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Toward a Renewable Energy Future: Paupiyala Tjarutja begins solar upgrade at Ilkurlka and plans for

You would think promoting greater use of solar energy in remote desert communities like Tjuntjuntjara is a no brainer and really simple - but it takes a lot of planning and commitment to drive change in our diesel dependent world.

Aside from the technical and design issues, promoting leadership in renewable energy for remote and isolated communities requires community buy-in and people with vision; people who want to work in partnership with industry and government toward a renewable energy future. Its very much an exercise in change management.


As a self-funded enterprise and community amenity Ilkurlka Roadhouse needs to run on the smell of an oily rag. It is extremely remote and isolated and doesn't get government support for power, water and other essential services. Our solar plant and equipment there is often run by vounteers so it needs to be simple and robust, but when things go wrong we need specialists to fix any problems. And we have plans for tourism in Ilkurlka so things have to change. Enter Direct Energy Australia, a company with a great reputation in the renewable energy space.

Our aim in Tjuntjuntjara is to think more widely around solar and renewable energy, not just for Ilkurlka but for Tjuntjuntjara the major population centre as well. To do that we need to develop a leadership program to raise awareness in the community of the role solar energy can play in sustainable community and economic development.

That was the inspiration behind engaging Direct Energy Australia in solar planning for Ilkurlka and Tjuntjuntjara. When Marcus Wearing-Smith, DEA's General Manager, first visited Tjuntjuntjara with MLA Wendy Duncan, our local MP, we were impressed by his enthusiasm for change. Like us he believed policy change is needed to reduce dependence on expensive and environmentally damaging fossil fuels. Transitioning diesel dependent remote communities to more solar energy saves money in the long run and makes good sense. But where is the leadership going to come from?

As an organisation committed to sustainable development PTAC had already taken intiaitive in supporting the Tjuntjuntjara Remote Community School to connect some panels to the local grid, with a $50,000 grant through the Department of Education in 2014.

The next step was to consider wider application and a holistic feasibility design planning exercise in partnership with industry and government.

Anglo Gold Ashanti stepped in with support for a solar energy audit and repairs to Ilkurlka's solar set up and DEA did the work and prepared a report on where to next with planning and works.

John Milliken at Anglo Gold Ashanti and Ian Baird from PIla Nguru Aboriginal Corporation worked with us to get the project moving; the aim being to identify Ilkurlka and Tjuntjuntjara's needs and install an evaporative cooling system in the community hall. The evap system in the hall was funded by the Spinifex Health Service, while Anglo and PTAC supported the Ilkurlka trip.

Direct Energy team on road to Tjuntjuntjara. Photo by Graham Townley

As PTAC's Project Manager, Graham Townley worked with community members and PTAC staff, alongside Max Ploumis (renewables engineer), David Neuwen’s (refrigeration mechanic) and Dean Hemphill (electrician solar). A big thanks to Ray, Kev and others for connecting the hall evaps to the water mains.

The main ideas stemming from DEA's time spent in Tjuntjuntjara and the NG Lands is that economies can be gained from a large range of renewable energy and energy saving initiatives which will involve community leadership and engagement in future feasibility design planning and works.

Guidelines are needed for future building design, which incorporate minimum insulation standards and air conditioning design guidelines. Most repair and maintenance works undertaken in the community are based largely on a needs basis (if it’s broken, fix it) or in relation to constrained budgets and piecemeal funding for isolated work. This increases costs of operation and maintenance over the long term.

From a planning perspective, the best way forward would be to undertake a ‘top down’ review of the current energy architecture of the Tjuntjuntjara townsite to determine the best medium to long term solution for future energy infrastructure development. It is likely that a district-style system will prove viable and reduce ongoing maintenance to a minimum. However rapidly changing storage technologies, redundancy and maintenance costs are critical factors going forward. The goal in the medium term ought to be reducing the CAPEX on replacing diesel gen sets at the powerstation as load demand increases. Fortunately, groups like the Spinifex Ars project are planning to go off grid altogether and any new infrastructure will have solar power factored in.

We will need to chase grant funding for that and work with State agencies like the Department of Housing to find the best way forward.

Future site work will be needed to make progress, including:

  • Site visit to the Tjuntjuntjara power station.

  • Installation of power monitoring systems at the local grocery shop, the school and community main power feed

  • Repair of the contractor cabin evaporative system plenum and unit.

  • Maintenance and assessment of the office building air conditioning system

  • Insulation applied to Community Centre roof and walls.

  • Review of overall insulation requirements for existing and future buildings

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