How a tiny outback town is showing the world a path to achieving net zero

Julia Creek is a speck, an outback town of about 500 people on the road between Townsville and Mt Isa. Everything there is vast and intimidating: skies, cattle herds, wet seasons (when they happen), droughts, flies and empty space.

May 05, 2023, updated May 05, 2023
The Outback town of Julia Creek is the centre of interest for vanadium (pic: supplied)

The Outback town of Julia Creek is the centre of interest for vanadium (pic: supplied)

Add to the list potential newcomers mining and energy.

If anything, Julia Creek is now an example of how the net zero era is reshaping communities and economies and the changes could be extraordinary.

Vanadium is the new player in town following a false start with oil shale and it has the potential to be huge. There are qualifiers like if the mines go ahead, but with five in various stages of development there is a good chance that will happen.

Julia Creek is home to a vast vanadium resource, one of the best in the world and vanadium is vastly superior to lithium in stationary batteries used for large scale energy storage. It’s essentially two tanks of liquid separated by a membrane but it lasts at least 30 years, whereas lithium last five to seven. Vanadium is also recyclable whereas lithium is not.

Five companies are in various stages of developing mines in and around Julia Creek to feed a massive demand for the commodity which is used in steel making, but also now in huge batteries used to back up solar and wind projects.

Already, Multicom has bought a local motel and QEM recently picked up the local bank building. Another motel was bought by a road construction company.

“That’s been a big impact. It shows there is a need and we might get more development,’’ McKinley Council deputy mayor Janene Fegan said.

“It is starting to happen. It’s very obvious this is going to be a big thing in our region and for Queensland.’’

Add to that with the as yet unquantified impact from the $5 billion CopperString transmission project that will right through the McKinley district and south of Julia Creek.

That will add impetus to renewable projects as well as feed the region with a reliable energy source which is critical to the vanadium projects.

Without it, QEM’s project near Julia Creek would be in trouble, according to managing director Gavin Loyden.

But (and there’s always a but). Housing is likely to be an issue with the companies planning to locate their workforces in town and Fegan points out the current stock is probably not suited for the professionals the mines will bring in.

Queensland has been down this road before. Towns like Roma, Dalby and Chinchilla have seen what development booms can do when coal seam gas went through its massive expansions more than a decade ago. It wasn’t pretty.

When Moranbah was hit with the expansion of the coal mines during the last mining boom rents in town shot up to $3000 a week and local companies couldn’t find workers.

But the companies and the council are determined that won’t happen at Julia Creek and Loyden is advocating for a staging of all the development which would be a considerable achievement in an industry which is not known for playing nice with competitors.

The local population has a different imperative.

“The biggest thing for the community is keeping that beautiful, laid-back country lifestyle,’’ Fegan said.

“We understand we are going to grow and grow substantially but I think it will in stages.

“We don’t want to be a mining town, but we can see the huge benefits in roads, water, electricity etc.’’

“We know we need to grow with the mine as well. So if they said we are going to bring in 70 people well, goodness me we are still trying to get our sewerage upgraded.’’

It may also need to upgrade its airport to deal with bigger commercial flights.

“Our problem at the moment is accommodation. Gone are the days when people will share,’’ she said.

“The houses haven’t been renovated or upgraded and the people who live here are used to the conditions. Whereas we are now talking about bringing professionals, so that’s a challenge.’’

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For a town that Fegan said had never experienced unemployment problems there is another risk: the town’s existing workers being lured to the bigger dollars in the mines.

“Multicom are closer to getting ready to start and they are saying to us they are not going to take workers away from us,’’ she said.

“We (council) are always looking for staff and we can’t compete with the mines.

“They (Multicom) are talking about how they can accommodate everyone.

“Even though we are semi prepared in that we have known it was coming we still don’t have that money for significant outlays.’’

QEM’s Gavin Loyden said the industry is likely to be huge and has been recognised by the State Government which is developing a pilot processing centre in Townsville.

“It (Julia Creek) is going to change dramatically and in a very positive sense. The town is up for it,’’ he said.

He believes another benefit of vanadium is that Australia could manufacture batteries from it.

Loyden said the demand for vanadium is huge. One year of production from its planned mine would produce enough vanadium for the storage of one gigawatt hour of energy. Queensland has a demand for about 24 gigawatts, he said.

“Australia wide it’s around 100,’’ he said.

“You can see why we are not worried about competition. We need all of us to get up quickly.

“There are five and a couple more trying to join the club.’’

Globally the demand for vanadium is extraordinary. China, Russia, South Africa and Brazil are the current dominant producers.

The hope is the sleepy town of Julia Creek will wake up and take on the giants.

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