For some of Australia’s most remote, off-grid communities, the almost immediate benefits of switching from diesel fuel generation to solar and battery storage are obvious: it’s cheaper and it’s cleaner.
For the Aboriginal communities of Ngurrara and Kurnturlpara near the Barkly Tablelands in the Northern Territory, the solar and battery systems recently installed through Indigenous Business Australia (IBA) and the Manungurra Aboriginal Corporation (Manungurra) have provided a renewable power source that is 50 per cent cheaper than diesel generators – bringing power costs to an affordable level for families.
But they have delivered a lot more than cheaper, cleaner power.
First, though, some details of the projects. The WattGrid solar and storage systems provided for the Barkly communities were supplied and installed by Aboriginal-owned business AllGrid Energy, as part of its Oasis Strategy – a joint effort with project partners Natural Fiber Technologies to deliver “fundamental life supporting systems” to remote communities through renewable and bio-technologies.
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 sytstem, which supplies the house with up to 9.2kW of AC power at any time.
A second home also got a 13.5kW PV system, this time with slightly less battery storage, at 20kWh. In addition, AllGrid installed a 6.7kW solar system and 7kWh battery bank on the community’s workshop, which until now has had no power at all.
Now, to the benefits. As AllGrid’s Deborah Oberon points out, the initial solar and storage installs meant that the people who still lived in the communities could keep their fridges running and afford to cool the house and to sleep without the noise of the generator.
“Simple things most of us take for granted,” she says.
The solar on the workshop means community members can do their maintenance in a properly sheltered environment, all year round, without having to trail power leads through dirt and mud or work out in the elements – which in this case means periods of extreme heat.
The WattGrid systems have also provided power for air-conditioning to the local school building, which has improved the education outcomes for 15 children.
Another major benefit, adds Michael Berris – AllGrid’s chief technical officer – is the 83 square meters of roof shade provided by the solar panels, which means community members can stay in their homes in the middle of the day.
“Not to mention not having to smell diesel fumes and being able to hear the birds again,” he added in an email to One Step Off The Grid.
And then there are the less quantifiable benefits, such as empowerment. The WattGrid systems are supplied to the communities on a lease-to-buy arrangement with Mannungurra, which oversees the communities with finance provided by Indigeneous Business Australia.
With energy costs slashed straight away by well over 50 per cent, the units will eventually be owned outright by the community with an even further reduction in cost, says Oberon.
But one of the most important by-products of the solar and storage installs is that it is bringing Aboriginal communities back together and back to country.
“Diesel generators on the houses had exceptionally high costs. These costs and the lack of available housing available in the community means that many (of its) members are living in Tennant Creek a couple of hours away and paying extremely high rents,” Oberon says.
“The community members who have been living in Tennant Creek are keen to return to their country, land their families have been connected to for thousands of years.”
According to IBA, this is already happening. The shift to solar and storage has contributed to the two communities now being fully occupied – growing from two permanent adults to 30-40 adults and children who are now able to live more independently on their own country.
And the projects have created employment and training opportunities for the community, with potential for further employment and skills as part of the maintenance program.
AllGrid CEO Ray Pratt says discussions are underway with training organisations and government bodies to create modified courses on solar PV installations.
“The creation of meaningful employment for our people in an emerging industry is a step in the right direction towards self-sufficiency,” said Pratt.
IBA says the arrival of solar will also open up opportunities to develop and manage country – now that there’s a local workforce living nearby, instead of in Tennant Creek.
“The communities have been actively involved in this project – helping to install concrete slabs and unloading the panels and batteries on site and they now have plans to develop primary industry on country with considerations given for development of a base for a ranger group,” the IBA said.
Manungurra CEO Graeme Smith said that another of the flow on benefits was securing the administration of NTG Office Local Government funding and Remote Jobs & Community Programs.
“The School of the Air Program has also allowed us to bring in some community employment and economy to the community with such numbers,” Smith said.
“This brings money, employment and less stress on Manungurra bottom line from community development assistance and member donations such as assistance with education, ceremony, health and funeral matters.
“The shift to solar power has the potential to strengthen cultural ties to country and sites and the ability to explore sustainable land use activities that bring jobs, training and an income – building a sustainable economy on homelands.”
According to IBA CEO Chris Fry, the success of the project is “fantastic”, not only for the Ngurrara and Kurnturlpara communities, but for the potential of it to be replicated in other remote communities.
“This transition was made possible through IBA’s Asset Leasing program which purchased the solar panels and batteries and leased them to Manungurra,” Fry said in a statement earlier this month.
“Manungurra, established when the Bootu Creek manganese mine opened, invested some of its royalties in IBA’s Indigenous Real Estate Investment Trust (IREIT),” he said.
“Through the stable, well managed investment alongside IBA in the IREIT, Manungurra now has the income stability in order to pursue community development such as this solar leasing project.”
For AllGrid, meanwhile, its just the beginning of its Oasis Strategy, which also has plans for the communities beyond solar and storage. Through a new partnership with Solar Relief, says Oberon, discussions are underway for the introduction of flat packed housing that’s affordable, recycled and recyclable and has maximum energy efficiency.
Another stage will see the introduction of something like the bio-cube – a fully containerised small-scale bio-diesel refinery – through low-interest funding.
According to this plan, drought resistant high yield crops can be grown using waste water from mining processes and recycled water from the communities. Bio-diesel can then be sold as a commodity.
“These units can produce up to 2.5 million litres of fuel,” says Oberon. “The land needs to be worked, employment is created and the community gets the opportunity to re-generate.”