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Pilbara's clean energy race on resource-rich lands in Indigenous hands

David Prestipino -

A major step was taken towards Indigenous-led renewable energy development on Traditional Owner land, with a new agreement putting the Yindjibarndi People in the driver's seat across WA's North West.

The National Native Title Tribunal agreed to an Indigenous Land Use Agreement for the Yindjibarndi Renewable Energy Project, giving Native Title consents for the development of large-scale renewable energy projects on Yindjibarndi ngurra (country) in WA's vast North-West.

Renewable projects in WA's vast Pilbara region are being developed by Yindjibarndi Energy Corporation, a partnership between YAC and ACEN Corporation.

Yiyangu holds the Yindjibarndi shareholding in YEC, which was was established last June after an agreement between YAC and ACEN, the South-East Asian renewable energy giant it recently partnered to progress major renewable energy projects across the 13,000km2 of Yindjibarndi native title areas.

Their partnership gives Yindjibarndi a minimum 25 per cent equity in all developed renewable energy projects, with potential for 50 per cent ownership.

YAC chief executive officer Michael Woodley said the new ILUA meant Yindjibarndi People would lead Pilbara's transition to clean energy.

"Yindjibarndi country is ideally suited and located for renewable energy development, so we made the decision early to find a capable and reputable partner," he said.

"The partnership with ACEN gives Yindjibarndi control over how our country is developed, rather than other companies.

"Large-scale renewable energy is aligned with Yindjibarndi's vision to create community owned commercial businesses that protect ngurra, build a stronger community and respect culture.

"Yindjibarndi people are an equity owner of YEC so the money made from selling renewable energy goes directly back to Yindjibarndi people."

The decision came after a two-year process involving YAC, Yindjibarndi Ngurra Aboriginal Corporation (YNAC), Yiyangu Pty Ltd (a wholly owned Yindjibarndi business) and ACEN, Yindjibarndi's strategic renewable global energy partner.

The agreement stipulates large-scale renewable energy project on Yindjibarndi ngurra must be developed in an area where YAC and YNAC agree is appropriate, and be subject to strict compliance with YREP's heritage agreement, which provides no application can be made for a section 18 approval to impact sites under the Aboriginal Heritage Act 1972 without the consent of YAC and YNAC.

YEC's plans include development of up to 3GW of wind, solar and battery storage, staged over the next several years.

YEC chief executive officer Craig Ricato said the company would stage its developments to ensure communities were properly and respectfully consulted.

"Our Stage 1 target is 750MW of solar and battery, while Stage 2 is much larger comprising 2-3GW of solar, wind and battery", he said.

"Large projects like this take time and we're making good progress. There's been lots of work happening around heritage, environment and planning approvals, but most importantly, we've been engaging with the Yindjibarndi community so that they know and understand what we are doing and are kept informed of our progress."

ACEN Australia managing director David Pollington said the global conglomerate was "incredibly grateful" for the trust the Yindjibarndi had in ACEN to develop in partnership with them on their country, with respect.

"The Pilbara region is home to large industrial energy users that are looking to decarbonise production, and the team have been having many encouraging discussions with potential off take customers to purchase YEC renewable energy," he said.

In October, YAC signed an MOU with Rio Tinto to explore opportunities and collaborate on renewable energy projects on Yindjibarndi country in the Pilbara.

Rio Tinto and YEC 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.

Mr Woodley a few months ago backed comments from First Nations business leader and recently-appointed Ten Sixty Four chair Dr Kate George, a Putejurra woman from the Murchison-Gascoyne region of WA, who stressed transformative approaches would empower and engage First Nations people in the renewable energy sector.

"This is a journey for Aboriginal people, we have never truly been at the table," she said.

"I pick up the vibes - like the Gold Rush happening - but we need maturity and leadership.

"It comes down to engagement and trust and the leadership to do things differently.

"We need to be resourced, it's no good pretending it's a level playing field."

Her comments, at the WA Premier's Energy Transition Summit in late November, came after Roger Cook announced the Labor goverment would spend $700m upgrading the state's main electricity grid to help unlock renewable energy opportunities across the vast, sun-rich state.

The summit, held in conjunction wth the Committee for Economic Development, highlighted the need for economic involvement of First Nations people in the increasingly-manic global renewables race.

Pilbara Solar is one such First Nations-focused company with understanding of the importance of Indigenous involvement and understanding of clean energy management and solutions.

Co-owned by Yamatji Marlpa Aboriginal Corporation, its managing director Kylie Chalmers believed First Nations people could achieve economic equality if financing and resources were provided for them to help local communities bridge the gap.

"For Aboriginal people to lead in this transition, there needs to be investment, not only in the renewables industry but real investment in First Nations empowerment," she said.

"For commercial projects happening on Country, Aboriginal people need good advice, they need good support ... to understand what the opportunity could be.

"Because it really is a once-in-a-generation opportunity and we don't have time to get it wrong."

Citing successful examples from abroad, Ms Chalmers said industry should show full support for First Nations involvement in the clean energy transition, like in Canada, which changed tact and invested in First Nations participation in its successful renewable transition.

"We set up Pilbara Solar to contribute working models of co-ownership in this space," Ms Chalmers said.

The company had demonstrated its philosophy for First Nations to own or co-own renewable energy projects with its 10MW Junja Solar Farm project, set to be constructed near Port Hedland later this year and designed to build business confidence in industry, as well as confidence in First Nations participation in WA's transition.

"We thought the best way to create positive change is through tangible, physical projects that work and are built up to scale," Ms Chalmers said.

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