Central Australia’s 300 days of sun each year make it ideal as a solar technology test bed. The area is home to the largest multi-technology solar demonstration facility in the Southern Hemisphere.
Just off the Stuart Highway, a short drive south of Alice Springs (Mparntwe), is a field of solar panels of varying vintages. More than a curiosity of photovoltaic history, the 39 installations are a demonstration facility of commercial solar panels from all over the world, monitoring performance of the technologies under the extremes of Central Australian climate.
The Solar Centre is one of the ventures of the 73ha Desert Knowledge Australia (DKA) precinct, an independent not-for-profit statutory authority established by the NT government in 2003 to undertake research and sustainable socioeconomic development in Australia’s heart. Data can be monitored in real time to understand the performance of different technologies and environmental factors. The Solar Centre generates over 40 per cent of the DKA precinct’s power.
CEO Lauren Ganley GAICD, a former Telstra executive, has brought a renewed energy and focus to the organisation since she was appointed in January 2017. DKA now has a new structure and brand — and a refreshed board chaired by Marion Scrymgour. Its new strategy sees it focusing on five areas: desert leadership, digital innovation, desert research, renewable energy and the development of the DKA. Ganley aims for the precinct to be a hub for research, education and collaboration, and to create shared value.
DKA delivers Codes 4 Life, their flagship program for Aboriginal men, and also runs educational programs that combine culture, science, technology, engineering, arts and maths. Its other flagship project is the Intyalheme Centre for Future Energy, which started in 2017 with $5m seed funding from the NT government and a goal of powering the NT with 50 per cent renewable energy by 2030.
DKA has been busy with partnerships and collaborations, including partnering with the Australian Renewable Energy Agency on a renewable energy innovation lab and hosting an open data hackathon (GovHack) with Charles Darwin University. This year, DKA is working on incubators for emerging businesses and business development, having recently signed an MOU with the NT Indigenous Business Network.
Ganley says the time is ripe to deepen Australia’s understanding of desert knowledge and Central Australia.
”There’s so much resilience and knowledge in the desert and remote Australia, and we can mobilise those strengths to support the socioeconomic development of Central Australia.” DKA is working with the people and places of the desert to put knowledge into action, she says.
Alice Springs is home to another increasingly popular example of the region’s creative capacity, Parrtjima — A Festival in Light. For 10 nights each year, the festival illuminates the MacDonnell Ranges, which rise out of the plains just outside of town. Two kilometres of the more than 300 million-year-old ranges and the Desert Park at its feet become a giant outdoor gallery of local art, culture, music and stories showcasing the world’s oldest continuous culture through new technologies. Now in its fourth year, the festival is an increasingly popular drawcard for Australian and international visitors.
It has been curated for the past three years by Rhoda Roberts AO, globally regarded artist and producer who is also head of First Nations Programming at the Sydney Opera House. Roberts says Parrtjima is actually an amalgam of words. “Parrtjima means shedding both light and understanding, but it’s much more,” Roberts says, acknowledging the custodians and ancestors of Alice Springs and surrounding estates Antulye (Undoolya) and Bond Springs (Irlpme). She has worked hard to build the participation of local communities through collaboration on installations and has extended the festival into Alice’s Todd Mall.
This year, Parrtjima runs from 5–14 April. For more information, click here.
Taking care of business
Scott Lovett, general manager of industry development with NT Tourism says Alice Springs faces some special circumstances. It is relatively insulated from the economic extremes and has suffered a lack of investment in infrastructure to support further growth in tourism. He is excited about the potential in the NT’s 10-year tourism strategy, which has been well received — and the National Aboriginal Art Gallery.
With a population of some 27,500, population growth and a racial divide are challenges for the region, whose main economic drivers are tourism, health and the defence technology sector. Alice Springs mayor Damien Ryan, president of the Australian Local Government Association, says, “Our biggest challenge is population. It has been stagnant for a number of years.”
The region is also grappling with a shortage of pilots — blamed on rising aviation demand in China. Alice Springs Airport general manager Dave Batic says this has hit regional airlines hard, often disrupting flights. Alice Springs Airport, which also services the Royal Flying Doctor Service, has about 24,000 aircraft movements a year. The town was shortlisted in 2018 for one of two pilot training locations for Qantas.
Batic also chairs the Alice Springs Major Business Group, which delivers a strong cohesive voice to government on issues important to the immediate and future prosperity of the Alice Springs economy. The group represents companies with an annual turnover of more than $500m and employing 1700 people. It has capacity to allocate $120m capital investment over the next five years and is promoting Central Australia as a potential location for a national correctional facility. Batic says the group is aiming to get people thinking outside the square.
“We applaud the NT government for selecting an Alice Springs site for the proposed National Aboriginal Art Gallery.”
An award-winning remote area health service takes a strengths-based approach to its leadership and governance.
The Western Desert Nganampa Walytja Palyantjaku Tjutaku Aboriginal Corporation, aka The Purple House was Incorporated in 2003 as a community-controlled health service. Purple House is the only provider of dialysis to patients in remote areas of central Australia through clinics across the NT and WA.
Remote Indigenous people in Central Australia are up to 30 times more likely to suffer from kidney disease. Those with end-stage renal failure formerly had to move off country and go to Alice Springs or Darwin for treatment, separating families and leaving communities without elder leadership. They were also more likely to die earlier — until the Purple House came along in 2003.
Its Alice Springs HQ is the centre of a vibrant community where dialysing patients and their families feel at home. Accredited with the National Disability Insurance Scheme, it runs 14 remote clinics and a mobile dialysis unit (the Purple Truck), which allows patients to return home to visit family and for cultural business. Three new clinics open in 2019.
Purple House CEO Sarah Brown, reports to an Indigenous board of directors elected by the members, and representing communities across the region. They meet four times a year in Alice Springs. “We try to keep things simple," she says. "Everyone is clear on our vision and strategic goals. Being on country, having a good life and doing things the right way make sense.”
The organisation is highly regarded for its governance and leadership, winning the 2018 NT Telstra Business of the Year award for its work. It was also a 2016 Indigenous Governance Awards winner.