Broken Hill is the birthplace of modern mining in Australia. It lends its initials “BH” to the mining giant BHP, and in January 2015 in an Australian first, the so-called Silver City was added to the National Heritage list in part due to its mining industry.
The city is cut in half by a mine, with a giant pile of waste material rising from its centre. It can be seen from every street in town, like a monument to the stuff the city was built from.
But over the years, mining in Broken Hill has declined. Even the titular hill, the one that appeared “broken”, has been mined away. As it disappeared, so did the jobs.
Around 30,000 people once lived in Broken Hill, with 3,500 employed in the mines. Nowadays the population is around 18,000; approximately 500 of those work in mining.
Broken Hill gave birth to one of the least renewable industries on Earth, but it can now claim to be the Australian birthplace of one of the most renewable.
On the outskirts of the city lies a solar farm that covers an area equivalent to 75 Sydney Cricket Grounds. Built by AGL, the 53MW Broken Hill solar plant is one of two solar farms (the other 102MW one is in Nyngan) built in outback New South Wales at the same time. Adam Mackett from AGL, who was the project manager for the Broken Hill plant, credits these farms with kickstarting the large-scale solar industry in Australia.
Officially opened in January 2016, the plants were built with subsidies from the federal government through the Australian Renewable Energy Agency (Arena), as well as support from the NSW government.
With that funding, AGL was able to jump into the large-scale solar industry, and in doing so, create a supply chain that is bringing down the cost of solar farms around the country.
For example, Mackett says a manufacturing plant in the struggling car industry retooled to provide the frames for the solar panels, and is now able to do that for the whole industry.
“That was something [the plant] didn’t previously do,” Mackett says. “You can imagine they’ve learned a lot about that. And as they learn, they become more efficient and that brings the costs down.”
And come down it did. Government subsidies of about $1.50 per watt were needed to get the Broken Hill and Nyngan plants up and running. Last year that fell to just 19c per watt, and construction costs have fallen by about 40%. By kickstarting the industry, supply chains were built and the large-scale solar businesses became “de-risked”, making the cost of capital cheaper for subsequent projects.
Unsurprisingly, Makett loves the big Broken Hill solar farm. Travelling through the city, we find locals seem to love it too. Big companies sometimes have trouble convincing communities these projects are worthwhile – but not so in Broken Hill.
The deputy mayor, David Gallagher, says: “I’d love to have Broken Hill, being the first iconic heritage-listed city, [also be] the most [successful] renewable energy city in Australia. I believe we can do that – I believe we can go forward.”
With the decline of mining, tourism has taken over as the biggest employer in Broken Hill. It helps that the city was famously featured in the Mad Max films and in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.
Esther La Rovere is the managing director of the Palace Hotel, which appeared in Priscilla. Ever since she bought the hotel in 2009, it has held regular drag shows. La Rovere also runs the annual “Broken Heel” festival, a city-wide celebration held over three days every September and featuring drag shows, disco music and parades.
La Rovere thinks it might be something about Broken Hill’s isolation that has made its residents so accepting. “You get a mix of people together and I guess some sort of culture grows,” she says. “Most people are quite interested to have a chat to you. You never know who you’re going to bump into in the street.”
La Rovere also loves that Broken Hill is now home to a large solar farm. “I’m very excited for Broken Hill to have that in its history,” she says. “Broken Hill and sunshine; what a perfect place to have it happening.”
Peter Price owns the other well-known local pub – the Silverton Hotel, which featured in Mad Max 2, among other films. The pub is in Silverton, a 15-minute drive from Broken Hill, which once had a population of 3,000 but now, following the decline of its mining industry, has just 35 residents.
Silverton will also be the the site of AGL’s new 58-turbine windfarm project, with construction scheduled to start this year.
Price says the focus on renewables can only be a good thing and may attract a new demographic to the town. “[These new things] give us the opportunity to build our businesses,” he says.
The transition from mining the ground to mining the sun is also shifting the artistic culture that has long existed in Broken Hill. The blazing light that streams down on the area has attracted painters for more than a century, says Susan Thomas, the chief executive of the Broken Hill Art Exchange.
“A lot of the early artists that came to recognition in Broken Hill were actually miners themselves,” she explains. “So a lot of their artworks reflected the stories and the lifestyle of Broken Hill and its mining reputation.”
The most famous of those artists was Pro Hart, and the group of artists that became known as the Brushmen of the Bush.
John Dynon is a Broken Hill artist who works from his studio-gallery in Silverton. “I used to work in the mines for about 15 years,” he says. “Followed in my dad’s footsteps. I used to paint seven hours a day, and then do underground work for seven hours. That’s how I started to be an artist.
“[Mining] is not a real safe job. A lot of the dangers were just rock fall – ground collapsing … So if something went wrong you’d lose fingers, arms, legs.”
Dynon was happy to give up mining to be a full-time artist and is now internationally acclaimed for his work. “I just love colour – and sunsets and sunrises. I love flowers, gardens. I paint a bit of everything,” he says.
Thomas says while former Broken Hill artists painted mining scenes, many of the newer ones are inspired by renewable energy.
“Broken Hill Art Exchange has had quite a focus on environmental projects. [There] has been a focus on solar power and new technologies and how art integrates with those new innovations,” she says. “We run an artists’ residency here, and there’s been a number of artists who have wanted to come to Broken Hill and engage with the new technologies that are developing.”
The city that once supported the artists was itself supported by mining. Now it needs to reimagine itself.
So that brilliant light, once the drawcard for artists, looks as though it will become its biggest asset. Thomas says: “Looking at renewables was a no-brainer, actually, because of our sunlight here.”