Alinga’s Ruby Heard on equity through energy

Young woman holding a cute dog in forested area
Ruby Heard with her dog, Jarrah

Ruby Heard is a descendant of the Jaru people of the Kimberley, an electrical engineer and founding director of Alinga Energy Consulting, which provides energy research, feasibility and design services with a focus on affordable and sustainable off-grid systems. Here, she tells Energy Source & Distribution about her mission to improve the livelihoods of those living in remote First Nations communities.

“I had a lot of positive experiences with electricity while I was growing up that helped me choose electrical and electronic engineering as my undergraduate degree,” Ruby Heard explains.

“One of my first responsibilities around the house was to change the fuses in the switchboard. My dad was a Telecom technician, and he taught me how to find the burnt-out fuse and re-wire the device, and how to identify if a circuit breaker had tripped. He also showed me how to switch off the power, which I used to my advantage when my sisters wouldn’t give me my turn on the computer.”

Heard’s interest in electronics continued during her school years. When she reached Year 10, she picked up the A-Z book of jobs in careers class.

“Not knowing what I wanted to be, I started at A and read about every occupation that existed. I never read another page after Engineer. I just knew that’s what I was. The decision to go electrical came from my passion for the environment and my understanding that everything required electricity and that it was predominately produced by the burning of fossil fuels, which was having negative impacts on the planet,” she says.

Related article: First Nations people must be at the forefront of Australia’s renewable energy revolution

Bright beginnings

After graduating university, Heard began her career with Arup, working both in Australia and the US.

“Arup was amazing. It was like a big, supportive family,” she says.

“I felt privileged to be working with such bright people to design iconic buildings both here in Australia and overseas. Working in the United States was a big highlight because it allowed me to really pursue my passion of working in the renewable energy space.

“In California I got to work on very complicated building-integrated PV (BIPV) systems and microgrid options for Google campuses. I was the lead energy engineer working on the Google Mountain View campus project, where I looked at separating NASA-owned energy assets from Google assets (their new tenant). I explored a microgrid to increase their resiliency against grid power outage and I investigated options for medium-voltage distribution routes around the Moffet Airfield. I was given the freedom to experiment with Python programming to calculate the generation potential of cutting-edge BIPV on airfield hangars that Google wanted to convert into office space.”

While she relished the experience and opportunities, Heard says working for a large consultancy never really felt like the best fit for her.

“I was a bit of a round peg in a square hole. I was finding that renewable energy projects weren’t fulfilling me in the way I thought they would. A pro-bono project helped me understand what was missing. I worked with a legal non-profit that assisted homeless or at-risk people, which is a major issue in San Francisco. The staff were working in an old building without heating or cooling, suffering throughout the year and tripping out circuit breakers by overloading the switchboard with space heaters. Working with the building occupants to address a real issue was the missing element of my work—the human element. Making a difference for people in need. That was far more fulfilling to me than helping tech giants save money on their electricity bill.”

Working in Ethiopia

After leaving Arup, Heard volunteered in refugee camps in Ethiopia through Engineers Without Borders. Their role was to support the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees (UNHCR) energy team to train groups of refugees across five camps to become solar power technicians.

“We did this by walking them through the design and installation of a solar mini-grid for the health centre in each camp,” Heard explains.

“Before having solar, the doctors could only afford to run their generator for a few hours a week. They delivered babies at night using the flashlights on their phones, and they weren’t able to use life-saving equipment such as oxygen machines.

“What I learned in Ethiopia is hard to put words to—partly because it was so much and so deep and partly because I’m sure I’m not even fully aware of the profound impacts that experience had on me as a person.

Woman smiling with group of young men in Ethiopian refugee camp
Working with solar technicians in Melkadida refugee camp, Ethiopia

“I definitely learned resilience. Two weeks into my stint the lead trainer left unexpectedly and did not return. I had to take over leading the minigrid installations myself with no experience in the actual installation of solar power systems. I was also influenced by the resilience of the local people who had fled war-torn Somalia and seen horrific violence, but were warm and caring and peaceful despite the tragedy.

“I learned to live with a lot less thanks to twice-daily power outages, limited activities, patchy Wi-Fi and very unreliable phone service. But I learned gratitude for what I had in Ethiopia and the unlimited access to things we take for granted in developed countries. I remember almost crying when I went to a supermarket in Kenya after three months in the camps. ‘You have everything!’ I excitedly said to a cashier. I celebrated my 30th birthday in those camps, and I wouldn’t trade that for anything.”

Heard’s experience in Ethiopia and her Indigenous heritage now drives her to advocate for an equitable energy transition, particularly for First Nations people living in remote communities.

“My experience in Ethiopia led me to thinking about the lack in remote Indigenous communities in Australia and I quickly realised addressing energy insecurity for First Nations people was my calling,” she says.

Working with First Nations communities

“Remote First Nations communities continue to struggle with energy access and affordability. While the industry focuses on decarbonising the National Electricity Market, many don’t realise that we have Indigenous communities burning thousands of litres of diesel a day for their power supply. Communities I have worked with in the Kimberley can use over 1,000L of diesel a day to power just 35 homes.

“Renewable energy has been the economically superior option for years now but there are hundreds of remote communities out there that don’t have a single solar panel. Households don’t have the option of rooftop solar to reduce their electricity bills and lower their carbon emissions, and centralised systems have been avoided due to lack of capital. Meanwhile, government departments and government-owned utilities lose millions of dollars a year to run and maintain the diesel supply.

“Diesel generation also presents other issues in community, such as the impact on air quality, noise pollution, and low resiliency. Many Indigenous communities in the Top End and central Australia experience seasonal flooding, which can completely cut off road access to the communities for weeks. When this happens, diesel needs to be flown in by helicopter.”

Two First Nations women seated in chairs smiling for photo
Having a yarn with Sharon, acting CEO of Kurungal Council

Pre-payment metering is also problematic for continuous supply of an essential service, Heard explains.

“Households need to purchase credit to have their power on. For many communities, their older system requires a physical card to be purchased at the community store and loaded manually on to the meter outside the house. If the shop is shut when the credit runs out, they will either be without power or need to ask neighbours if they have a spare power card at home. Sometimes a neighbour may throw an extension lead over or leave on an outside light to help out.

“A key concern of this outcome is loss of refrigeration, which leads to spoiled food and medications. On top of this, housing in remote communities tends to be low-quality and aged. The poor thermal performance combined with long periods of hot, humid weather mean households require more energy to stay at liveable and safe temperatures,” she says.

“The transition to distributed clean energy has a lot of benefits for remote Indigenous communities, but there are barriers in place that mean our people are being left behind and left out. A lot of my work focuses on solving these complex problems for our communities. It’s also why I sit on the steering committee of the First Nations Clean Energy Network and have focused my PhD research at Melbourne University around this same topic.”

Establishing Alinga

In 2018, Heard founded Alinga Energy Consulting, which provides services to clients in Australia and the Pacific. Alinga’s mission is to address energy inequity impacting vulnerable peoples.

“We have been achieving this goal through many different projects. I have worked to improve billing practices in over-50s living villages where residents’ solar exports were sold on to other customers, earning profit for the embedded network operator,” Heard says.

“We have completed energy feasibility studies for five communities in Western Australia that demonstrate cost reductions for households as well as the utility, and a potential for huge emissions savings. I have assessed dozens of proposals for off-grid energy projects in Papua New Guinea, evaluating their technical soundness and social impact and sustainability.

“Most recently we have moved into the housing energy efficiency space, working with Aboriginal Housing Providers to define best practice and support pilots to improve existing Indigenous housing across Australia,” Heard says.

“I’m also very proud of the pro-bono and low-bono work we’ve been able to do, which has included looking at getting CERES to 100% renewable energy, assisting an Indigenous bush tucker farm with the design and securing of funding for a solar-plus-battery system to reduce their large bills, and solar design work for a health centre in Yarrabah Community, which is still in progress.”

Achieving an equitable transition

The biggest challenge to an equitable energy transition here in Australia, Heard says, is that equity is not the core value of the energy industry.

“While energy is considered an essential service, we don’t take an approach that prioritises equitable distribution and a fair share of benefits and burdens. Our energy system is more capitalist in nature, driven by markets and lowest cost solutions,” she explains.

“Like many unpleasant things in modern society, we have completely removed the end user from the production of a resource. A relatable example is meat production. Just like how people living in cities never need to see the animals, the feed-lots or the processing of their final product, most people also don’t see the mining, the power plants and the pollution that charges their phone. The inequities are not visible.

Young First Nations woman poses for photo wearing bright blue blouse against black background
Ruby Heard

“The other key issue is that we are doing far too little to address waste and irresponsible use of power. Our system says if you have the money to pay for it, you can use as much as you like. The messages that our governments are sending us is that the energy industry must now enable all energy users to continue to use as much power as they want by rapidly deploying renewable energy technologies at a potentially unachievable scale and pace.

“There is a huge cost to this strategy. An economic cost that ultimately the consumer/citizen always pays whether through taxes, energy prices or passed along in the cost of goods; an environmental cost that the planet and future generations pay; and a liberties cost that impacts regional REZ communities, developing countries and remote Australia. I would like to see our government begin to regulate consumption by putting pressure on certain industries and practices such as planned obsolescence, fast fashion and consumption-promoting marketing.”

And while the government must lead this step change, Heard says the energy sector must also adopt a more holistic approach to addressing climate issues.

“We cannot solve the climate problem by creating a waste problem. But that is where we will end up if we continue to rapidly deploy huge amounts of non-recyclable solar panels and wind turbine blades. We have been aware that our fossil fuel usage could lead to global warming for around a hundred years, but we have spent all our renewables R&D money on reducing cost of resource-intensive renewables rather than developing truly sustainable, circular economy solutions,” she says.

Related article: ARENA backs First Nations hydrogen ambitions

Future plans

Looking to the future, and how Alinga might respond to the needs of Australia’s energy transition, Heard says she hopes the business will grow organically.

“At the moment I rely on other small businesses, many of them also Indigenous-led, to put together teams that have all the skills to deliver energy feasibility and advisory projects. I would like to see my team grow to include other First Nations people and to be able to take on and train interns and graduates.

“I can see myself eventually moving into academia to support the next generation of engineers. I come from two generations of teachers and have a passion for passing on knowledge. But I could equally see myself moving out of the energy space and focusing on other areas of interest such as traditional healing methodologies and herbalism.

“I guess in some ways I’m working hard to solve part of the energy puzzle and put myself out of a job.”

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