The Windorah Experiment

Windorah is a very small town in the amazing channel country of south-west Queensland. Its permanent population, I believe, is about 100. When I approached from Quilpie in August 2022 across the red dirt, I came across the unexpected view in the photo above. It looks derelict, and it is. Since my visit, I understand it has been dismantled totally.

But what was it?

The parabolic dishes, rusty though they are in this photo, would once have been gleaming bright as, tracking the sun, they concentrated its rays towards their central collectors. These collectors would, as a consequence, have become very hot, as anybody knows who has started, or tried to start, a fire using a magnifying glass.

Heat is not the most versatile form of energy, so a tailored physical process of some sort, otherwise known as an ‘engine’, would have been used to convert heat to electricity. Electrical energy is an extremely versatile form of energy, as anybody – like me – who runs a household on electricity knows.

The idea, as envisaged by Ergon Energy and the Queensland Government, would have been to provide Windorah with a source of power independent of the grid or of diesel generators. It was a bold experiment. It might have been a prototype for small and remote communities round Queensland. But it evidently failed.

What went wrong?

Perhaps the problem was getting spare parts, repair kits, and skilled technicians to such an isolated part of the country. Perhaps there were too many moving parts that could go wrong. Perhaps the more direct science of photovoltaics – whose icon is the ubiquitous solar panel – caught up with it. Perhaps it was all of the above.

I used the F-word a few paragraphs ago. Failed. But was the Windorah experiment really a failure?

Any successful innovation is the end result of a series of failures. Failure is the mechanism through which technological advance becomes possible. Failure is an excellent teacher. That one failed, but perhaps this one might work. Let’s give it a go.

I believe Ergon Energy and the Queensland Government are taking this approach. They are planning other solar projects in several regional precincts, including Windorah, based this time on photovoltaics.

They should be commended.