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First Nations community solving long standing energy security problems with clean energy projects

The community of Marlinja in the Northern Territory is developing a microgrid. The 100kw solar array and 136kWh battery will be connected at the end of April.

Last Christmas the power went down again in the small First Nations community of Marlinja in the Northern Territory, located around 250 kms north of Tennant Creek. For three weeks, while the temperatures routinely reached 42 degrees, the community lost access to power and drinking water.

“We had multiple weeks where we were carrying water in buckets, just to be able to have drinking water or flush the toilet,” Chantelle Johns from the Marlinja community told the SwitchedOn podcast.

Home to 60 people, Marlinja is at the end of a feeder line from a diesel and gas power station in the township of Elliot located 25 kilometres away.

But the transmission line is old and unreliable, and voltage fluctuation issues are common. Back in 2019, the community had had enough.

“It sort of just got to a point where the community as a whole, we were kind of fed up with it, and wanted to know, what was out there that we could explore,” says Johns.

The final push for the community to take action was the threat posed by gas fracking.

“We don't want that. We want something more clean, more reliable, around here,” says Johns. “In fighting against that, that's how we got to learn what else was out there.”

The community turned to Original Power, a small, grassroots, indigenous led community development and capacity building organisation, that works with First Nations communities around the country to help solve some complex problems.

In recent years, Original Power has supported communities to solve long standing energy security problems by helping them move towards lower cost, clean energy.

“One of the key reasons why communities are held back from achieving a fair playing field in terms of economic and social development is because the basics for having a healthy home or a healthy community just don't exist when you don't have access to functional, reliable and affordable power,” Lauren Mellor, Original Power’s Clean Energy Communities Coordinator for the Northern Territory, told the SwitchedOn podcast.

Most Australians access energy services by first using power and then being charged by the utility for the power they use, along with network charges. But in the Northern Territory over 10,000 households access their power through a prepaid metering system.

“We have a mandated system of prepaid metering in the Northern Territory that is almost exclusively targeted at indigenous households,” says Mellor.

Residents are required to top up credit on a power card at a local shop, which is then swiped onto their home meter enabling them to access electricity, so long as the credit lasts.

“While we have a flat tariff in the Northern Territory, people on prepaid meters actually end up paying quite a bit more for their energy services,” says Mellor.

“The lack of insulation, the poorly designed homes, historically overcrowding in the homes, less energy efficient appliances - all of those things lead to higher energy consumption in those homes and people paying really extraordinarily high rates for their power.”

When Original Power started working with the Marlinja community they surveyed residents and found the average spend on electricity through the prepaid metres is about $150 a week, sometimes more depending on how many people are living in the house at any one time.

The Australian National University recently worked with a range of indigenous research partners and community organisations in the Territory to determine what impact prepaid metres are having on communities.

“What they found was, on average, every three days, indigenous customers on prepaid meters are being disconnected from power for periods of 10 hours or longer,” says Mellor. “And we know that, in many cases, those disconnections can last for a lot longer.”

Mellor says people aren't reconnected until they can pull together enough funds to top up their credit.

There are over 70 registered remote communities in the Territory relying on diesel as the primary source of power generation, which has to be either barged or trucked into communities.

“We believe there's about $30 million a year spent burning diesel to supply power to the remote communities,” says Mellor.

“It's a huge operation and a lot of these communities could be better served cost wise and have more resilience in terms of essential services if we were to move away from that total reliance on diesel in the remote areas.”

Turning punitive prepaid power on its head

When Original Power started working with the Marlinja community they chose a renewable energy project everyone in the community would benefit from. They installed solar panels and a battery on the community centre, which is used as a gathering and meeting place, a visiting medical clinic, and for emergency accommodation.

“It also meant we immediately improved the energy resilience of the community there,” says Mellor. “So when we did have supply side blackouts, there was a community centre where people could still turn an air conditioner on or access refrigeration.”

The rooftop solar on the community centre has also provided the community with a modest feed-in tariff, something the average Australian household has been able to access for years.

“It's also brought a lot of opportunities, like for community members with training and jobs,” says Johns. “Even like myself, getting a job with original power and that. It's not really something that's very common in very remote communities.”

Following the success of the community solar and battery, Marlinja started looking at how they could get solar on their houses.

A feasibility study proposed two options – to put rooftop solar on all 18 homes along with installing a centralised battery, or a more complex option, to install a microgrid which would generate power from a separate solar array and battery, and be connected to the diesel generated power station at Elliot.

And whilst it would have made sense to go with the cheaper and simpler option of rooftop solar, Madison Sturgess, the Clean Energy Project Lead for Original Power, says the Department of Housing had recently taken over the lease of the houses in Marlinja and “wasn't ready to take on a new asset class.”

“It was seen as too risky. And again, just for some perspective about that statement, this is based on technology that the average Australian has been benefiting from for 20 years.”

The community had no choice but to go with the micro grid option. A 100kw solar array and 136kWh battery will finally be connected at the end of April.

That will enable the community to have a self-sufficient supply of electricity, and if the grid goes down the micro grid will kick in, providing greater resilience for the community.

It will also minimise the harm that’s historically been created by prepaid power metres in remote communities.  

Original Power investigated whether to try and overturn the prepaid metering framework in the Northern Territory so they could achieve the types of benefits that can lower the cost of energy and give greater access to renewables to communities.

But they admit, working within an unwieldy energy system, they had to pick their battles.

“We made a decision to explore whether there were beneficial uses of the smart metering technology, which could flip the prepaid meter system from being exclusively punitive to something that could be actually used to share the benefits from a community owned renewable micro grid,” says Mellor.

So instead of revenue from the project being a dollar amount in the pocket of community, Sturgess says it becomes “a credit on their prepaid meters, which effectively reduces the cost of electricity …. for the members of the community, which in turn reduces the frequency of disconnections.”

“It's a necessary work around, unless we were to reinvent the metering arrangements in the Northern Territory,” says Mellor, “which is a far bigger battle than we were able to have at the time.”

“We're making these prepaid metre systems less punitive, more inclusive.”

The first Indigenous owned, utility scale renewables project in the Territory

The same method of benefit sharing that Original Power have trialled in Marlinja will now be scaled up on a significantly larger, $18 million, renewable project for Borroloola.

Borroloola is a much larger community of about 1500 people in the Gulf of Carpentaria, near the border between the Northern Territory and Queensland. Original Power was first invited to work with the community to help them resist a push by gas companies to open up a new gas field in the Beetaloo Basin.

Know as the Ngardara, or Sun Project, the Borroloola microgrid will be run as a community owned, not for profit cooperative, comprising a 2.1mW solar array and a 3.6mW battery connected to the diesel power station in Borroloola.

“In Borroloola, people have decided they want to take a more active role in their energy services and to actually be an owner and operator of the micro grid,” says Lauren Mellor. “The community will always hold a majority ownership stake and a controlling decision making capability over the project.”

The project will provide a stream of income for residents in the form of direct crediting onto their power meters, and hopefully reduce the number of disconnections at a household level.

It’s also been designed to enable the community to wind back their diesel generators to the lowest possible level.

“Our estimates for this project are that we can achieve around 75 to 80% renewable energy penetration and even in some cases, use the system in diesel off mode for some parts of the day.”

Mellor says Territory Power and Water will continue to be an essential service provider to all communities in the Northern Territory. But because “we weren't seeing the types of investment or urgency … to ensure that indigenous communities could benefit from renewable energy either at a household or community level,” communities have had to lead the way themselves.

The Ngardara project is due to start construction in mid 2025.


This story was first published on SwitchedOn.