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…

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