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Australia’s first-ever large-scale renewables projects co-owned by First Nations communities

– Tony Goodfellow, Advocacy Manager, RE-Alliance.

Australia has its first-ever plans for a large-scale renewable energy project that is co-owned by First Nations people – and not one, but two of these projects were announced this week.

The first would be Australia’s biggest solar farm, as part of the East Kimberley Clean Energy Project. With majority ownership by the region’s Traditional Owners, alongside investment from climate change investment firm Pollination, the project would create an export energy hub for green hydrogen and ammonia

The second is the plan by Yindjibarndi Aboriginal Corporation and Philippines-listed renewable developer ACEN to produce 3GW of renewable energy for mines in the Pilbara region. This agreement would give the Yindjibarndi people equity participation of 25 to 50 per cent in all projects and give them approval rights for site selection.

What can co-ownership deliver for First Nations communities?

These projects go beyond bringing benefits such as employment and boosting the local economy. As co-owned projects, both developments are being shaped by Aboriginal corporations, who are deciding which part of their country they want the project on, and how the profits and project benefits are shared in the community. In the long run, they also create capacity in Aboriginal corporations and communities to engage with other commercial enterprises. These benefits are as important as the employment opportunities and economic benefits delivered by these projects.

Yindjibarndi Aboriginal Corporation chief executive Michael Woodley said to the ABC that, "For the first time we have a recognition that would put us in the box seat of leading some of these projects. We actually initiated this whole structure ... We said we wanted to be part of renewables, so we went and set up a business called Yiyangu that's 100 per cent owned by the Yindjibarndi people.”

In countries like Canada, where Aboriginal ownership of renewable energy projects is relatively high, projects are delivering additional income, spurring job training, and overcoming over-reliance on diesel generators and energy poverty. This is something we highlighted in our report back from the First Nations Clean Energy Symposium. 

Why is this important for the future?

As Australia moves forward in our energy transition, meeting our net-zero targets will be impossible without First Nations communities, as it’s likely that nearly half of all renewable energy developments in Australia will be built on indigenous land.

Best practices for engagement with First Nations communities include free, prior, informed consent and creating long-term, meaningful engagement, built on trust and respect for Traditional Owner cultures, values and practice. These are important practices and must be followed. But co-ownership goes further. 

These two announcements represent not only a new way of moving forward with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as we decarbonise our energy sector, but a radical new way of creating place-based value in the energy transition. There is a lot that regional Australia and the energy sector can learn from this approach. 

This week’s announcements chart the path to build real participation and deliver just inclusion for First Nations communities in Australia’s energy switch. At RE-Alliance, we welcome these projects and are committed to working alongside First Nations peoples to achieve a just energy transformation. 

We are looking forward to the release of the First Nations Clean Energy Strategy that will “review laws, regulation and policy, to lift barriers and implement regulatory reform, and to stoke government investment in innovation, technology and infrastructure, so that First Nations people can share in and benefit from  the benefits of the renewable energy revolution.”

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