Long before the solar power boom in Australia, the White Cliffs Solar Power Station was generating clean electricity for a town.
Located at White Cliffs, New South Wales, which had no grid connection at the time; it was constructed in 1981 by a team from Australian National University.
The solar farm originally featured fourteen three-metre parabolic dishes covered in thousands of mirrors and mounted on heliostatic mountings; which followed the sun throughout the day.
The mirrors focused the sun’s rays on collectors; the heat boiling the water and creating steam that drove a three-cylinder Uniflow steam engine used to charge batteries. The configuration generated up to 25kWe. Most of the engine was made from components of two diesel engines (Lister and General Motors). A detailed description of the solar steam engine can be viewed here.
In 1996, the township was connected to the mains grid and the station converted to photovoltaic cells; which produced 45kWe and was able to power up to 30 homes, the general store, hospital and the post office. The power station ceased operation in 2004.
White Cliffs Power Station is an important part of Australia’s solar history that needs to be preserved. While the plant received an Engineers Australia award in 2007, at one point it appeared it would be dismantled.
According to the ABC, its preservation may be assured after the Central Darling Shire recently voted to take over the site. Council envisages turning the facility into a museum in the hope of attracting more tourists to the area.
White Cliffs is an opal mining town situated around 255 km north-east of Broken Hill and 93 km north of Wilcannia. Due to the very hot conditions over summer when temperatures can soar to 50C, most of the town’s residents live in dugouts. Even the town’s 30 room motel is entirely situated underground.
Image credit: Richard Gifford