Winton Shire Council Launches Legal Action Over $4 Million Geothermal Plant That Never Delivered Power

In parts of Queensland’s arid interior, drilling water pumped from deep underground is so hot that it needs to be cooled before it can be drunk.

A $4 million geothermal power plant in Winton was built to use the naturally hot water to generate electricity.

The renewable energy project would be the only working geothermal power plant in the country and was touted as the start of a geothermal windfall in the region.

But more than two years since construction was completed, it has never supplied power and is not operational.

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

Great expectations

The plant is designed to use 86 degrees Celsius hot water from the Great Artesian Basin to generate electricity for the municipal buildings and the city’s museum, the Waltzing Matilda Centre.

Winton’s Geothermal Power Plant project has yet to provide power.ABC Western Qld: Danielle O’Neal

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

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

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

Outback Mayor at a Power Plant
Mayor Gavin Baskett says the city is trying to determine if they can save the project.ABC Western Qld: Danielle O’Neal

“It did become operational, but there were issues during that commissioning phase, so it wouldn’t have been able to continue working and certainly wouldn’t have been able to run as expected.

“It was just decided to close it and try to fix these issues.”

Municipality takes legal action

Winton Shire Council is now suing Peak Services for the failed project.

Court documents allege a slew of technical issues and management errors, which the council fears could ultimately render the factory “worthless”.

Peak Services still has to defend itself.

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

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

Former councilors who approved the project in 2016 indicated that they trusted Peak Services’ expertise at the time.

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

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

Man in tradesman's clothes smiling
Former alderman Joel Mann says in 2016 that he was impressed by the potential of the project.ABC Western Qld: Danielle O’Neal

Mr Mann and fellow councilor Travis Harbor voted in favor of a motion to divest the project prior to construction and switch to a solar energy project.

That motion was reversed.

“The feeling was that it had gone too far in the process,” said Mr. Harbor.

“But according to my mindset, if you tie a horse to a tree and it starts to rain and the water rises, 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 filed a motion in 2018 to switch to solar energy. ABC Western Qld: Danielle O’Neal

‘Dodged a bullet’

The Winton plant was one of many the LGAQ had planned for western Queensland.

Others scheduled for Thargomindah, Quilpie, Normanton and Ilfracombe at Longreach have all stalled.

Water runs into a concrete tank.
Water from the Great Artesian Basin used for towns and livestock in western Queensland.Delivered: Julia Harris

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

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

“All the news we got out of Winton was that firing still wasn’t working, so we did that.

“We dodged a bullet.”

    A man working at solar panels in Thargomindah.  state
Bulloo Shire Council instead used the money to build a water cooling system to provide water.ABC Western Qld: Victoria Pengilley

Future geothermal power plant on the go

Winton Shire Council is trying to determine if the project is salvageable or to minimize losses.

“Trying to find a way to move forward that is best for everyone, especially our taxpayers,” said Mr. Baskett.

“That’s one of the discussions we’re having right now, how much it’s going to cost to get the plant to the operating standard we expect and who’s going to pay for that.

“On the part of the council, we think we’ve provided enough money so far to get it where it is and we don’t really want to put in more.”

Main street of Winton from aerial view
The geothermal power plant was intended to power 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 is subject to repair.

“There were some issues in the beginning… but that doesn’t mean the technology won’t work. The technology does work,” said Mr Coyte.

Mr Mann said the factory is a sore point in the city among locals.

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

Geothermal debate continues

Martin Pujol, chief hydrogeologist at Rockwater, said the Winton project would have been one of the lowest temperatures used to produce electricity worldwide at 86°C.

A drone image of a geothermal power plant in Winton
Peak Services had described the Winton geothermal power plant as a “potential game changer”.Delivered: Winton Shire Council

“It is a pity that technical difficulties have prevented the project from delivering on its promises, but producing electricity would always be a challenge at these low temperatures,” said Mr Pujol.

“Using the energy directly, which doesn’t require conversion, wasn’t so sexy for some reason.

“It’s been very much the silent performer…all the geothermal projects in Australia right now are all producing heat.”

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

“I have not lost faith in them, but I will proceed with caution,” said Mr. Baskett.

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