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Cosmos: Calls for extension of solar power to more Indigenous communities

In Tennant Creek, the sun shines about 300 days of the year but for many in the Indigenous community, that energy isn’t being put to good use in the home.

The Northern Territory town has 2949 residents. More than half of them identify as Indigenous and many of those who live in public housing have a system of prepaid access to electricity. When they cant pay, the electricity is immediately disconnected.

Researchers at the Australian National University (ANU) used one house – known as Village Camp House 4 – as a pilot study to test the effectiveness of connecting solar energy for prepay customers.

Those customers, who ANU researchers describe as “trailblazers”, were Warumungu elder Norman Frank-Jupurrurla and his family.

“The family ran out of prepaid at least 12 times a year for an average 10 hours at a time,” ANU researcher Dr Simon Quilty says.

“When they run out of power on a very hot day, they have to vacate their house. The inside of these Besser Block houses gets hotter than outside.”

Quilty says not only does air-conditioning not work, but food and medications spoil.

Previous research found that 91% of the 3300 households living in 28 communities in the Northern Territory where prepay is mandated experienced self-disconnection events in the 2018/19 financial year. For nearly three-quarters of households, that happened more than 10 times.

“When we disconnect, it’s really hard,” Frank-Jupurrurla says. “We worry about the fridge, cold water. The food goes off.”

In the pilot study, the ANU team and Aboriginal-led charity Original Power worked with the householders to install 6.6kW of solar on their government-owned, council-managed home.

Original Power had raised funds for a demonstration project to focus on improving access to renewable energy for prepay customers living in public housing in the Northern Territory.

As a pilot project, the installation had to hurdle untested regulatory requirements, a process the researchers say took months. The home became the first ever publicly owned house in the Northern Territory to be granted access to connect solar panels.

In the year following installation of the solar panels, the family in Village Camp House 4 had no power interruptions.

During 2021/22 expenditure on purchase of grid electricity was 39% lower than for 2019/20. This represents avoided grid electricity expenses of $1067 to $1130 for the period between November and June, or approximate indicative avoided costs of $133 per month.

Brad Riley, from the ANU Centre for Aboriginal Policy Research, said the pilot study showed rooftop solar reduced costs of energy which resulted in fewer disconnections.

He said it demonstrated prepay was not a barrier to connecting solar.

“Of course it can be done for other households,” Quilty says. “In Australia, more than 3.4 million households realise the benefits of rooftop solar, but for Indigenous people who prepay for electricity, it’s a rarity.

“Indigenous people are among the poorest in Australia. Other countries, like Germany, make prepaid rooftop solar a standard matter. Why isn’t it being rolled out to lower-income people in Australia?”

Frank-Jupurrurla says the family no longer has to worry about power disconnection.

“We call the sun Kilyirr,” he says. “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.”

Quilty has called for “no more research”.

“It is absolutely clear to blind freddy that rooftop solar is a clear solution for prepaid customers,” he says.

Instead, in their summary article, researchers have called for the “economic inclusion” of First Nations people in energy transition, including extending funding support for access to solar to public housing residents using prepay.


This article first appeared in Cosmos.