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Some members of the Barkly community in the Northern Territory.

 Some members of the Barkly community in the Northern Territory.

Deep in the outback, about a 90-minute drive from Tennant Creek, two tiny Indigenous communities in the Northern Territory are coming back to life.

Since May, the Kunapa communities of Ngurrara and Kurnturlpara have been returning to the Barkly tableland, moving into the houses that had been abandoned years ago, setting up a School of the Air for their 15 children, and re-establishing their Indigenous culture. In fact, in a little over a month, the population has increased from just two people to about 40. And the reason? Solar power.

Graeme Smith, one of the original inhabitants, came up with the idea of introducing solar power after realising that the cost of living in the bush was unrealistic for many.

“My wife and I were living out there in one of the two houses in our community,” he says. “Twice a week we had to drive for half an hour to get two 44-gallon drums of diesel to power the houses.

“We were spending about $700 a week just on diesel. The neighbouring community had three houses, and they were spending even more.

“Collectively we were easily spending around $1,500 a week to run five houses – and if a generator went down, it would cost at least $2,000 to get someone out to fix it. No economy can sustain that out bush, when there are no jobs and all we have is the welfare system.”

Some of the Barkly community with the recently installed battery storage.
 Some of the Barkly community with the recently installed battery storage. Photograph: All Grid

Eventually the residents left. Many moved to towns such as Tennant Creek, although people would periodically come back and live on country when they could afford it, and stay until the generators ran dry.

“Everyone wanted to live in the houses, they wanted a school out there, and to work the land,” says Smith, “but we needed a more affordable power supply.

“So the Manungurra Aboriginal Corporation [an organisation that represents the Kunapa clan group, and of which Smith is chief executive] thought that, as we get huge amounts of sun out on the Barkly [tableland], solar would make sense for us.”

The solution came when Smith got in touch with Indigenous Business Australia(IBA), an organisation that helps facilitate economic independence for Indigenous communities. IBA agreed to finance a pilot solar and storage project on a seven-year, lease-to-buy agreement with the Indigenous corporation AllGrid Energy.

IBA provided about $240,000 to the project, and a total of 36 kW of solar panels and 67 kWh of gel battery storage were fitted across the five houses and the School of the Air building last month.

Although half the lease repayment comes from Manungurra, the other half comes from the residents. Smith says the lease repayments are about$600 a week across the five houses, less than half of what was being spent in diesel.

But the benefits of the system have not just been financial. Dean Stehling, chief executive of Red Centre Manufacturing (AllGrid Energy’s manufacturing partner), says that despite the fact that managing projects in remote areas can be “very challenging”, the work is satisfying as the benefits to the communities are “life changing”.

The Barkly community’s newly established School of Air for the younger members.
 The Barkly community’s newly established School of Air for the younger members. Photograph: All Grid

Deborah Oberon, marketing and alliance manager from AllGrid Energy, says: “The houses in the Barkly area had no insulation and in the summer they used to get so hot that not even flies would go into them during the day. The cost of diesel in the area made running air conditioning too expensive, but the new system has changed that.

“Power costs have dropped, the solar panels provide additional roof shading and insulation, people no longer have to make the long trip for diesel, and they are able to cool their homes without having to listen to the constant noise of the generators, or smell the fumes. These might be simple things that we take for granted, but it has been a significant change.”

Alleviating the power cost has had the desired effect of bringing people back to the community. Smith estimates 40 people have returned since the project started in June.

“Now the houses are full, we have the numbers to do things,” he says. “We have been able to set up a School of the Air for the children, we can now [sub-contract] remote jobs and community programs [now community development programs], and we’re about to pick up municipal services, local government repair and maintenance money for our houses as well.

“On top of that, we expect to develop our cattle and bring on a fodder farm that brings more income and economy to the community. We’re giving people a reason to live here.”

The arrival of the solar panels in Barkly in the Northern Territory.
 The arrival of the solar panels in Barkly in the Northern Territory. Photograph: All Grid

“Tennant Creek is a scattered community and the old culture has been slowly eroding as the older people go, but by returning to country we’re able to be more Indigenous [with traditional practices like hunting and foraging] and ensure that the culture, storyline and songlines continue.”

There could be more arrangements such as these cropping up in other remote communities across Australia soon. By monitoring the Ngurrara and Kurnturlpara communities’ data and energy usage, AllGrid hopes to design more bush-specific solar systems, and create a wider-reaching Oasis Strategy that could help more Indigenous communities become self-sufficient.

Ray Pratt, AllGrid Energy’s chief executive, says the strategy could provide renewable energy, communications, water purification, fuel and even housing. For example, there are plans to introduce flat-packed housing materials made from recycled materials to create affordable, recyclable, and bush-fire resistant homes, while green fuel could be produced from small-scale, fully containerised bio-diesel refineries.

“Australia is a very wealthy, first world country, but we still have people living in third world conditions in our remote communities,” he says.

“Indigenous people have always had a sense of connection with the earth that sustains us, but the cost of modern life has meant that we’ve lost that. We’re trying to help recapture that, and make remote Indigenous communities self-sufficient and sustainable on their own land once again.”

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