First Nations Community-Owned Microgrid Launched in Australia

June 12, 2024
The residents of the Marlinja outstation say their grid-connected solar microgrid is the first in Australia to be owned by a First Nations community.

In the remote Barkly region of Australia’s Northern Territory, about halfway between Alice Springs and Darwin, sits the small First Nations outstation of Marlinja. Home to roughly 60 people, the outback community recently celebrated the launch of what it says is the first First Nations-owned grid-connected solar microgrid in Australia.

The microgrid includes a 100 kW solar array and a 136 kWh battery and took five years to complete as community members and Original Power, the non-profit developer for the project, navigated the design, fundraising, installation and commissioning process.

“We knew there was a better way to live”

Home to Uluru, formerly known as Ayers Rock, Australia’s Northern Territory has a rich indigenous culture. But beyond the tourist areas, remote First Nations communities in the region are plagued by energy insecurity and high energy prices.

For many, electricity is provided via pre-paid meters. Like pay-as-you-go mobile phone plans, the consumer purchases the amount of electricity they expect to need for a given period of time. Once the credit runs out, the meter shuts off power to the home. 

“Many times our whole community has lost power and water for weeks due to failures in the power network, and our families are being disconnected for days at a time when our pre-paid meter credit runs out,” said Ethan Godrey, a Marlinja resident and one of project’s biggest proponents.

“We knew there was a better way to live and that's why we started this solar power journey so we could use cheaper, cleaner power from the sun,” he added.

Cleaner, cheaper electricity

In 2019, Original Power, a community-focused Aboriginal organization, partnered with the Marlinja residents to develop a renewable energy solution that would provide not only low cost, clean energy but also long-term employment opportunities for community members who will operate and maintain the microgrid.

Original Power worked with Jacana Energy, the Northern Territory’s primary electricity retailer to develop a unique benefit sharing program that allows First Nations pre-paid meter customers to share solar cost savings similar to those awarded to homeowners with behind-the-meter rooftop solar systems.

“The Marlinja microgrid project demonstrates the technical, regulatory and policy solutions to support the wider uptake of renewable energy in First Nations’ communities and drive improvements in household energy security, affordability and climate resilience,” said Lauren Mellor, clean energy communities project coordinator for Original Power.

A model for other First Nations communties

The Marlinja microgrid was partially funded by the Barkly Regional Deal, an agreement between the governments of Australia and the Northern Territory, as well as the Barkly Regional Council. The deal is a 10-year, $67.3 million (A$100.5 million) commitment to improving the productivity and livability of the Barkly region.

The remainder of the $502,000 (A$750,000) project cost was covered by financial donations and technology contributions from companies like 5B, which provided the system’s solar panels.

“We are looking forward to seeing the lessons from the Marlinja microgrid development adopted by government and industry in a wider roll-out of community determined renewables to support a faster, fairer energy transition in which First Nations communities play a vital partnership role in project delivery,” said Karrina Nolan, executive director of Original Power.

About the Author

Kathy Hitchens | Special Projects Editor

I work as a writer and special projects editor for Microgrid Knowledge. I have over 30 years of writing experience, working with a variety of companies in the renewable energy, electric vehicle and utility sector, as well as those in the entertainment, education, and financial industries. I have a BFA in Media Arts from the University of Arizona and a MBA from the University of Denver.

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