Indigenous communities have some of the most unreliable, expensive power in Australia, with a recent study finding almost three quarters of households in remote Northern Territory communities lost power more than 10 times, often for significant periods on “dangerously” hot days.
Alarmingly, regulations have until now completely blocked communities in public housing from connecting rooftop solar because they use a prepaid meter system.
In a country that leads the world in rooftop solar penetration, the first ever publicly owned house in the Northern Territory was granted access to connect its solar panels over the weekend.
Warumungu Traditional Owner, Norman Jupurrurla Frank has actually had his pv system sitting on his roof since August. He hasn’t been allowed to connect it though because like the almost all remote Indigenous community households, his electricity meter works on a prepaid system, which cuts power as soon as the household’s electricity “credit” runs out.
News of the first rooftop solar connection, which followed a long battle by Frank and community-organisation Original Power, comes just days after the Australian National University (ANU) led a study published in Nature Energy revealing the extent of energy poverty in the Territory’s remote communities. It found almost all, 91%, of remote Indigenous community households in the Territory had their electricity disconnected in financial year 2018-19.
Three quarters, 74%, of the 3,300 households surveyed across 28 remote communities lost power more than 10 times. These disconnections could last hours or even days and were most likely to occur in “dangerously” hot temperatures, which are becoming evermore frequent on the frontline of Australia’s changing climate. Tennant Creek, where Frank lives in the Territory’s centre, recorded temperatures over 40°C nearly 50 times last year, according to the ABC.
Electricity in remote Indigenous communities generally comes from diesel generators, which are not only polluting, unreliable, but also extremely expensive, with individuals paying up to $100 a week for power – considerably more than it costs in cities and towns. The energy poverty in these communities then compounds economic poverty, while also foreclosing opportunities for these communities to build enterprises which could break the cycle as it means they constantly lose, for instance, telecommunications services and can’t meet basic needs like keep their refrigerators running to store medicine.
“People are still living rough, houses are hot in summer with no insulation and burning like an oven, and in winter they are freezing like a fridge,” Frank said.
First rooftop solar connection granted access
The solar installation on Frank’s household was paid for by Original Power, which is seeking to include First Nations Australians in the clean energy movement. For the organisation, the installation was part of a case study to identify and overcome regulatory and technical barriers locking Indigenous households out of the benefits of rooftop solar – like the prepaid metering system.
“What we’re trying to do through pilot projects and associated policy reform is to try to get models that can be rolled out among remote communities to achieve that direct equitable benefit to the household,” Original Power’s Coordinator of the Clean Energy Communities Project, Lauren Mellor, told pv magazine Australia.
“That hasn’t been looked at before in the Northern Territory, it’s not really a model that exists in many places in Australia, and certainly not something we’ve found that can be easily transferable to Northern Territory conditions where most communities are on these prepaid metering systems,” she added.
“Unless we can get transparent, equitable and direct benefits to Indigenous households, there’s not really any point in [First Nations] organisations using what little resources they have to invest in solar and battery assets at the moment, and certainly there’s been no support forthcoming from the government to look any sort of large-scale solar rollout for community and public housing.”
Extreme temperatures compounding unreliability
Coming back to the ANU study, which was published in Nature Energy, it found households with high electricity use located in the central climate zones of Australia had a one-in-three chance of a same-day disconnection on very hot or very cold days. This is compounded by the poor quality of the housing which is often also overcrowded.
The study’s authors note their already alarming figures might actually be an “underestimate” as well, since there are many more households using prepayment metering than those represented in the study.
“Remote communities are not covered by the policy protections that the vast majority of Australians enjoy,” report author Dr Thomas Longden, from ANU, said.
“These communities are facing the failure of policy around the collision of climate change and energy regulation. It’s dangerous for Indigenous communities,” the study’s co-author Dr Simon Quilty, an ANU researcher based in central Australia, said.
He described the power cuts is “punishing Indigenous communities” as they face climate change and a global pandemic.