Power to the People in Remote Communities

17 May 2017 Geoffrey Craggs, Research Analyst, Northern Australia and Land Care Research Programme

Background

The use of solar energy in the production of electrical power is not a new concept. In 2017, as an alternative to the burning of fossil fuels to generate power, renewable solar energy is being used world-wide and is increasing exponentially. As engineering and technological advancements in solar power generation and storage continue, governmental response must meet the needs of isolated and remote Aboriginal communities.

Comment

Australia is gradually moving towards the large-scale use of renewable solar energy. The change is due, in part, to our climate and the abundance of sunshine needed to provide solar energy. Other factors relating to economics and an obligation to the environment by combatting climate change are further reasons for promoting the use of solar energy. Developments in solar technology have resulted in a wide range of applications. From the powering of industry to relatively small arrays of panels on homes, all designed to supplement or replace electrical power drawn from the national grid. Solar energy is widely use in regional Australia to power industry, agriculture and the resources sector. It is a major component of planning for the supply of electricity to regional centres in the Gascoyne and Pilbara such as Karratha in WA.

The move toward solar energy to remote Indigenous communities, particularly in northern Australia, is also increasing.  Currently, communities in the Northern Territory and Queensland, including remote islands off the northern coast, are either operating or are considering the feasibility of solar energy to provide their power generation. To a lesser degree, plants also operate at several remote Aboriginal communities in WA where, as an example, one designed to service up to ten buildings is being commissioned at Leonora.

A range of key drivers is promoting the introduction of solar energy to regional and remote communities. The Renewable Energy Target requires 20 per cent of Australia’s electricity to be produced from renewable energy sources by 2020. State and Local governments are concerned about the relatively high costs of providing electricity to remote areas. The cost of maintaining poles and wires and the management of power distribution alone is significant and ongoing. The price of diesel fuel to run power generators is also a factor where, at some Aboriginal communities, those costs can account for as much as $2,000 per quarter, translating to $0.25 to $2.00/kWh. In addition to physical and legislative requirements, social drivers, such as commitment to environmental protection and sustainability and reducing the production and release of greenhouse gases, factor highly as motivators for solar energy. Australia’s sometimes rugged terrain and vast distances particularly in the NT and in northern WA, combine as factors that preclude many communities from accessing grid power, meaning that alternatives need to be sought to provide people living in those communities with electricity.

Debate concerning the development and implementation of solar energy apply to two distinct aspects. At government level concern relates to legislation and an absence of policy relating to tariffs and distribution management. Allied to this, the Australian Energy Storage Roadmap, denotes remote Aboriginal communities not connected to an existing electricity grid, will face issues with connection costs and integrating power generation and the distribution systems. Notwithstanding, these should not represent as significant roadblocks as, with solar generation, a community would be considered “off-grid” and would not incur the heavy connections cost associated with remote and isolated locations.

The other barrier to the development of renewable solar technologies is the storage of energy for use at night or at times when direct sunlight is limited such as during the northern wet season. Past research and the global move toward solar technology have seen the emergence of strong markets for battery-storage technology in the US, Europe and some parts of Asia in particular China. In Australia, research continues aligned to the world trend to integrating energy storage into the power system that concentrates on the use of lithium ion batteries.

The positive features of establishing renewable energy supply systems to remote and isolated Aboriginal communities are many: creation of “green” and related employment opportunities in installing, monitoring and maintaining the equipment and infrastructure; training across a range of trades and allied occupations; growth of local economies by enabling small business to develop thus keeping money in the community; significant savings in household energy costs; and, substantial reductions in greenhouse gas emissions from not running generators powered by diesel fuel.

Importantly, for the people living in those remote communities, taking real and positive steps to ameliorate the effects of climate change by moving toward renewable energy is seen to be appropriate. Care of the land and environmental sustainability are fundamental factors of the spiritual, physical and social elements in Aboriginal culture. To be giving back to nature, by reducing the reliance on energy produced by burning fossil fuels, is a clear and significant demonstration of honouring and caring for the land and natural environment. Complementing that affect will be enabling Aboriginal communities to move towards realising long-term goals of sustainable resource management and concentrating towards self-governance and economic independence.

Any opinions or views expressed in this paper are those of the individual author, unless stated to be those of Future Directions International.

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