Ahead of the National Pinnacles Awards ceremony, we caught up with the team from Aurecon who delivered Newcastle’s top Engineering Excellence Award winning project and Sir William Hudson Award finalist, Project Gilghi: a new off-grid, containerised water treatment plant which provides Indigenous and remote communities with quality potable water by turning feed water into drinkable water.
What was the inspiration behind the engineering design of this project?
Water treatment is energy intensive requiring investment and accounting for 13% of Australia's electricity use. For remote communities without connection to the grid the cost is higher with the ANZ Journal of Public Health linking water quality and increased child morbidity. Infrastructure overcapitalisation is unavoidable if wanting to produce a small-scale drinking water supply otherwise communities rely on expensive transported water.
Aurecon and Ampcontrol saw an opportunity to address long-overdue water needs of remote communities. The team wanted to challenge traditional engineering design with a focus on sustainability and approached the issue from both the treatment process and energy design disciplines.
What legacy will the project leave?
Gilghi represents a breakthrough, innovative solar-powered water purifying system solution. The project provides a roadmap for how Australia and other countries can meet the ambitious target of United Nations Sustainable Development Goals 6 - to provide safe and affordable drinking water for all by 2030.
It is hoped that the results of the first operational Gilghi plant will enable other units to be implemented in remote communities within the Northern Territory, Western Australia, South Australia, and Queensland or even globally.
What’s innovative about this project?
Collaboration between Ampcontrol and Aurecon resulted in multidisciplinary conversations that challenged traditional engineering design and habitual water treatment operations. It was realised that the change in rate of technology has not been matched by a change in the way developments have been implemented in the water sector. This presented an opportunity to capitalise on renewable power opportunities by comparing the levelised cost of electricity versus unvalued capital in the power grid system. For example, pumps are usually designed for peak output and the associated power demand, which results in the installation of many underutilised pumps, often resulting in a large amount of standby equipment. Ampcontrol’s new engineering approach to power management allows for a smarter, more efficient and cost-effective solution.
Traditionally, water treatment systems operate continuously, whereas Gilghi’s innovative design makes smart use of available solar power to run the plant and charge the batteries during the day. This included the development of a specialist electrical control system that uses multiple power sources to purify the water, then feed that clean water into the community’s reticulation system. By intelligently using available power sources, and batching water pumping and treatment processes, Ampcontrol’s new engineering approach results in a smarter, more efficient and cost-effective solution.
The design took a modular approach to inclusion of the process units that provide the water treatment, allowing simple changes to the design to adapt to different feed water conditions. This approach reduces the amount of bespoke design required and thus the overall cost of delivery, historically a significant challenge for small-scale systems.
The Gilghi concept was developed applying a human-centred approach by specifically focusing on, and addressing the community’s wants, needs and pain points. It allowed Gilghi to deliver meaningful sustainable value to the local community.
In your pursuit of solutions, what is the standout innovation to come out of the successful completion of this project?
What makes Project Gilghi unique is the collaboration between Aurecon and Ampcontrol to combine engineering skills and solve the problems found within the water-energy nexus in a different way, to match the quantum and timing of the available renewable energy to the water treatment processes. The unit is fully off grid, run remotely through satellite communications on renewable energy (system availability has been 99.6% over a period of around 18 months of operation. The standby diesel generator has only operated for 18 hours in total over that 18-month period).
What challenges did you face while working on the project?
The project site, Gillen Bore, is a remote community about 75km north of Alice Springs. The remote location has challenged the team to develop a ‘plug and play’ approach with all components of the plant prototyped, assembled, connected and tested at Ampcontrol’s facility in Newcastle NSW. We ran batches of brackish (salty) water through the unit and tested the treated water quality to make sure it met the guidelines. Due to the remoteness of the location, anticipating any issues prior to deployment in the Northern Territory was paramount to success.
Reducing time spent installing the unit in the field is a critical element to the overall project cost. Careful thought had to be given to installation and commissioning activities that are typically required. Gilghi, has levelling legs attached to the container so minimal site clearing and preparation works are required. The solar panels are designed to sit on an awning mounted on the roof and side of the unit. For the Gillen Bore unit, the panels were stored inside the container for transport, then erected in the field. The unit was up and running within just a few days. For the latest iteration, the PV array is now hinged and folds down for transport and then simply folded out during site installation, further reducing site set-up time down to 1-2 days from delivery of the unit to producing water.
Ongoing maintenance of the unit was another key challenge typically faced by such installations of relatively complex technology in remote locations. The Gilghi approach is to design the system for simplicity of operation. The critical operating functions are automated, with the control system identifying and performing the backwash and regeneration functions which are critical to quality, remotely monitored via telemetry by Ampcontrol. We have also designed the system for simplicity of maintenance, avoiding the need for storing and replacing hazardous chemicals in the unit. For Gillen Bore, this allows the local outstation service provider, Ingkerreke Outstation Services who already visit the site, to do the more routine maintenance – an added benefit to the community by providing training and additional employment opportunities for the mostly indigenous local workforce.
What inspired you to enter the project in the awards?
Simply put, the happiness on the faces of the Gillen Bore community at the opening ceremony communicated the importance of this water to their livelihood better than words ever could. Aurecon and Ampcontrol would love for other similar communities to be afforded the same opportunity. We believe Project Gilghi not only represents the start of a long tail of benefit for remote communities across Australia, and around the world, it is also a solution that highlights the achievements and ingenuity of the Australian engineering profession.