A light in the bush

A light in the bush

A pilot project at an Indigenous ranger station in northern Queensland has shown how collaboration can help bring low-cost sustainable power to remote bush locations—and turn off the polluting generators. By David Tolliday.

For many years now, volunteers with the Alternative Technology Association (ATA, ReNew’s publisher) have been working with other organisations to provide solar lighting and improve quality of life in East Timor. Last year, ATA’s volunteers were called on to similarly help power up Oriners Ranger Base in Cape York, northern Queensland.

A seed is sown
In 2014, the Kowanyama Shire Council’s Land Office invited the Centre for Appropriate Technology (CAT) to visit their Oriners Ranger Base (160 km west of Laura, on the Cape York Peninsula) to look into the power and water situation there. In particular, the base was in need of a new, reliable stand-alone solar energy system to replace the old 12 V system that had, sadly, been stolen from the site a couple of years earlier.

The land office hoped CAT’s experience and design knowledge would help them find the best way to set up a system, maximising the use of very limited funds (from their own income sources) to achieve a high-quality, durable remote-area solar power system. Looking at the challenge, CAT considered a collaborative model that would incorporate pro-bono installation by experienced solar industry professionals combined with ‘sweat equity’ from the community. This model would use key elements of their highly successful Bushlight Program (see box), along with the pro-bono partnerships.

A project is born
In early 2015, after discussions with the ATA (whom CAT considered a natural partner for the project), CAT’s pilot proposal was accepted. The ATA had agreed to support the pilot by sourcing two volunteers with the appropriate technical expertise and experience to take care of the installations.

The ATA put out a national call for suitable volunteers and, after a selection process, I was chosen to be the lead installer, with John Dickie assisting. I’m from Melbourne and John’s from Canberra, and we are both electricians and Clean Energy Council (CEC) accredited solar installers.

After months of planning, we arrived in Cairns to meet CAT’s Project Manager, Andre Grant. We then spent two days checking and loading equipment, and purchasing last-minute supplies before heading off for the seven-hour 4WD trip to Oriners Ranger Base.

After meeting the Indigenous rangers—’Brolga’ (Philip Yam), Garry Hudson and John Clark—along with land and sea manager Chris Hannocks and local Kowanyama Shire electrician Jared Warren, we surveyed the existing power setup. It consisted of an array of petrol generators, extension leads, portable lights and power boards, mostly laying across the ground. In anticipation of the arrival of the truck and container the next day, we headed to bed early.

As with all good plans, things didn’t go quite right—the truck had to turn back because of a leaking radiator; two days later, it arrived. The days were very hot and the humidity high, so work was limited to early morning and late afternoon. (You know it’s hot when not even the Indigenous rangers will work in the midday heat!) At one point we realised we had miscalculated the required quantity of array cable. Some frantic telephone calls later, we had the parts on a plane to the local town—a three-hour round trip away.

We had a time limit of two weeks, which sounds plenty; however, wiring the ranger station made our job more involved, and we also installed the container we shipped up with our solar equipment as a new secure kitchen/storage area, to help prevent thefts when the rangers were away.

Early in the second week, we were finally able to test and commission the stand-alone power system, and so turn off the noisy, polluting generators. Oriners Ranger Base now had a reliable, sustainable 240 V power supply—for light, power and, importantly, refrigeration, for maintaining food for the rangers over the wet season, when access is severely restricted.

We finally broke camp on the Tuesday to head back to Cairns. Taking two days, we checked out the next possible project at a ’nearby’ Indigenous-owned cattle station. Back in Cairns, we had a night out to celebrate a successful project before boarding our planes home the next day.

Highlights (and challenges!)
It was challenging, not only because we were miles from any suppliers, but also because it was hot: very, very hot. It was a great experience, however, and the team worked well together. Having the opportunity to share my solar knowledge with John, Jared and Andre was very rewarding. The Indigenous rangers really appreciated our efforts, and they were also great—sharing their knowledge and stories, and taking us ‘red claw’ (freshwater crayfish) hunting for our dinner. I can highly recommend volunteering.

For John: “As well as a fantastic experience working in a remote location and meeting some sensational people, it was great to be able to contribute, albeit in a small way, to the installation of sustainable, clean, quiet technology that provides more reliable power for essential items such as refrigeration, lighting and communications, and which should have a long lifespan. This, in turn, allows the traditional owners and rangers to more effectively look after and manage their country.”

Technical details
The project was to design and install a reliable and robust stand-alone power system that would provide at least 10 kWh per day of 240 V supply to the ranger’s house and shed, to replace aging generators that were not only noisy and unreliable, but also produced considerable pollution.

The design was based on a DC-coupled PV array stand-alone configuration; however, with changes in industry practices and thinking, we would consider an AC-coupled system for future installations.

One issue that became apparent in designing this system was the change in the requirement of power conversion equipment (inverters and charge controllers) in AS/NZS 5033, which came into effect in July 2015. Many of the tried-and-true charge controllers used in stand-alone power systems for years no longer complied, and the newer, approved models were not readily available.

Finally, reliability and redundancy were major considerations in this design. In line with CAT’s experience, the system was robustly designed to ensure the realities of remoteness and poor access to service and support would not lead to system breakdown or failure.

Key specs:

  • PV modules: 24 x BenQ model PM060P00-255 (total 6.12 kW)
  • PV mounting frame: Clenergy PV-ezRack® SolarTerrace II-A
  • Inverter: Selectronics SP-Pro SPMC481-AU 5 kW
  • Charge controller: 2 x Studer Vario Track VT80 MPPT charge controllers
  • Batteries: 24 x Hoppecke 8 OPzV Solar 1000Ah VRLA (50 kWh)
  • Surge protection: 2 x MidNite MNSPD DC Type 1 devices
  • Capacity: Minimum 10 kWh per day from 50 kWh battery bank

About CAT
Governed by a majority Indigenous Board, the Centre for Appropriate Technology is a not-for-profit technology innovation company that works with remote Indigenous communities to design, build and manage technologies that support self-reliance and economic independence.
CAT is well known for its Bushlight Program, which designed and installed 130 solar systems (stand-alone and hybrid) to provide reliable, affordable 24-hour power to small communities across Australia. Bushlight systems near Kowanyama include Fish Hole, Scrubby Bore and Baas Yard.

The Bushlight approach ensures that system design is based on community planning processes that benchmark current and future energy needs, and provides community-based training in monitoring and managing the systems to maintain optimal loads and performance. This project provided the opportunity to develop a new model for delivering solar power with limited funding, while incorporating the sustainability and reliability delivered by the Bushlight approach. It hopefully benchmarks a process that will be of benefit to other remote ranger bases and homelands.

David Tolliday is a senior instructor in renewable energy training at Holmesglen Institute in Melbourne. He holds CEC accreditation in grid-connected PV and stand-alone (off-grid), small wind and hybrid power systems.

Read more articles in ReNew 135.

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