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Clean energy race gives Pilbara traditional owners a 'seat at the table'

David Prestipino -

Pilbara Solar has timed its entry into Western Australia's renewables market and focus on First Nations involvement perfectly, with the transition to clean energy and Indigenous engagement gathering momentum in resource-rich WA.

After championing First Nations and Traditional Owner partnerships in the renewables space at the Premier's Energy Transition Summit, WA Premier Roger Cook announced a $700 million upgrade to the state's main electricity network, which would unlock clean energy opportunities and position WA as a renewable energy powerhouse.

Some have criticised the funding, given WA is yet to introduce a state renewable energy target, while it lags behind the rest of the country on the uptake of renewables.

Clean energy will be a central focus of next week's UN Climate Change Conference, where Federal Energy minister, Chris Bowen, will face pressure for Australia remaining steadfast on using mainly wind and solar power to generate energy, while the majority of other nations look to nuclear.

Whatever the method, Friday's summit at the Perth Convention Centre, held in conjunction with the Committee for Economic Development, highlighted the need for economic involvement of First Nations people in the transition.

Representatives from Pilbara Solar, co-owned by Yamatji Marlpa Aboriginal Corporation, featured on a panel of renowned thinkers, policy makers and industry leaders to discuss WA's opportunities in the global energy transition game during the breakout session 'Bringing the Community on the Journey'.

First Nations business leader and recently-appointed Ten Sixty Four chair Dr Kate George, a Putejurra woman from the Murchison-Gascoyne region of WA, stressed that transformative approaches were needed to 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."

Pilbara Solar managing director Kylie Chalmers backed fellow panellist Dr George, says First Nations people could achieve economic equality ... provided the level of financing and resources was enough to bridge the gap and offer communities a real shot at equity.

"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 next 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.

Yindjibarndi Aboriginal Corporation chief executive and fellow panellist Michael Woodley welcomed Pilbara Solar's strong stance, almost a month to the day Yindjibarndi Energy Corporation signed a new MOU with Rio Tinto in Roebourne to collaborate on renewable energy projects on Yindjibarndi country in the Pilbara, the heart of Rio's iron ore business.

The YEC was established in June after an agreement between YAC and South-East Asian renewable energy giant ACEN Corporation to progress major renewable energy projects across the 13,000km2 of Yindjibarndi native title areas in WA's North West.

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