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Rooftop Solar Trial for Remote First Nations People

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In solar-rich areas of Australia (like the Outback of the sparsely populated Northern Territory) electricity supply is tenuous and expensive, often supplied by polluting diesel generators. I have wondered why solar is not installed on every rooftop. Here is a possible explanation.

“In remote First Nations communities in the Northern Territory, you don’t see solar on any rooftops. That’s a real problem. This part of Australia is dangerously hot in summer. And many people don’t have enough power to run vital appliances like the fridge and air conditioner. [If they have one]. Solar would be an ideal solution. Tennant Creek has over 300 days per year of sunshine with some of the clearest skies in the world, for instance.” The town is situated almost 1000 km south of Darwin (Northern Territory’s capital city) and has a population of 3000, half of them First Nations people.

A recent successful pilot project in Tenant Creek demonstrated the value of having solar panels installed. However, navigating the red tape to have the solar installed was a difficult process.

Remote First Nations communities living in “town camps” use a prepaid electricity plan. “In this model, people ‘top up’ the meter with credit. When credit runs out, the electricity disconnects until more credit is purchased. The electricity here is usually produced by diesel generators.”

This model is often preferred by First Nations communities because it minimizes bill shock. It is similar to the model of my childhood where money was put in the gas meter. However, there can be sudden disconnections. On very hot days, if power goes out as air conditioners and fridges work harder, not only will it get very uncomfortable, but there is every chance that food and medications will spoil. Those reliant on medical devices are at serious risk.

The health of First Nations people suffer, as internal house temperatures can reach 40℃, people can’t sleep, and learning at school stops. In this situation, tempers can boil over also. Remote housing in the Northern Territory is not energy efficient, often scoring just 5 stars or less on a 10-star scale. To keep the house “thermally safe” requires more electricity. Hot weather increases the disconnection rate, which averages more than 10 times a year.

Add the increasing temperatures from climate change and you have a slow-boiling frog. By 2050, some modeling predicts that there will be 176 days per year over 35 degrees Celsius, and by the end of the century, 288 days — almost the whole year.

“We struggle every day. Our people, they’re not healthy. Lots of people in this town are on renal [dialysis]. Solar should be talked about in parliament and put on the table,” says Warumungu elder Frank Jupurrurla.

Watch Frank’s video here. Uncle Frank took part in the rooftop solar trial, supported by Original Power. The solar panels provided a third of the power for the house and removed the threat of disconnections. It should be noted that Mr Jupurrurla received no government subsidies, unlike most of us living in cities. He expects the system to pay for itself within three years. That’s a good investment!

“We call the sun Kilyirr […] Right now he’s shining on my panels, he’s giving me power, and he looks after us. So that Kilyirr, he gonna be there forever.”

The red tape blocking solar on rooftops in remote First Nations communities involves getting approval for work on public housing, securing feed-in tariffs, and metering requirements. These are not easy to navigate.

“The barriers was from the day we started. Before that, we’d argue with [Department of] Housing, and they said we have to check inside and check if the house is strong enough. Once we had the panels on, then it took us a while to [turn] it on. It was pretty frustrating. It took Power and Water more than three months just to switch the switch on. It was so hard. I rang the housing minister but nothing happened. So one day I just went out there to the box and switched it on myself.”

Getting the required engineering signoff for the roof would have been a nightmare all on its own. Perhaps Tenant Creek has a resident engineer, but I doubt it.

“Existing housing in remote areas is old and poorly constructed. In many remote Indigenous communities in the NT, you don’t need a building permit or even a qualified builder to build a house. Houses have missing doors, boarded-up windows, no air conditioners, are often un-insulated, have failed plumbing and have been poorly maintained over decades,” Simon Quilty and Norman Frank Jupurrurla write.

Rooftop solar trial

Sun after red tape: Frank Jupurrurla (centre), with family members Serena and Nina-Simone (left), and Lauren Mellor (Original Power). Photo courtesy of Original Power, used by permission.

“A 6.6 kilowatt solar array was installed on Mr Jupurrurla’s house and switched on in November 2021. The house kept its grid connection and no battery was installed. Household residents received a crash course from the installers, First Nations organisation Original Power, on making the most of the solar for example by running the washing machine during daylight hours.

“The result? Solar generates a third of the total power use in any given month. But more importantly, through reducing energy costs, disconnections stopped entirely. This removed a huge source of stress and made the home safer and more enjoyable, according to the family.”

As Mr Jupurrurla says: “We used to put a lot of power cards in nearly every day, second day. Now we got money all the time since we’ve got solar.”

This trial has shown what is possible, and that we can have a wider rollout. It appears that the major issue is Territory government departments. The ongoing rollout of prepay smart meters to remote housing will enable the installation of solar panels.
“The NT government must find ways to overcome these barriers. The Territory government has responsibilities as both the landlord for housing and as the monopoly energy provider. A key first step would be to smooth the path with clear paperwork and incentives for prepay households to install solar.”

Solar Rooftop trial

Installation took a fraction of the time to get approvals. Photo courtesy of Original Power. Used with permission.

Culturally appropriate communication in First Nations languages to explain the process would then be the next step. Some government funding would help defray the upfront cost. I would hope that communities could co-ordinate their efforts so that teams of qualified workers could visit and do multiple inspections and installs to help minimize cost.

As Frank Jupurrurla says, “I’d like to see government fund […] panels on homes. Especially in the Community Living Areas [Town Camps] in places like Alice Springs, Tenant Creek, and Katherine.”

Steps are being taken by the Northern Territory government “… to deliver 70% renewable energy penetration to the 72 remote communities currently provided electricity through the Indigenous Essential Services (IES) program.

“The main source of electricity in IES communities is diesel-fired generation. The strategy aims to reduce energy-related diesel consumption in these communities whilst improving energy security and reducing emissions.”

Hopefully, next year I can report on progress with Australia’s First Nations people’s access to solar power, and improving health outcomes. Perhaps they can be connected to create another Project Symphony?

Featured photo by Frank Jupurrurla

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Written By

David Waterworth is a retired teacher who divides his time between looking after his grandchildren and trying to make sure they have a planet to live on. He is long on Tesla [NASDAQ:TSLA].


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