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HomeIssue 8Alice outback savvy underpins billion dollar deals

Alice outback savvy underpins billion dollar deals

By ERWIN CHLANDA

Multi million dollar energy deals are conducted by middle-aged white men in pin-stripe suits from offices in Collins or Pitt streets? Think again.

“We’re unashamed about our history. We walk into the biggest banks in this country, on projects worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

“I’ll wear a suit if I have to.

“We can go and match it with some of the biggest engineering advisory firms in the country, because we bring understanding and appreciation of what it’s like at the other side of the Dividing Range.”

The reluctant suit wearer’s office is in Alice Springs, and that makes a lot of sense: The mega renewable energy plants are not in the CBDs of Sydney nor Melbourne: They are and will be in remote areas where working and living require special skills that need to be honed over decades.

Ekistica, 14 years in The Centre, has done that, and its CEO, Lyndon Frearson (pictured), has been on board for much of it, as he told guests of Business at Sunset staged by the Chamber of Commerce this week.

The firm, whose 30 staff are now operating throughout Australia and  Asia-Pacific, started a subsidiary of the Centre for Appropriate Technology (CfAT), CAT Projects.

CFaT developed bush dunnies (no water, no moving parts, the pong is drawn out by rising air heated by the sun on a metal pipe); hand-powered washing machines and chip heaters leading to 256 power systems across remote outstations in Northern Territory, Western Australia and Queensland, providing reliable and affordable power enabling community livelihood opportunities.

Fast forward to today when Ekistica manages the construction of utility scale wind and solar farms such as the  $300m wind farm in remote Tasmania.

The activity of the 30 staff, all based in The Alice, in the last three years oversaw the delivery of over a billion dollars worth of infrastructure around Australian and overseas plus “due diligence” advice worth a further $2.5m, says Mr Frearson.

The late Jim Bray, a long-time chair of CfAT, put the bush savvy underpinning the firm’s success very simply: “Aborigines are not just consumers of technology, resources and knowledge. They can export these from Central Australia and indeed from remote regional areas.

“We have to understand the issues, not the technology,” Mr Bray told Mr Frearson, as he recalled.

“There is no Aboriginal way to flying a 747. But there is an Aboriginal way of learning how to do it.”

Says Mr Frearson: “The way we communicate knowledge and deep technical challenges is different. There are lessons to be learned from remote regional Australia.

“We built a team of people who are dedicated in their understanding of the opportunity that comes from thinking differently when you’re working in remote and regional areas.”

If there was any further proof for that it was supplied by Covid-19.

Ekistica became the first company permitted by VIASAT – a multi national satellite company – to build their dishes without being members of the company who could not travel to Australia.

Even trainees of CfAT’s were on site: “We found them, we trained them. We had live video links going back to Atlanta watching Indigenous trainees assembling satellite dishes.

“And we assembled these dishes faster than they have ever been assembled before.

“As Ekistica we don’t sell ourselves as an Indigenous organisation, we are owned by an Indigenous organisation, but we take everywhere we work an understanding of regional and remote areas which need to think differently.

“We’ve all seen the challenges of people who come flying in from somewhere else, deliver a solution and then fly out. We know how much we hate it.”

The pitch to clients is: “The people who work for you understand what it’s like to be met with something that you don’t understand, something we had to deal with ourselves.”

The Tasmanian wind farm posed “huge” logistical challenges, not just physical but also contextual.

Like Darwin in the NT “Hobart draws most of the attention. And so we felt really at home, except for the snow and the knee-deep water, in minus two degrees and sideways mud slides”.

It makes sense to serve the South-East Asian region “all the way from here in Alice Springs,” says Mr Frearson.

“We do this deliberately. We are absolute passionate about our belief as to what can be shared from places like Alice Springs, and indeed all the isolated and remote townships across Australia, what they can do, what they can deliver around the rest of the country.”

PHOTO: Antenna assembled in Alice Springs.

UPDATED on April 12 with additional information and corrections provided by Mr Frearson.

4 COMMENTS

  1. I am very pleased to see CAT moving in the right direction.
    When I first came here in 1982 I looked at the “dunny” on their property in then Priest Street and wondered. My first thoughts were how condescending to the Indigenous community to thrust this on them when many have sewerage systems in place.
    We built these same toilets at a remote school in an even more remote area of Fiji in 1972 and took the design directly from the UNESCO source book for developing nations.
    Moreover, the local community built them themselves. Here that seemed to be promoting something original, which was simply not true. We even had one in the house we lived in.
    A few years later I watched the installation of a wood fired water heater (gas bottle) in a house in a remote community, where the house already had a solar hot water system!
    Shortly after I visited a community on the Sandover with a friend who has a PHD in physics, to mend a solar battery system in the store.
    The problem was that no one had lived in that community for years, and it was abandoned.
    I reached the conclusion that DKA was driven by philosophy rather than practicalities.
    I am glad to see that changing.
    The possible origin of DKA is interesting. In the early 80s the airport was run by Infratril, an interstate or overseas company which wanted a use for the land there. I suggested a technology park to them and this was passed on to government by the consulting engineers.
    At that time I was in frequent contact with a world class (Fraunhofer) institute in Germany which was looking for a site to do their solar research.
    Unfortunately no one in government followed that and they (Fraunhofer) went elsewhere.
    I sense that now what was DKA is heading in the same direction which can only be good.
    Some of the other areas that they might look at with this approach are what’s in native pine that repels termites and why are we not using this in place of dangerous chemicals.
    This is of course, why the posts on the overland telegraph used native pine.
    Israel is producing potable water from waste at under 60c per ton (several years ago) and has exported the technology to its neighbours.
    Singapore recycles over half of its waste water. How do they do it and why not here?
    The waste through sewerage ponds is a disgraceful use of a very valuable resource.
    The WA Government is replacing diesel power on some communities with Vanadium flow batteries using local vanadium.
    A university in the Middle East is using pheromones and associated mating behaviour to manage camel populations.
    Here we are more advanced and use helicopters. This logic applies also to other feral animals here but seemingly is not acknowledged here. Good steps in the right direction!

  2. Reading this article takes me back more than 30 years when, as an alternative tech advocate, I was extolling the virtues of the wood chip water heater to my Pintupi friends.
    They patiently listened as I explained that they could now enjoy hot showers.
    From time to time, they politely nodded, as if in agreement.
    But when I finished my one of them asked if I used the chip heater?
    Of course, I didn’t since I lived in an education department house with hot water on tap, air conditioning and all the expected services.
    For years more and more wood chip heaters periodically arrived in the community, unused and unwanted.
    It was the same with the hand operated clothes washers.
    Pintupi were fully expected to use these labour-intensive machines while I merely flicked a switch to start the wash cycle.
    Such was the assumed hunger of Aboriginal people to have hot water and clean clothes like most whitefellas that few doubted they would eagerly embrace alternative technologies.
    The fate of the cleverly designed pit toilets was the same. Calling them VIP toilets (Ventilated Improved Pit) didn’t help if whitefellas didn’t use them.
    That was a pity because they were by far the most hygienic toilets since kids could not block them up by throwing all manner of things down them.
    The NT Govt publicly supported appropriate technology but on the ground their motto was that if Alice Springs doesn’t have them nor should remote communities.
    A battle raged over the VIP toilets at the local school ensued with the Government determined to remove while the school despaired at the consequences of doing so.
    Meanwhile, frequent sewage flooding and rampant disease from blocked conventional toilets was ongoing.
    Deep drainage was the next technological step except that the contractor removed the septic tanks but “forgot” to connect a number of houses to the system. That omission wasn’t detected before the contractor was paid but a public health emergency followed soon enough.
    Next came community constructed houses.
    Assumptions that Pintupi would happily learn to build their own houses and never need outside contractors again led to funding windfalls for CAT. Training schemes flourished.
    Only one house was eventually built in the community at three times the cost of a contracted house.
    More recently, the Bushlight Energy Program installing renewable energy systems across remote NT, again tapped the funding advantage around assumptions of self help and a willingness to do what few whitefellas will.
    Vast sums were spent on training locals to maintain their own energy systems rather than providing external support.
    The result was a rapid breakdown of the systems.
    As Mr Frearson says, there are indeed lessons to be learned from remote regional Australia.

  3. I had my own interesting – and occasionally entertaining – experience with a CfAT bush dunny when living at an alternative technology demonstration house on the Iwupataka Land Trust over two decades ago.
    As explained in the article, a metal pipe was installed as part of the structure which, when heated by the sun, was intended to create a draft of air that expelled the pong from the toilet.
    The pipe was painted black, too, in order to improve its efficiency.
    However, there was a drawback with this particular bush dunny as it was situated on the south side of the house, with the pipe also on the back wall facing the same direction – yes, it did rise well above the roof of the bush dunny so was still exposed to the sun.
    The problem was that no account was taken of the prevailing southeasterly winds which were quite persistent across that patch of country.
    The vent of the pipe was the first object struck by the wind which then blew down through it into the sewage cellar and then up through the toilet bowl, completely reversing the direction the air was intended to flow.
    Think about that when it’s a cold winter day!
    On one windy day when I opened the door to the bush dunny I beheld a spectacular sight worthy of a scene from the Poltergeist movies – the wind coming up through the toilet bowl had caught the edge of the toilet paper roll and unravelled metres of it twirling around in the air.
    Very funny was that dunny!

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