Sparks in the Desert

11 Jan 2018

Author: Ruby Lohman

Photography: Jason McIntosh, Desert Knowledge Australia

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Nestled deep in Australia’s Red Centre, the Desert Knowledge Precinct is home to innovative organisations and initiatives that create opportunities for desert communities. These include the Intyalheme Centre for Future Energy, which aims to become a world leader in renewables research.
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The desert is a demanding place to live and no one knows that more than the people at Desert Knowledge Australia (DKA) in Alice Springs.

DKA is leading the way in understanding challenges and creating new opportunities for people in desert areas. 

Established in 2003 as a statutory corporation of the Northern Territory Government, DKA identifies and develops projects, networks and partnerships that benefit remote desert communities both locally and globally, from programs that build social and leadership capacity among Aboriginal people to a Solar Centre in which manufacturers from around the world test their renewable energy technologies.  

DKA is now set to become a trailblazer in renewable energy research and knowledge with the opening of the Intyalheme Centre for Future Energy (Intyalheme).

“Through the Centre, we will provide access to the knowledge and expertise that’s driving innovation, growth and thinking around smart energy delivery in regional and remote Australia,” says Lauren Ganley, DKA’s Chief Executive Officer. 

Intyalheme is based at the Desert Knowledge Precinct, located between the iconic town of Alice Springs and its airport. Stretching across 73 hectares, it’s covered by an Indigenous Land Use Agreement between native title holders Lhere Artepe Aboriginal Corporation, the Northern Territory Government, Central Land Council and Desert Knowledge Australia.

The Precinct is a hub of innovation for Central Australia and desert regions, and is home to organisations including DKA, the CSIRO, Centre for Appropriate Technology and Batchelor Institute of Indigenous Tertiary Education. 

The Desert Knowledge Precinct has become a launching pad for initiatives, including tertiary education courses for Indigenous Australians, locally designed textiles featured at London Fashion Week, and Bushlight India – an award-winning renewable energy project by the Centre for Appropriate Technology (CfAT) and its subsidiary Ekistica, enabling communities in rural India to access reliable, affordable energy.

Powering remote communities 

Lack of reliable, affordable energy in rural areas is a major factor inhibiting the development of local economies. From 2002 to 2013, the Bushlight Project, run by CfAT ,worked with remote Aboriginal communities across northern and central Australia to provide reliable renewable energy supported by community engagement and energy planning education. 

Established by CfAT in 2007, Ekistica works with clients in 13 countries throughout Asia Pacific to solve problems in engineering and project development and delivery. It draws on CfAT’s knowledge gained through 35 years of working with people in remote areas and applies this to projects globally. In this way, Ekistica is reversing the traditional model that sees Indigenous communities around the world impacted by the decisions of others and type-cast as importers of knowledge.

In 2008, Ekistica took the Bushlight initiative to India, working with community organisations and renewable energy industry participants, as well as the Indian Government, to develop the Bushlight India Model. Using centralised solar PV energy systems, the Bushlight India Project developed a small electrical metering device, called Urja Bandhu (‘Energy Friend’), to provide an individually programmable amount of electricity to each consumer every 24 hours, with a display that shows the ‘energy budget’ available.

“In 2011, the Bushlight India Project won the Sir William Hudson Engineering Excellence Award, which is the most prestigious engineering award in Australia,” says Ganley.

Ganley is a passionate champion for change. A descendant of the Kamilaroi people, she joined DKA as CEO in January 2017 after more than 30 years with Telstra. In her most recent role as Head of Telstra’s National Indigenous Directorate, Ganley led programs and business activities to improve digital and social inclusion for Indigenous communities across Australia.

She is currently Chair of Telstra’s Indigenous Advisory Committee, a Director of Kakadu Tourism and an Ambassador for Indigenous Community Volunteers. 

A bright spark in renewable energy

Renewable energy is playing an increasingly important role in remote communities worldwide, including in Alice Springs, where it powers the Desert Knowledge Precinct. DKA partnered with Ekistica in 2008 to establish the DKA Solar Centre, a solar technology demonstration and research facility, which houses 45 solar technologies from manufacturers in 13 countries. The Centre allows manufacturers to test different technologies and prove the reliability of solar. 

It is one of only four in the world providing referenced, long-term solar data, which is accessible to anyone online. Right now there are more than 5,500 users, more than half of whom are international. 

“The Centre sits in the band of the most intense solar radiation in the country, and we have clear, cloudless skies, so we are able to capture very consistent data that has relevance globally,” says Ganley. 

Powerful potential 

Almost 10 years after the Solar Centre opened, DKA has taken another big leap forward launching the ICFE. It will be a repository for cutting-edge research and knowledge on renewables, bringing together leading researchers and launching new partnerships. 

“We will be inclusive of all industry players, because together we’re going to be much more impactful,” says Ganley. “We will also create opportunities for our partnerships that will attract further investment.” 

According to Ganley, DKA plans to set the Precinct up as a microgrid – a local energy source that is able to disconnect from the traditional grid and operate autonomously, using 100 per cent renewable energy. 

The technology, however, is only half the story, with DKA and Intyalheme also exploring ways of empowering and partnering with people and communities in remote areas. 

“The Centre is as much about social and economic development as it is about technology,” says Ganley. 

On the desert horizon

Beyond renewable energy, DKA has a host of exciting initiatives in play and on the horizon. Guided by the cultural advice of DKA’s Aboriginal Elder in Residence, Harold Furber, the organisation is further developing the Precinct into a world-leading hub, creating a new visitor experience, and activating the recently established Desert Knowledge Foundation. 

The Foundation will lead new research into social and economic sustainability in desert communities, which will inform DKA’s future programs and projects. 

“DKA is at a perfect point right now to be delivering some really innovative ideas,” says Ganley. “Our door is always open. We’re open to any ideas that contribute to growing a rich, sustainable economy. We talk about being disruptive – well, I say, bring it on, and let’s see what we can do to achieve some really great outcomes for a better Australia.” 

Find out more about Desert Knowledge Australia.