Meekatharra (Meeka), the largest centre in the Murchison, Western Australia (WA), is home to the iconic Royal Mail Hotel, and now the Meekatharra Solar Consortium. The Consortium, a wonderful community initiative in the celebrated mining town, took it upon itself to install solar PV on two large-roofed turn-of-the-century buildings (the 20th century that is), for the purpose of generating their own power and sharing the excess with small-roofed neighbours.
The project is the brainchild of Royal Mail Hotel owner Gitte Heij with the support of Anna Johnson, owner of the Made in Meeka art and souvenir shop, and Rob Hanson of Midwest Solar Power. “It’s literally power to the people, by the people,” said Heij, one of Meeka’s more colourful characters and a self-proclaimed “passionate futurist!”
“We’re taking ourselves into the future instead of waiting for it to come to us,” said Anna Johnson, another vibrant local who acts as the glue holding the Consortium together.
The project has been in the works for several years with lots of negotiations with Horizon Power, lawyers, local government and other players. But the tough-going has paid off and Meeka has one of its first tastes of life without having to rely on diesel-fueled generators.
The town’s first taste, the Meekatharra Solar Power Station, was a 455 kW hybrid array constructed by Hybrid Systems Australia in 2017.
After many a long day installing solar PV on the Outback rooftops and solving problems thrown up by the century-old buildings on-the-go, Rob Hanson took a seat in the pub and knocked the froth of a cold one which I can only assume was on the house. There, enjoying Meeka’s well-known good vibes, Hanson considered how times have changed in the ancient land. “The pub and brothel patrons of the old days would never have imagined that the searing sun would one day be cooling the beer in the cold room,” said Hanson, “let alone powering their neighbours’ places.”
The pub and brothel patrons of the old days would also probably never have imagined that Meekatharra is home to the world’s largest undeveloped vanadium resource. Heij and Johnson have been in touch with VSUN Energy, a subsidiary of Australian Vanadium Limited, about whether the Consortium can add some vanadium redox flow batteries as a route to true sustainability.
“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 Heij. Flow batteries would have a significant impact upon the project, giving its energy generation scalability, stability and better opportunity for energy trading and sharing.
The successful completion of the project is a cause for celebration in a town that is known for its shindigs (I’m thinking specifically about the Meeka Outback Festival, which attracts people from all over). “The first cheque will be framed and displayed at the pub,” said Heij, “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.”
Meeka has a proud history of mining gold from the earth, and now the town is embarking on a new era with a sense of continuity by mining gold from the sky.