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First Nations community-owned microgrid in Australia being launched in June

The small community of Marlinja in the Northern Territory is set to become home to Australia’s first 100% First Nations-owned and grid-connected solar microgrid.

Located in the Barkly region, where temperatures reach mid-40s during summer and freezing in the Dry season, Marlinja is one of many remote First Nations communities in Australia experiencing extreme energy insecurity – exacerbated by overcrowded, poorly designed houses and now climate-induced warming.

For project developer Original Power, the community microgrid is a five-year process of creative problem solving and a testament to community-led design and delivery, with the resulting 100kw solar array and 136kwh battery set for commissioning in June 2024.

How was it achieved?

Despite its small size, Marlinja community has never shied away from a challenge. Before embarking on designing and building a microgrid, the region’s Mudburra and Jingili Traditional Owners spent years resisting pressure from a gas fracking industry with its sights set on regional expansion. 

The community wanted to prove that energy produced in more sustainable ways could have better outcomes for their community, the protection of Country and the climate.

Like many First Nations communities, Marlinja residents were witnessing the rest of the country’s rapid shift away from fossil fuels to rooftop solar, and asking, ‘Why can’t that happen here?’ In 2019 they invited Original Power to sit with the community and work towards a solution.

What resulted was the development of a Community Energy Plan with the community deciding on three main objectives:

  1. Improve household energy security by reducing power costs and disconnection rates, and meet a majority of Marlinja’s energy needs with a community owned and operated microgrid.
  2. Design for the community’s present and future. Find efficiencies in the system and share the benefits between the community and the NT Government-run power network.
  3. Use learnings to build a replicable and scalable blueprint for community energy that supports a faster, fairer transition to renewable energy.

With a plan in hand, in May 2020, Marlinja residents took their first steps towards re-powering their community with low cost, clean energy.

The first step

Community buildings are often the centre of community life in regional areas. Marlinja residents began their renewable energy journey by repowering their community centre with solar and batteries in 2020. 

“During COVID-19 outbreaks the centre became a hub for our families to isolate,” says Ray Dixon, a Mudburra elder and key driver of the project.

The community then turned their sights to solve a bigger problem. While the community centre’s power stayed on, their own homes were continuing to suffer disruptions.

Most Australians access energy services through a post-paid billing system. Northern Territory First Nations communities like Marlinja rely on a mandated pre-paid energy system that requires households to ‘top up’ credit and swipe onto a smart meter to access electricity. If there’s no money on the meter, the power simply cuts out. 

With an absence of standard consumer protections for households in hardship, blackouts are common, and can last for days or weeks until residents can pool enough funds to reconnect. 

Rising energy costs are a concern for most Australians. In remote First Nations communities where the cost of living is already beyond what most can afford, regular disconnections mean families can’t cool or heat homes, kids can’t do homework, the fridge goes off spoiling food and medicines, and people’s health can be seriously affected. 

“Our repowered community centre provided a critical cool space to shelter when we had regular supply disruptions, which caused both drinking water and power outages for days or weeks at a time,” said Dixon.

“We wanted that regular power in our homes too.”

Rooftop solar for Marlinja’s 18 homes would be the most cost-effective solution. But early on, Original Power found the NT Government’s Department of Housing was unprepared to work with residents –despite the community having raised the project capital and prepared a plan for ongoing asset management.

Undeterred, Original Power set out to gain connection approval for a grid-connected solar array and battery system that could overcome strict load hosting limitations at the local Elliott power station, and give the community backup for essential services, all while seamlessly integrating with the existing prepaid electricity meters on Marlinja households.

It is that vision that is becoming a reality this year. 

Original Power assisted Marlinja residents in managing the development of the new microgrid project from design through to fundraising, installation and commissioning, with plans for ongoing support in the operational and maintenance phases.

Chantelle Johns is one of several young community leaders who guided Marlinja’s clean energy ambitions from vision to reality. She is now employed by Original Power as Marlinja’s community project coordinator.

“Back in 2019 we invited Original Power to come and work with us to help our community reduce the cost of power and reliance on diesel”, said Johns. “They asked us if we were ready for a challenge. At the time the barriers seemed insurmountable. Five years later, we couldn’t be happier that we took it on, because the results will be life-changing.”

Long road with lasting impacts

Despite Australia having the world's highest uptake of rooftop solar, it can be difficult for regional and remote households and First Nations communities to get policy and regulatory support for community-designed, managed and owned renewable energy solutions. 

Government utilities have been exclusive energy service providers to First Nations communities, such as Power and Water Corporation in the NT, or Ergon Energy in Queensland, for decades.

Upgrading remote power services are often low on the priority list for governments, and reforming historical practices to recognise the opportunities for community ownership and investment in energy infrastructure can be a slow process.

Multiple regulatory and policy challenges needed to be overcome to allow the community’s vision for a microgrid to proceed to connection.

“In the absence of fit-for-purpose regulatory processes, we found that by offering solutions and highlighting mutual benefit opportunities, a more exploratory process emerged that allowed all parties to get better outcomes,” says project manager Madie Sturgess.

One of the most significant wins for the community was the benefit sharing arrangement reached with energy retailer Jacana, which controls the prepaid metering at Marlinja.

Pre-payment meters have historically been used for administrative ease by retailers to automate disconnection. But under a groundbreaking trial negotiated with Jacana, pre-payment smart meter capabilities will be applied for a positive purpose for the first time in Marlinja. 

By applying a fixed daily credit at the back end of household meters, proportional to that being produced at the Marlinja Microgrid, households will benefit directly and equitably from their solar investment, similar to the behind-the-meter benefits received by households with rooftop solar.

Dan Brookes, Original Power’s solar program specialist says it’s a necessary work-around under the mandated pre-paid system. 

“Having a mechanism like this incentivises community investment in remote renewable infrastructure”, says Brookes. “It also ensures residents experiencing energy hardship benefit directly from lower cost electricity.”

Marlinja’s microgrid project provides a critical blueprint for transforming remote power networks with community-led design, development and delivery of renewable energy that genuinely benefits communities and ensures the transition to renewables is faster and fairer for all Australians.

Despite recent flooding stalling progress, project implementation is well underway and the microgrid launch is scheduled for June 2024.



This story first appeared in Renew Magazine.