A container of power for Arnhem Land

The Yolngu people opened the 19th Garma Festival with a stirring traditional ceremony—bodies painted, clapsticks beating, feet stamping, calls echoing native animals and songlines passed down over tens of thousands of years. The four-day event on Gumatj land in north-east Arnhem Land—the most important gathering of the year for Indigenous Australia—is a time for talking and listening, as well as dance, music and stories from the oldest continuous culture on earth.

“We have come here for serious business … the business of our nation,” said Indigenous leader Dr Galarrwuy Yunupingu, welcoming PM Malcolm Turnbull, opposition Leader Bill Shorten and thousands of festival-goers who had arrived at Gulkula from all over Australia and beyond.

GE’s new hybrid energy solution
GE’s new hybrid energy solution is enclosed in a 6 metre (20 foot) shipping container, ideally suited for remote commercial and industrial operations.

Another recent arrival to these ancient lands was humming along among all the colour and movement at the Garma Festival: GE’s renewable hybrid power solution, the world’s first commercial installation of the company’s off-grid cluster of energy-producing technologies. The unit sits in a container that’s a little over 6 metres (20 feet) long, and will provide 30kW of electricity from its solar, battery and small-scale diesel set-up, ensuring reliable power supply with up to 40% lower operating costs than diesel-only generators, and a significantly lower carbon footprint.

“It is great to see global innovators teaming up with local Aboriginal people to deliver cutting-edge technology,” said the Northern Territory’s Chief Minister Michael Gunner. “The Yolngu people are intently focussed on using their resources for their own development,” notes GE’s Sam Maresh, who was at the Garma Festival. “This is a proud and strong culture.”

GE Power has been working on developing the solution for over a year. “GE’s stated mission of ‘powering everyone’ means helping to find solutions for the more than 1 billion people who don’t have access to power, and the many more who don’t have reliable access to power,” says Ricky Buch, US-based senior strategy leader with GE Power, who has been leading the mission to create this hybrid solution.

“The idea of working on something so new was exciting,” says Buch. Aiming to create a product that was sustainable, reliable and able to be transported to remote locations led Buch and his team to draw on expertise from across the GE Store, including the Global Research Centre in Bangalore and the Energy Connections team in Chennai. An initial pilot project to demonstrate the technology’s viability was done in partnership with Tata Power in Bihar, northern India. “It was a natural place to start because India has one of the largest off-grid populations, and there’s also a huge bench of engineering talent and a number of our suppliers there,” says Buch.

GE’s hybrid solution is now powering the Gumatj Corporation’s brand new Gulkula Mining Training Centre (GMTC), which was opened on the second day of the Garma Festival, when the first intake of trainees were introduced. The trainees will be guaranteed jobs at the corporation’s small bauxite mine, due to open later this year.

Michael Gunner Klaus Helms
Northern Territory’s Chief Minister Michael Gunner with Gumatj Corporation CEO Klaus Helms.

“The commencement of a 100% Indigenous-owned training centre and mining operation is a testament to what Indigenous people can achieve working in partnership with business and government,” said Klaus Helms, CEO of the Gumatj Corporation. “This a major step forward in building a sustainable future for our local people.” Helms also thanked Rio Tinto, which helped fund the building of the centre and has an offtake agreement for the bauxite, and GE, for supporting the innovative hybrid solution to power the centre.

Gumatj Corporation deputy chairman Djawa Yunupingu said GE’s hybrid energy solution was integral to the project. “This mine training centre and mine operation is about helping Yolngu people develop specialised skills to open up employment opportunities and better utilise the assets of our land,” said Yunupingu. “Through training and education, our vision is to create a sustainable future for the Yolngu people.”

“You don’t often see a global product launch in a remote community, and this speaks volumes of the innovative culture of the Yolngu people,” said Geoff Culbert, President & CEO, GE Australia, New Zealand & Papua New Guinea. “We are proud to be partnering with the Gumatj Corporation on this project, which will deliver a stable and reliable energy supply to support the education and training of the next generation of Yolngu leaders.”

GE hybrid energy solution
After clearing customs, the GMTC unit was barged to Gove and then trucked to the Gulkula site.

The GMTC unit was shipped to Darwin from India, where it was built. “It’s containerised, modular and pre-wired, so there’s not a lot of field work that has to happen for installation,” explains Buch. “That makes it easier because you don’t need a lot of labour, and getting electricians out to these remote areas can be tough.” 

Predix dashboard
The hybrid unit’s performance data including solar generation, battery state of charge and when the diesel generation switches on and off will be monitored remotely using data collected and analysed from GE’s Predix-based software applications.

“It’s effectively a micro-grid,” says Buch. Its inbuilt asset-performance-management (APM) capabilities were built on Predix, GE’s operating system for the Industrial Internet. “We’ll be able to monitor several hundred parameters,” explains Buch. “We’ve built a web portal to allow the Gumatj Corporation and us to log in and see how the system is performing.” The resulting diagnostics will allow remote assessment of the energy production in real time, with the potential to add functionality such as predictive diagnostics to reduce unplanned downtime, and production forecasting.

The future for these units is bright. “We’ll have more pilots in the works with villages that are currently off the grid, and we’ve had a lot of interest from other parts of Asia and from Africa,” says Buch. “This is about sustainable access to power. Our goal is to intelligently reduce carbon footprint with a combination of traditional power sources alongside renewable energy, storage and digital enablement.”

Right now, the hybrid solutions are running in off-grid environments, where they will continue to be tested and tweaked. Buch envisages “a wider application … to integrate renewables at the edge of the grid”, smoothing out intermittency as more renewable energy comes online. “This solution shows that decentralised hybrid micro-grids can provide reliable 24/7 power,” says Buch. “With such wide swathes of open area in Australia, it makes great sense to consider options other than extending or reinforcing existing  distribution lines. This unit demonstrates there is a viable alternative to building these very expensive, large grids, and to do so in a way that’s sustainable.”

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