A massive, stand-alone wind turbine that is believed to be the biggest private, off-the-grid facility of its type in the Southern Hemisphere now stands watch over Gawa, on the eastern tip of Elcho Island off the northern Arnhem Land Coast.
The wind turbine will replace unreliable generators that have been eating up to A$80,000 worth of diesel a year despite being only run for part of the day.
The school is run by the NT Christian Schools Association, which has been instrumental in securing the wind turbine for the community.
A long journey to get wind power
It has not been without pain however, with the journey testing emotions, finances and faith.
“There has never been any question that the community wasn’t worth it, but it has been a long, testing road to the point we are now at,” Chief Executive Officer Geoff Bateman says.
“The idea for the tower was conceived two years ago when the school successfully applied for funding for the project under the Federal Government’s Renewable Remote Power Generation Program.
“We did the sums and it seemed a no-brainer.
“The scheme would provide a 50% rebate once the turbine was commissioned so we just had to be able to carry the burden of the projected $600,000 cost until the job was completed. The bank was satisfied that with the annual savings to be made, it was a viable project, so we engaged a system designer and project manager, and contracted for a suitable turbine from a French manufacturer.
“Europe is far more advanced in the production of these systems so there really wasn’t an alternative to purchasing off-shore.
“A contract was signed and a A$92,000 deposit on the wind turbine paid, with the anticipated delivery date to be mid-year in line with the need to complete the project before the Government’s August, 2008, deadline.”
“After a while the French manufacturer became hard to contact and we entered a period of increasing silence. Deadlines for delivery passed. The global financial crisis had hit and after a while it became evident the company had run into difficulties and finally gone under, taking our money with it.
“The realisation that we had lost the deposit and could not make the deadline for the rebate was gut-wrenching.”
It was the start of 2009 and Bateman says the NTSCA had to look hard at whether they were going to abandon the project. They had lost the A$92,000 deposit, the cost of all the work that had been done to that point and the Government wind rebate was due to expire.
But as this reality unfolded in Darwin, about 560 km away as the crow flies from their head office, the diesel generators at Gawa had failed once more. This time for a period of three weeks. The community was waiting in hope of the wind turbine.
“We had people living by torchlight, classes being held under trees outside – but the kids kept turning up to school,” Bateman says.
“We knew we had to keep going.”
A decision was made to absorb the loss in the short term, negotiate with the Government to extend the deadline for the wind project rebate and find another company to supply a wind turbine.
The Wind Factory
The wind technology was sourced this time from a Danish company, The Wind Factory, who were, according to Bateman, “as good as the other was bad”.
“These guys were terrific to work with, but that’s not to say it was smooth sailing from that point on,” he says.
“The replacement turbine was an older, refurbished model and this meant that the system had to be re-engineered. This caused further delays and expense.
“We’ve had to go back to the government and beg for more time again, and to say the logistics of building a wind turbine of this size at one of the remotest schools in Australia has been a bit of a challenge would be an understatement.”
In the end, the A$600,000 wind project has spun out to more than A$1 million. To everyone’s relief, the turbine was officially commissioned on 27 November, just days before the final extended deadline for the rebate. But that still leaves the NTCSA about A$500,000 out of pocket if the remainder cannot be raised by private donations or sponsorships.
“I guess the on-going savings would eventually offset the cost blowout but in the meantime, it will be very hard for Gawa and the NTCSA to absorb,” Bateman says.
“The last thing we want to do is have to pull money out of, or delay, other programs that support indigenous education in order to finance the debt.
“But this project had to be finished."
With the wind turbine officially commissioned, the community is now waiting in anticipation for their first day of 24-hour power solely generated by wind, which was expected to be some time in January 2010 after engineers return to fine tune the wind system.