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A coal baron is delivering the world's first solar train to Australia.
And while bringing solar to Byron Bay might be a bit like taking coals to Newcastle, that's just what the Byron Bay Railroad Company is doing.
"I think this is a world first," said John Grimes, chief executive of the Australian Solar Council, which is not connected to the project.
"There is a train in India that has solar panels to power lights and fans, but not a whole train."
The Byron Bay Railroad Company, operated by mining executive Brian Flannery, expects to have its two-carriage heritage train running before Christmas, said Jeremy Holmes, a spokesman for the company.
It will operate on part of the disused Casino-to-Murwillumbah line, which closed in 2004.
Dan Cass, a renewable energy specialist at the Australia Institute, said: "This is the first we have heard of a train this size that is literally solar powered, with PV modules on the roof."
The Office of the National Rail Safety Regulator told Fairfax Media that it is discussing some minor outstanding issues with the company but expects to grant a licence for the train.
The train will travel three kilometres each way from Byron Bay to North Beach, just near Elements of Byron, a five-star resort owned by Brian and Peggy Flannery, who also have the controlling interest in the not-for-profit train company.
"We had approval two years ago to run the train as a diesel service, however in December we decided to convert to solar," Mr Holmes said. "Technology had advanced rapidly and so we accelerated the conversion."
The train is being fitted out with flexible solar panels and a 77kW solar battery on board. The train shed in north Byron has a 30kW solar array, that will supply the grid when not recharging the train.
"Even if the sun doesn't shine for a prolonged period the train battery can be charged from mains power using certified Green Power," Mr Holmes said. The train will retain a back-up diesel engine for emergencies.
The service will initially run 14 round trips a day from 8am to 10pm. Extra services could be put on for events such as the Byron Writers' Festival and the Byron Food and Beverage Festival, which are held on land owned by the Flannerys.
Byron Shire Greens Mayor, Simon Richardson, said: "It's a project that sits within our community values. It's a short track but hopefully it is scalable for the region."
Labor councillor Paul Spooner said: "The project has changed and morphed as it's gone along. Good on them for getting it off the ground."
Mr Spooner did question how useful the train will be for residents. "It's a bit of a novelty train.
"The irony is we have a coal baron launching a solar train – it's a sign of the times."
Mr Flannery is managing director of White Energy. His investment in Cascade Coal in 2010, which obtained a coal exploration licence from the NSW government in controversial circumstances, brought him unwanted attention.
White Energy withdrew from the deal but Mr Flannery still appeared at Independent Commission Against Corruption hearings into the licensing arrangements.
No corruption findings were found against Mr Flannery, but he was found to have issued a "false" press release to the Australian Stock Exchange in April 2011.
Earlier this year, Mr Flannery gave Ian Macdonald a character reference during sentencing proceedings. Macdonald was jailed for 10 years in June, with a seven-year non-parole period.
Not all locals are happy with the train. John Johnston is part of the Belongil Action Group.
"We're not opposed to a train, per se, just the way it's been done. It's a joy ride for Elements guests," he said.
Mr Johnson said his group will seek an injunction against the train for allegedly breaching provisions of Byron's Local Environmental Plan.
Mr Johnson alleges that at a meeting with Mr Flannery and Mr Holmes at the Elements resort in August last year, Mr Flannery said "You really want to take me on?" when legal action against the train was mentioned.
"You want to throw $10k at me? $100k? A million? I've got the money," said Mr Flannery according to Mr Johnson.
Mr Holmes confirmed the meeting took place but doesn't recall those words.
However, he said: "Our response to the [legal] threat was clear. We will defend this project vigorously as we have worked hard to ensure that it serves the community and achieves world-first environmental standards."
With council and community support, it seems that Mr Johnson is in a small minority.
Mr Grimes from the Solar Council said: "A fully electric train powered by the sun is a really fantastic project."
Of Mr Flannery's support, Mr Grimes said: "People coming out of old fossil energy are embracing solar.
"We now have other options that are cheaper and cleaner and they understand that," he said.
"Earlier this year, the US coal museum in Kentucky converted to full solar power. These are all signs of the solar future."
Fairfax Media travelled to Byron Bay courtesy of the Star Stuff astronomy festival and stayed courtesy of Elements of Byron.
This article first appeared on www.smh.com.au
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