Can community solar bridge ‘Great Racial Divide’ in remote power security?

On the traditional country of the Yanyuwa at the remote Aboriginal settlements of Borroloola in the Northern Territory, residents are fed up with paying too much for their power.

About 1000km south of Darwin in the Gulf of Carpentaria the days are muggy, averaging 35°C in summer and occasionally climbing above 40°C.

When the power goes off, it’s too hot to sleep.

And the power goes off regularly round Borroloola, where the high cost of generator fuel only makes life hotter and harder.

“Being home… living on country is amazing… a blessing,” says resident Johnny Wilson of nearby Lightning Ridge homeland, “everything anyone could ever dream of.

“[But] it’s getting harder and harder just to keep my power on.

“I’m gonna sleep well with a fan… but I’ve got to have money to have my generator on. $200 for five jerry cans, that’s two jerry cans of fuel, three of diesel, every three days.”

Borroloola is one example of many that depict a racial divide between remote Indigenous people and other Australians when it comes to accessing secure, reliable power for the home.

“In areas like this, they can’t keep the lights on,” says CEO of Aboriginal-owned non-profit Original Power, Karrina Nolan.

A descendant of the Yorta Yorta people, Nolan and team aim to position Aboriginal communities like Borroloola at the forefront of renewable energy changes revolutionising power generation in Australia.

Nolan spoke at the Climate Integrity Summit 2023, held at parliament House in Canberra on 15 February.

The summit put leading experts in economics, ecology, policy, and governance in the same room with parliamentarians and journalists, to discuss the ethics, economics and risks around policy initiatives to tackle climate change.

Nolan called for a role for First Nations peoples in transitioning to renewable energies and screened a short film on the issue, featuring Johnny Wilson and others from the Borroloola district.

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No place like home: Twenty Mile families will soon have their own remote solar plant at home delivering greater power security.

“Traditional owners talk about cooling one room,” she said, “and people taking it in turns to sleep in that room – unacceptable in a country like [Australia].

“In the context of climate change, … many of our communities are feeling the impacts of rising temperatures, rising sea levels, and are actually struggling to stay on the homelands.”

The mission of Original Power, she says, is to “make sure that our communities have the power, the skills, the resources, to determine what happens on our country”.

Many NT Indigenous people remain on pre-paid metering for the power supply to their homes.

Nolan cited 2021 ANU research published in Nature Energy that examined 3300 households on remote Northern Territory Aboriginal communities where pre-paid electricity meters were installed.

Pre-paid power means buying, then inserting a “power card” or online credit to a power meter before running household items like washing machine, fridge, or toaster. But if the credits run out, your house is disconnected from the power.

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The ANU study found 91% of remote households surveyed had at least one disconnection from power during the 2018-19 financial year, and almost three-quarters had more than 10.

In the central climate zones of Australia, households with high power use had a one-in-three chance of same-day disconnection on very hot or very cold days. 

Report author Dr Thomas Longden from ANU says remote Indigenous communities suffered severe energy insecurity, which worsened during extreme temperatures.

“These households are more likely to experience disconnection from electricity on very hot or very cold days,” Longden says.

“The impact is greatest in the central dry grassland climate zone, which is in central Australia and experiences both cold nights during winter and hot days during summer.

“These temperature-related disconnections are driven by an increase in electricity used to heat and cool homes.”

The figures were an underestimate, he says. Many more households use prepayment meters than were represented in the study.

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Power security. Don’t forget to buy a power card before turning on your fridge at Borroloola.

In Borroloola, pre-paid power provides electricity for the township only, where power meters are installed for homes and measure supply coming from the diesel generating station at Borroloola.

But there are also 24 outstations, or homelands, scattered around the town, where Yanyuwa stay regularly for cultural business and to maintain connections with ancestral lands. Power at these locations comes mostly from portable diesel and fuel generators.

Solar units had been installed on some homelands under an earlier remote program called Bushlight.

But most units are now out of service or reaching the end of their life, Original Power reports.

Longden and his researchers have suggested a broad suite of policy responses needed to address chronic energy insecurity.

Nolan argues self-determination for residents is the answer, condemning an “incredibly unequal racial divide going on when it comes to energy”.

Overall, power in the Northern Territory is generated, distributed and billed through three quasi-government agencies – Territory Generation generates the power, the Power and Water Corporation delivers it to households and businesses via a grid, and Jacana Energy bills the customers.

The government also provides electricity to 72 remote communities and 66 outstations through a not-for-profit subsidiary, Indigenous Essential Services.

Overall, most of the power comes from gas-fired generators with diesel/fuel back up, but this varies.

According to recent figures from the Climate Council, Australia has been making progress on increasing the contribution of renewables to its state and territory power grids.

During 2021, the contribution of renewables increased by almost 20% in the National Electricity Market, rising 30% in Victoria and 26% in Western Australia.

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No data was published for the Northern Territory, for which the government has pledged 50% renewables by 2030, and net zero by 2050.

But NT Government estimates put current levels at less than 10% of supply from renewable sources, despite it delivering 10 megawatts of solar generation to some remote communities between 2017 and 2019.

Where community and lobby groups are active, however, things can be different; for example, considerable contributions from solar are now recorded at Alice Springs, where on sunny days up to 40% of power can be from renewables.

Nolan and others aim to work either in partnership with government, or outside of it, and have established the First Nations Clean Energy Network to “harness opportunities arising from the renewables energy boom and to support community-owned renewable projects”.

Since 2021, the Borroloola community, Original Power and renewable energy experts have worked together to conduct a feasibility study to design and build a solar microgrid at Borroloola, and reduce reliance on diesel under a project called Ngardara ‘Sun’ Project.

The project aims to cut household and business energy costs by between 50 and 70 percent by connecting solar to the town’s existing electricity network and installing remote solar units on homelands.

Plans to install a first remote solar unit at 20 Mile Outstation are booked for March.

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