Winton Shire council launches legal action over $4m geothermal power plant that never supplied power

In parts of Queensland’s arid outback, borehole water pumped from deep underground is so hot it must be cooled before drinking.

A $4 million geothermal power plant in Winton has been built to use naturally hot water to create electricity.

The renewable energy project was to be the only operating geothermal power plant in the country and was touted as the start of a geothermal boon to the region.

But more than two years after the end of construction, it has never supplied electricity and is not operational.

“It’s disappointing, to say the least, for such great potential for water coming into town,” said Winton Shire Council Mayor Gavin Baskett.

great expectations

The plant was designed to use hot water at 86 degrees Celsius from the Great Artesian Basin to generate electricity to power municipal buildings and the city museum, the Waltzing Matilda Centre.

A sign
The Winton Geothermal Power Project has yet to deliver electricity.(ABC Western Qld: Danielle O’Neal)

In a design study, project manager Peak Services – which belongs to the Local Government Association of Queensland (LGAQ) – estimated that the council could save more than $15 million in the first 20 years of operation.

“I can understand councilors at the time seeing these fantastic numbers and the potential and what they could do with the money to provide services and infrastructure to the community,” Mr. Baskett said.

Construction was completed in 2019, but problems arose during the commissioning phase of the project.

Outback mayor in a power plant
Mayor Gavin Baskett says council is trying to determine if it can save the project.(ABC Western Qld: Danielle O’Neal)

“It became operational, but during that commissioning phase there were issues, so it wouldn’t have been able to sustain operation and certainly wouldn’t have been able to operate as intended.

“It was just decided to shut it down and try to rectify those issues.”

The town hall takes legal action

The Winton Shire Council is now suing Peak Services for the failure of the project.

Court documents allege a host of technical problems and management failures, which the board says could ultimately render the plant “worthless”.

Peak Services has not yet filed a defence.

“It is inappropriate to comment as the matter is before the courts,” a Peak Services spokesperson said.

An exclusion sign and barbed wire fence surround a geothermal power plant
At first glance, the Winton geothermal power plant appears to be operational.(ABC Western Qld: Danielle O’Neal)

Former advisers who approved the project in 2016 said they fully trusted Peak Services’ expertise at the time.

“They said it would be good for the city, and we were the first to do it,” former councilor Joel Mann said.

“Every time they told us more, it just wasn’t viable.

Man in shopping outfit smiling
Former Councilor Joel Mann said he was impressed in 2016 by the potential of the project.(ABC Western Qld: Danielle O’Neal)

Mr Mann and fellow councilor Travis Harbor voted for a motion to abandon the project before construction and move to a solar project.

This motion was defeated.

“The feeling was that the process was too advanced,” said Mr Harbor.

“But to my way of thinking, if you tie a horse to a tree and it starts to rain and the flood waters come up, you don’t just stand there and shake your shoulders and watch the horse drown.”

A man reads a file on a desk
Former Councilor Travis Harbor in 2018 introduced a motion to switch to solar power. (ABC Western Qld: Danielle O’Neal)

“Dodged a Bullet”

The Winton plant was one of several the LGAQ had planned for Western Queensland.

Others planned for Thargomindah, Quilpie, Normanton and Ilfracombe near Longreach, have all stalled.

The water flows into a concrete tank.
Water from the Great Artesian Basin used for towns and stock in Western Queensland.(Provided: Julia Harris)

Bulloo Shire Council Mayor John Ferguson said Peak Services had approached them with the idea of ​​a geothermal power station at Thargomindah and the state government had provided a $3.6 million grant for the project in 2017.

“The project we wanted to do was to power the whole town, so give people cheap electricity,” Mr Ferguson said.

“All the news we were getting from Winton was that it wasn’t working yet, to lay off, so we did.

“We dodged a bullet.”

    A man standing near solar panels in Thargomindah
The Bulloo Shire Council instead used the money to build a water cooling system to supply water.(ABC Western Qld: Victoria Pengilley)

The future of the geothermal power plant in the balance

The Winton Shire Council is trying to determine if the project is salvageable or to reduce its losses.

“Trying to find a way forward that’s best for everyone, especially our taxpayers,” Baskett said.

“That’s one of the discussions we’re having right now, how much it will cost to bring the plant up to the operational level that we expect and who will pay for it.

“On the board side, we think we’ve provided enough funds so far to get him to where he is and we don’t really want to invest more in it.”

Winton main street aerial view
The geothermal plant was intended to supply the buildings in Winton.(Provided: John Elliot)

Lenny Coyte, who worked for the technology company involved in the project, Green Thermal Energy Technologies, said the Winton plant could be repaired.

“There were a few issues early on…but that doesn’t mean the technology won’t work. The technology actually works,” Mr Coyte said.

Mr Mann said the factory was a town sore spot among locals.

“He is described as a white elephant,” Mr. Mann said.

The geothermal debate continues

Martin Pujol, principal hydrogeologist at Rockwater, said that at 86C, the Winton project would have been one of the lowest temperatures used in the world to generate electricity.

A drone photograph of a geothermal power station in Winton
Peak Services had described the Winton geothermal power plant as a “potential game changer”.(Supplied: Winton Shire Council)

“It is unfortunate that technical issues prevented the project from delivering on its promise, but power generation has always been a challenge at these low temperatures,” Pujol said.

“To use energy directly, which requires no conversion, hasn’t been so sexy for some reason.

“It’s really the silent success…all the geothermal projects in Australia right now are all producing heat.”

Despite this setback, the City of Winton remains open to future opportunities in renewable energy.

“I haven’t lost faith in them, but I will tread carefully,” Mr Baskett said.

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