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Clean energy transition can drive Indigenous prosperity

David Prestipino -

Australia will use Canada as a model to improve economic empowerment for First Nations organisations in its renewable energy transition.

Federal Energy minister Chris Bowen told the Lowy Institute last week he was using Canada as an example of how Australia's clean energy transition could help close the gap of Indigenous disadvantage and foster reconciliation.

Clean energy is a central focus of this week's UN Climate Change Conference, where Mr Bowen will defend Australia remaining steadfast on using mainly wind and solar power to generate energy, while the majority of other nations look to nuclear.

Australia currently has 14 significant clean energy projects with First Nations equity and participation, as it ramps up engagement in the renewable energy race.

Canadian First Peoples are the second biggest asset owners of clean energy infrastructure, with Indigenous involvement in the operation or final stages of planning or construction on 200 significant projects.

While around 20 per cent of the country's renewable energy initiatives have strong elements of Indigenous ownership, Australia currently had none, although five of its 14 projects were undertaking feasibility.

Mr Bowen's assessment came ahead of delivering the country's initial First Nations Clean Energy Strategy next year, co-designed by state and territory energy ministers with the goal of ensuring Indigenous people help drive the transformation.

First Nations Clean Energy Network co-chair, Chris Croker, said First Nations groups were determined to avoid a repeat of the mining industry legacy, when promises were made but no real outcomes achieved.

He urged industry, investors and government to use the renewables race to shift their thinking on how to further engage Indigenous people.

"First Nations people aim to proactively exercise First Nations rights, protect community interests, ensure control and a boardroom role in decision-making," he said.

"To share in resource development planning and the economic benefits derived from a project through mechanisms including preferential contract bidding, co-ownership, equity stakes and revenue sharing.

"Most First Nations people are still living with expensive power bills, irregular power supply and all-too-regular disconnections.

"First Nations communities have decided they will no longer be passive hosts or merely stakeholders of energy projects ... their voices, interests and rights on their land can no longer be ignored.

"That means companies, governments and investors' terms of development on First Nations lands must change."

Mr Crocker said the 14 projects on its tracker and future clean energy initiatives would generate employment and development opportunities for Indigenous communities and a long-term revenue stream.

The FNCEN this week launched a project tracker that details 14 significant clean energy announcements and MOUs with meaningful equity participation and/or benefit-sharing arrangements with First Nations groups across the country.

Some of the projects include the development of mid-large scale solar and wind, hydro and green hydrogen, battery storage and microgrids.

One of them is Yindjibarndi Energy Corporation's MOU with Rio Tinto to develop renewable energy projects on Yindjibarndi country in the Pilbara, the heart of Rio's iron ore business.

The pair will evaluate several clean energy opportunities including wind and solar power, as well as battery energy storage systems, with an initial focus on the potential development of a solar-power generation facility for the supply of energy to the iron ore giant.

YEC was established in June after an agreement between Yindjibarndi Aboriginal Corporation and renewable energy developer ACEN Corporation to progress the development of major clean energy projects on Yindjibarndi Ngurra (country) – an area covering approximately 13,000km2 within the Yindjibarndi Native Title areas.

YEC's initial plans include a Stage 1 target of 750MW of combined wind, solar, and battery storage with construction to commence within the next few years.

YAC chief executive, Michael Woodley, said the mining industry's decarbonisation targets were perfect timing for Traditional Owner groups to be major players in Australia's renewable energy rollout.

"What we have here is an opportunity," he said at the announcement of the MOU in Roebourne last month.

"We are in the right place at the right time.

"Once there is commitment from industry to decarbonise, we can contribute through our projects.

"It's going to be part of something that is going to contribute to the world economy, but in a different shift."

First Nations Clean Energy Network co-chair, Karrina Nolan, said the project tracker initiative heralded a new momentum for First Nations economic empowerment in Australia.

"First Nations communities are increasingly interested in being equity owners in projects impacting their land," she said.

"Our First Nations project tracker shows the clean energy industry is starting to get the message that commercial outcomes from projects are improved with First Nations involvement.

"Creating meaningful equity partnerships and benefit-sharing arrangements with First Nations groups de-risks projects across the project pipeline, enables free prior and informed consent, and creates additional benefits in terms of local employment and intergenerational wealth."

The WA government last month announced a $700 million upgrade to the state's main electricity network, which could fast track clean energy opportunities for WA.

The Premier's Clean Energy Summit last week highlighted the need for economic involvement of First Nations people in the transition.

Representatives from Pilbara Solar, co-owned by Yamatji Marlpa Aboriginal Corporation, told the summit WA's renewable energy transition could help First Nations people achieve economic equality, provided they were provided start-up support by industry and government.

More information on the First Nations Clean Energy Network and project tracker, and to First Nations groups engaged in equity and participation projects is available on the FNCEN website.

Feedback can be provided on the federal government's First Nations Clean Energy Strategy until January 31, 2024.

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