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The Centre for Appropriate Technology (CfAT) has been enabling remote Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities to access renewable energy since its inception, and has been working with the in depth support of EWB on a novel mobile solar energy system since 2019. The ‘Solar Trailer project’ is now entering an exciting phase of the design cycle, which aims to power remote rangers and communities to live, work and thrive on Country.

CfAT’s Bushlight Energy Program was one of the organisation’s very first renewable energy initiatives, designing, building and managing over 250 solar power systems in remote Aboriginal homelands. The system combined solar arrays with storage, a novel energy management system and community energy planning to ensure equitable and sustainable access. However, the cost of constructing a solar power system in remote locations to enable refrigeration, lighting and so on can be high, especially when some sites On Country may only be occupied seasonally or at specific times.

With this in mind, CfAT was keen to explore a more mobile solar generation system, that can be packed up and transported to other sites and removed for maintenance and serviced during the wet season. When EWB Australia went out on Country with CfAT in 2019 to scope our flagship university design program, the EWB Challenge, this idea evolved not only as a student design project but one that EWB Australia saw as an opportunity to bring to life through our own engineering work. EWB Australia is working with CfAT to engineer this system guided by EWB’s Technology Development Approach. With sponsorship from Schneider Electric and the ANU, it aims to enable First Nations communities in the remotest parts of Australia to access a basic human right – energy. 

The initial project was sparked by the need for Indigenous rangers, their families and Elders to have access to energy to live and work on Country. A mobile solar power system utilising a trailer system has been determined as having a range of advantages and the potential to deliver energy at a reasonable cost.

What is needed?

A mobile solar energy system needs to be incredibly robust to face harsh conditions in the very remote areas of Australia. Extreme heat, dust, salt water, rough unsealed roads, long travel distances – not to mention the hundreds of kilometres to make it to the nearest electrician or mechanic if something goes wrong – all deliver specific challenges in developing effective, sustainable technology. Importantly, ensuring the solution is culturally appropriate and suits the way Indigenous rangers work on Country is crucial in determining the most appropriate design.

CfAT engaged with a number of Indigenous and supporting organisations to understand how a portable energy system could benefit the communities they represent or work with. These groups included the Central Land Council, Conservation Management, Country Needs People, Pormpuraaw Land and Sea Rangers, Regional Advisory and Innovation Network, The Nature Conservancy and the Yintjingga Aboriginal Corporation

Letters of support to progress the solar trailer concept explained how the technology could benefit Indigenous rangers to manage their homelands, sharing examples of specific programs and projects that could utilise the technology.

“Much of our work takes place in remote Homeland areas, including our annual monitoring of locally nesting endangered Olive Ridley, Flatback and Hawksbill sea turtles. Our sea turtle monitoring work involves our Junior Rangers during school holidays, and future camps could really benefit from a reliable remote power supply such as the Solar Trailer.” – Robbie Morris, Pormpuraaw Land and Sea Rangers

They also shared how the solar trailer would have beneficial applications beyond the needs of ranger programs.

“The new concept of a solar trailer would greatly support these groups to access country at the right place and the right time.  A mobile system would also allow groups to access country when it suits them, better integrating with the seasonal floods and fire. A mobile power system would also help with connection to country and better equity across homelands – enabling, for example, women, men, elders and youth to get out and stay on country for extended periods, thus allowing for cultural obligations, connection with their country, discussions away from community and management of country while there.” – David Hinchley, Manager – North Australia Program, The Nature Conservancy

Looking into the future, the solar trailer could also provide an opportunity for community-led enterprise.

“Alternatively, local ownership of a Solar Trailer could become the foundation of new remote entrepreneurship. The Solar Trailer thus has potential to serve remote communities in a customised way which is self-determined.” – Ellie Bock, Managing Director, Regional Advisory and Innovation Network (RAIN) Pty Ltd

Students respond to design challenge 

A design brief set down some key mandatories – a mobile system robust enough to withstand the environmental challenges that is able to produce a minimum 10KWh of solar energy per day, including enough battery storage. The budget for construction was capped at $50k for one unit, to ensure that the system could be relatively affordable.

In 2020, thousands of university engineering students across Australia and New Zealand were presented with these caveats in a more detailed design brief as part of the EWB Challenge. Student design concepts were shared with CfAT and EWB Australia’s engineering team which fed into the initial design stage.

University and industry support detailed design and prototyping

The project is now in its detailed design phase with the Australian National University (ANU) contributing funding, alongside in-kind support from its staff and facilities to build the first solar trailer.

Charli Fell is one of the engineering students from the ANU that has been working on the project. 

I have been lucky enough to work on CFAT and EWB’s solar trailer project twice during my coursework at the ANU, with the first project focussing on the design of the mobile solar energy system and the second project focussing on quantifying the environmental impacts of the solar trailer compared with a diesel generator equivalent. This project has been particularly important to me as it first sparked my interest in renewable energies, with access to clean energy now an area of greater interest to me in my studies, work and volunteering. While it was easy to get carried away with making the “best” technical design, these were ultimately futile if they weren’t created with the needs of the community and the environment of the project in mind,” said Charli.

CfAT has also received a generous grant from Schneider Electric to support the prototype build, which includes the electrical subsystem including solar, battery storage and power management. The prototype will also include some componentry donated by EWB partner RS Components.

Andre Grant, Regional Manager – Queensland for the CfAT, is excited by where this project is heading.

“We’re looking forward to the day we can tow this trailer into a remote ranger camp or outstation, fold it out, plug it straight in and give people reliable 24 hour power for the first time.”

If you’re in Canberra over the coming months, you might see the trailer being put through its paces, as the built prototype is tested for safety and reliability. In the second half of this year, the trailer will make its journey to the top end, where pilots will be conducted with a number of Indigenous ranger groups, to assess cultural, economic and technical aspects. Baseline data collection, remote monitoring and post pilot data collection are an essential part of our monitoring and evaluation process, which will inform future iterations and plans for post-pilot scaling. 

Angus Mitchell, part of EWB’s Technology Development team, believes the collaboration between community partner CfAT, universities and industry is a model for reconciliation action. 

“This collaboration is a beautiful example of how non-Indigenous people and organisations can support reconciliation. While EWB is bringing the technology development expertise, the ANU is able to provide a level of rigour and research that will help us deliver something robust and reliable for rangers and remote communities. Hopefully within a few months, we’ll have a piece of technology that helps Aboriginal communities live on their Country, and next year we’ll be able to roll it out to help ranger groups all across the top end,” said Angus.

This program is supported by the generous contribution of individual donors as well as project partners ANU and Schneider Electric. You can support this program too.

Feature image: CfAT’s Andre Grant and EWB’s Alison Stoakley on Country during the initial scoping visit to Cape York in 2019.

This article is produced as part of our RAP commitment to communicating our learnings and sharing case studies from implementing our RAP.