot in the opal mine.  After a cooked breakfast we stopped to chat to a couple of miners who were already hard at work. This is more a retirement hobby than a full time career for many of the guys who come here to winter from all over Australia. Doug, a Victorian says the population of a 100 full time miners almost doubles in the winter when people come here to escape the cold, digging away their days underground, convinced that the next pineapple is only a shovel full of dirt away.  Yes, that’s right, the pineapple is a very special kind of opal found only in White Cliffs, and the prize that everyone hopes to uncover one day.

We spent the morning with Bill Hoskins, who struck gold or rather a pineapple literally right outside his front door. He takes us around the White Cliffs Solar Power Station, an iconic engineering feat that most people would never have heard of. Originally established as a research facility by ANU, these sun tracking parabolic dishes concentrated the sun’s rays to heat water and produce steam. The system was able to generate 25KW of energy enough to produce much of the electricity this town needed.  Because the electricity was ‘sold’ to its customers including the school, post office, hospital and residences it is arguably the world’s first commercial solar power station.  Later in 1997 it was converted to a very efficient PV system and doubled its output but the town was by then on the grid, so this electricity was fed back to the grid.  This Power Station was the first solar dish concentrator photovoltaic plant in the world and represents Australian innovation at its best. We are really excited to hear Bill’s stories and feel sorry the plant has now been decommissioned.  White Cliffs could have been totally reliant on its own energy supply but thanks to the powers that be now pay for energy supplied by the grid.

We had lots of chats with the locals today.  From the guys who live in the dugouts, to miners who have profitable businesses in town, the stories we heard were inspiring.  White Cliffs is a real community.  A place—perhaps because of its remoteness—where everyone looks out for each other and where people have formed real bonds of mateship. People were only too willing to chat and share their stories about a place they love. What happens when the opal runs dry remains to be seen.  The bikies are in town and we’ve been invited to the pub today so that’s where we’ll head tonight…

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Palm Oil & the Sumatran Tiger

Dubbo is the first major stop after our meeting in Newcastle. We are camped by the Macquarie River and enjoying the outdoors. We have decided to spend two days at the Dubbo Zoo, donating a few dollars to conservation and learning about the work they do there. The Sumatran Tiger catches our eye partly because neither of us has seen this beautiful big cat in the wild.  As we listen to the zookeeper talk, we learn a little more about how Palm Oil is destroying the habitat of animals such as the Sumatran Tiger and the Orang-utan. 

We learn that Palm Oil is the most widely consumed vegetable oil on the planet.  It is also the highest yielding vegetable oil but its very efficiency is resulting in the loss of habitat for animals such as the Sumatran Tiger as land is cleared in Sumatra and Malaysia to grow more of this crop.  I hadn’t realised that 50-60% of our supermarket products contain palm oil, from beauty products to pizza dough, packaged bread, detergents, paint and bio diesel.  Most of us are unaware of the fact that even the shampoos we use daily contain palm oil – check the labelling for sodium lauryl sulphate.

More recently, some of the growers have committed to growing Palm Oil more sustainably and you can look for the acronym RSPO (Round Table for Sustainable Palm Oil) identifying it as having been cultivated in an ethical manner.  We learn there are many ways to being an informed consumer including installing the Palm Oil Shopping Guide application on your IPhone.  Simply checking the labelling on the back of the products we buy is not sufficient as often in Australia Palm Oil may be identified as vegetable oil.

The talk at the zoo brings home to me once again how important it is to make conscious choices about everything we purchase.  While most people would not condone destroying the habitat of the Sumatran Tiger, by not bothering to understand the labelling of the products we buy could mean we unwittingly do so.  Choices such as this are always left to the consumer to figure out with little education in the press or media to highlight the problem. Wouldn’t it be great to have governments implementing serious policies that ensure we don’t have products on our supermarket shelves that are destroying the habitats of species such as the Sumatran Tiger?