Off-grid solar solution provides water security breakthrough for remote communities 


The remote indigenous community of Gillen Bore in the Northern Territory is thanking its lucky stars after an innovative off-grid solution has enabled affordable and continuous potable water. Or perhaps I shouldn’t say ‘stars’, but rather one ‘star’ – the sun, for the breakthrough is a solar powered water treatment plant that has won the 2020 Institution of Civil Engineers (ICE) Chris Binnie Award for Sustainable Water Management. 

Project Gilghi is the brainchild of international design and engineering firm Aurecon and Hunter-based electrical engineering company Ampcontrol. A contribution to the reaching of United Nations Sustainable Development Goal no. 6 – access to clean water and sanitation for all by 2030. A goal that also happens to be a national priority in Australia considering our problems with draught. There are places on Mars that see more rainfall. 

Professor Chris Binnie, after which the award is named, is an ICE Water Panel member and Exeter University visiting Professor who recognises the value of the Gilghi project. “Gilghi is a genuinely new project with a novel technological approach,” said Binnie, “the integration of the work of water engineering and electrical engineering and solar panels was particularly pleasing. The solution provides a reliable and potable supply of water in a sustainable manner that does not increase CO2 emission.” 

Gillen Bore has long relied on groundwater for its water supply. For thousands of years Indigenous Australians have cultivated an intimate knowledge of Australia’s various water cycles, but the environment is now changing rapidly. Despite a new bore sunk in 2014, the community has had to largely rely on water brought from Alice Springs (150km round trip) because the bore water is too high in salinity, hardness and has low pH levels. 

According to The Productivity Commission’s 2017 Indigenous Expenditure Report, more than 40,000 Indigenous Australians in 694 areas of the country rely on groundwater and the growing necessity of water transportation cost the Australian government $13 million nationally in 2017. 

By utilising solar PV, batteries and a back-up diesel generator, Gilghi, which means “place of water” in Barkindji language, takes feed water from a range of sources, such as bores, streams, brackish and saltwater, and passes it through three stages of treatment. The first is media filtration (sand media, carbon and softener), the second is reverse osmosis and the third is UV disinfection. 

A local artist, Kerry Preece, adorned the project with an art piece titled ‘Honey Ant Dreaming’, a songline of the Honey Ant, which is apposite because Honey Ants are living larders.

Image: Aurecon

Thanks to the Territory’s plentiful sun, Gilghi charges its batteries with solar power during the day to enable the system to produce up to 28kL of potable water each day. Funded by a $70,000 Municipal and Essential Services Special Purposes Grant from the Northern Territory Department of Local Government, Housing and Community Development, the project has been designed so that members of the local community have been able to take over its operation and maintenance. 

“We wanted to challenge traditional engineering design,” said Aurecon’s Design Director for Water and Wastewater Treatment, Julian Briggs. “Typically, we design the treatment process first and then think about the energy design, but for Gilghi, we came at it from both angles so that we could use a sustainable power source to challenge the concept of needing to go to the grid to rely on diesel-generated power.” 

Thanks to the project’s innovative solar-integrated approach, this Gilghi’s modular unit design is transportable and expandable. Indeed, the very unit built at Gillen Bore was prototyped, assembled, connected and tested at Ampcontrol’s facility in Newcastle, NSW, before being trucked across the country in a shipping container and installed with the use of a forklift. 

This flexibility makes the project a genuine contribution to bettering access to clean water and sanitation in Australia and around the world. 

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