Power struggle: First Nations fight to stay on country, and off grid

Malcolm Turnbull might have waged a policy war over energy affordability and security in Parliament this year, but a conference in Melbourne last week has offered a sobering reminder of where the true battles against costly and unreliable electricity supply are really being fought.
At Australia’s 2017 Community Energy Congress on February 27, a group representing some of the nation’s most vulnerable Indigenous communities sat on the stage of the Melbourne Town Hall and told their stories about how astronomical electricity bills are so often the final straw for their people, consuming more than half of families’ annual income and, in some cases, driving them off country.
According to Uncle Ike Gordon, an elder from the NSW community of Brewarrina, he first became aware of the severity of the problem when he returned to country after being away for a few years, living in Sydney.
“A number of years ago, we were at a community meeting when someone mentioned energy bills,” Ike told the conference. “One of the bills we were shown was for $3,000 or $4,000 for one quarter – for a home!” he told the conference.

A snapshot of just one of the many huge quarterly power bills being charged to remote Indigenous households. Image: Supplied

“Then we saw a few more bills that were even higher. …One little bloke had six children, he had a power bill for $7,000 for a quarter. And I said, ‘that’s not right’.
“We were getting bills for $2,500 a quarter in our house and I think, ‘There’s something wrong here.’
So I rung the power company, (Origin Energy), and I said, ‘What’s going on?’ I said, ‘How come the power bills are so high?’ And they said, ‘Oh, you’re at the end of the line’.*
“It’s sad. We live in a lucky country. Lucky for who? …Not lucky for us,” he added.
(*Editor’s Note: One Step Off The Grid has asked Origin Energy to verify whether this is the reason for the high bills in Brewarrina and, if so, whether the power company was doing anything about the problem, but had not heard back by the time of publication.)
It’s a story that Tracey Cooper – the president of Sydney-based sustainability group The Valley Centre (TVC) – has heard all too often.
Cooper, alongside TVC’s April Crawford-Smith and the team from their more energy focused enterprise, Pingala, has been working for several years now with numerous Australian Indigenous communities in the battle to keep them living on country and out of debt.
Of course, high electricity prices are not the only problem for these communities – the average life expectancy for males in Brewarrina, for example, is 47, for females, 42. But it is one of the most pressing.
“In a little community like Brewarrina, there’s no clothes shop. Our food’s very dear and our fuel’s dear, and any(thing) that eases the pressure on families, goes a long way,” Uncle Ike told the meeting.
“But at the moment, the cost of living is really putting our people down in the dirt, and they can’t lift their heads.”
Ike said his community was now at the stage of getting solar power – “hopefully” – and that this would be “a big thing” for the people there.
“I met sister Tracey and April and they came out and talked about how we can make cheaper power and lower the cost of living for our people.
“We’ve had a lot of obstacles. I went to the minister with Tracey and April, and I took the power bills with me. They didn’t want to know about it…
“I said you’ve got people on unemployment benefits, on $16,000 a year, and $10,000 going on power. They’ve got $6,000 to live on. You can’t do it.
“We’d love just to lift that pain, that hurt that our people are feeling,” Ike told the conference. “The little things matter. And I mean little things like power bills. Little things like just easing a bit of pressure off families to live and survive and make life a bit longer for them.
“Ownership of something, owning your own power, owning the power that drives your house. To me, that’ll empower people in a mighty way,” he told the conference.
As Cooper puts it, the shift to renewable energy – a global issue that in Australia is being used, shamelessly, as a political football – “is life or death for these communities on country. It’s the difference between them staying, or getting back on country,” she told the conference.
“When we first went up to Ike’s community, we talked about solar, and this community, which was struggling, all of a sudden this layer of oppression, this black cloud lifted and they started talking about food production, water catchment, housing,” she said.
“From this oppression and this struggle, community energy was the catalyst.”
It’s a struggle that, while seemingly ignored by Australia’s politicians and the mainstream media, is at least being tackled by a number of smaller energy companies, like the indigenous-owned outfit AllGrid Energy.
Speaking at an Indigenous Mental Health and Suicide prevention fund-raiser in Sydney last October, AllGrid CEO Ray Pratt said that despite Australia being a wealthy first world country, in many remote communities, Indigenous people were living in third world conditions.
“We know that energy poverty is a significant factor in community well-being,” Pratt told the fund-raiser. “Innovative solutions that integrate environmentally friendly technology will foster community regeneration and individual well-being.”
And AllGrid has been working hard doing exactly that. As we reported here in June last year, for the Aboriginal communities of Ngurrara and Kurnturlpara near the Barkly Tablelands in the Northern Territory, it coordinated the installation of solar and battery systems to replace the diesel-fuelled generation that was costing around $5000 a week to run five houses – a mind-boggling amount to spend on electricity under any circumstances, but completely unsustainable in a remote community with no jobs and no source of income beyond the welfare system.
On one house (pictured below), which doubles as a community office, AllGrid put a total of 13.5kW of solar panels, alongside a 22kWh battery sytem, which supplies the house with up to 9.2kW of AC power at any time.
And, as we reported at the time, the benefit has been more than financial. The switch to renewables has brought families back to country, boosting the population of the communities from just two to around 40 in little over a month.
AllGrid Energy CTO Michael Berris with resident Gina Smith Nampin

Currently, according to another speaker at this week’s Congress, Kado Muir, AllGrid is working with his small community in remote Western Australia to get its nine houses fitted out with solar and battery storage.
“Part of that story is essentially to rescue our households and finances,” he said. “Everyone’s on power cards in these communities. They go between payment cycles on their pays and run out of power, and spend anywhere up to 2 to 3 days without power.
“Hopefully by June we will have all of our houses hooked up to PV and storage,” he said.
And there are other signs of progress. In news announced just this week, a purpose-built and Broome-based joint venture between Energy Made Clean and Aboriginal corporation Easter Guruma, will be designing and installing solar and storage microgrids at two remote Indigenous communities in the Fitzroy Valley, with plans to roll out many more like it in the broader Pilbara region.
Meanwhile, out of the Community Energy Congress has come the establishment of the First Nations Renewable Energy Alliance, whose steering committee of seven will work with experts and other community energy organisations throughout Australia to shift Indigenous communities to cheaper renewable energy generation.
Formation of the First Nations Renewable Energy Alliance – February 2017 (Image source: C4CE)

But, of course, the energy battle for Australia’s indigenous communities is not just about relief from crushing power costs.
For other equally important reasons, flexible and clean energy solutions like solar and storage microgrids are a perfect fit for remote Aboriginal communities, whose connection to the land spans tens of thousands of years and whose culture is steeped in a deep understanding of the environment and of living a sustainable existence.
A perfect illustration of this synergy can be seen in Canada, where around 40 per cent of the nation’s installed renewable energy capacity is owned by its first people – two representatives of which also spoke at the Melbourne conference.
“I often think, we wouldn’t be in the situation we are in, on this planet, had we not forgotten the ancient principles of living within the natural systems of our earth,” TVC’s Cooper said, in opening the Plenary on Monday.
“Our first people have never forgotten. So now is the opportunity for us to learn this, and bring our great technology together with this ancient understanding in community and with the earth.”
Perhaps most importantly, though, renewable energy is an alternative to fossil fuels, the digging up of which has ravaged so much sacred territory in regions like the Pilbara in Western Australia, and Pilliga in New South Wales, and threatens so much more.
“Just to give you an example,” said Ghillar Michael Anderson, leader of the Euahlayi tribe in north-western New South Wales, “we’re dealing with a company called Santos, and trying to keep them out of Pilliga scrub.
“They’re asking us to approve another 800 wells to go into that Pilliga scrub, and we’re saying no.  …The Pilliga scrub is a very sacred place for us, it fertilises the whole of the country, keeps the plants and the flowers growing in the country.
“This is our struggle.”
First Nations representatives speak at the Community Energy Congress in Melbourne, Feb 2017. Image: Supplied

And it’s a tough one, with political ties to the fossil fuel industry running deep.
“A clear example of the level of corruption can be found in the coal seam gas programs and coal mining operations,” Anderson has argued. “Two classic examples can be identified when we look at John Howard’s 10-point plan of 1998 to amend the Native Title Act in favour of mining companies and State governments to erode and deny Aboriginal rights to Country and the necessity to negotiate.
“During the parliamentary debates for the amendments the deputy PM and Nationals leader, John Anderson, had significant share holdings in Eastern Star Gas, which was operating 650 wells on outskirts of Pilliga Scrub in northwest NSW. At this time Santos had a 16 per cent share interest in Eastern Star Gas. A major spill and accident occurred at a couple of the wells at a time when John Anderson was deputy Chair of Eastern Star Gas.
“After John Anderson resigned as deputy PM and Nationals leader John, his colleague Mark Vale was elected by the Nationals to take over … When Mark Vale retired from politics he then became the chairman of White Haven Coal, which now operates very controversial coal mining in the Gunnedah Basin. This coal mine is also inside the old electorate of Gwydir, where Former deputy PM and Nationals leader John Anderson had a mortgage as an elected member for this electorate.”
Anderson’s experience, and that of many other Aboriginal communities, has been another major motivation for the formation of the First Nations Renewable Energy Alliance: to bring together the leaders’ collective understanding of how government and fossil fuel companies work, and their collective power to fight it.
“We’re serious about this renewable energy,” said Fred Hooper, chairman of the Northern Basin Aboriginal Nations. “We’re serious about this solar power.
“That’s the only way… we can put a stop to when people who come in with this dirty energy… We want the clean energy, in our clean environment for our future generations and we want our people to benefit from it, to work with it.
“We’ve got a big responsibility in our hands now. That’s why we definitely need this clean energy so that we are able to tell them that we don’t want your dirty energy.
“We’re showing real leadership here. I think we should take this to parliament and teach our leaders in there. We’re fighting for what we believe in, like climate change.”

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