– Tony Goodfellow, VIC/TAS Coordinator, RE-Alliance.
I had the pleasure of recently attending the inaugural First Nations Clean Energy Symposium, ‘People, Country, Opportunity’ with RE-Alliance’s National Director Andrew Bray. We were honoured to attend this landmark event. It was an inspirational example of the First Nations’ leadership in confronting the challenges and opportunities of an energy transition.
The symposium celebrated some great examples of First Nations clean energy achievements happening globally, and highlighted how crucial it is that we work to ensure First Nations people are central to the renewable energy transformation.
Image: First Nations Clean Energy Network via Twitter, @FirstNationsCEN
In particular, it’s clear that following the leadership of First Nations’ groups is vital.
The First Nations Clean Energy Network (FNCEN), who organised the symposium, is one of these groups. Karrina Nolan, descendant of the Yorta Yorta people, a key architect of the First Nations Clean Energy Network and Executive Director of Original Power said:
“The First Nations Clean Energy Network is positioning our communities to work with government and industry to shape how clean energy is done. The network will help reform policy, design projects and ensure First Nations people are at the heart of the renewables boom.”
“If done well, clean energy will provide a big boost to our communities. We have an opportunity to do development right this time, protecting country and sacred sites while delivering reliable power, jobs and economic opportunity for our communities.”
The event had an action-packed two-day program covering a wide range of topics, including supporting community-owned projects, the benefits and challenges of mid to large scale renewables, policy, industry best practice and overseas examples.
Here are some highlights from the inaugural First Nations Clean Energy Symposium.
First Nations’ voices at the forefront
It was a real highlight to hear so many First Nations voices talking about our energy transformation.
Jamie Lowe, a proud Gundjitmara Djabwurrung man and CEO of the National Native Title Council, commented: “One thing I don’t hear a lot is the black voice. We should bring mob together and talk about clean energy.”
Chris Croker, a descendant of the Luritja people of the Central Desert and Managing Director of Impact Investment Partners said, “We’ve had the wind technology for years… we have windmills on country for water.” He outlined how, without Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leadership, the large scale roll-out of renewables won’t happen.
Kado Muir, Ngalia Traditional Owner and Chair of the National Native Title Council said, “We want to be active participants in the economy of renewable energy, as owners of projects, technology and power distribution into markets.”
Karrina Nolan argued that First Nations mob must have a seat at the table in the roll-out of clean energy.
Principles for First Nations engagement
Chris Croker unveiled draft principles for First Nations engagement for industry. These will inform the Clean Energy Council’s work to create a First Nations benefit and engagement guide, which will be a crucial resource to improve the way renewable energy developments engage with First Nations communities.
Opportunities and challenges of clean energy for First Nations Australians
Across the country, First Nations communities are right now designing and building renewables, from small-scale solar to microgrids, while others are negotiating with large scale proponents. In a panel discussion, it was great to hear from them about what’s working, what’s not and what they’ve learnt along the way.
Gadrian Hoosan, a Garrwa and Yanyuwa man from Borroloola, outlined a project to build a micro-grid for his community. It will provide clean energy and break the cycle of chronic power disconnections, while providing local employment. Listen to an SBS interview with Gadrian here.
Garrwa and Yanyuwa man Gadrian Hoosan (left)
Les Shultz, Ngadju Traditional Owner, is currently negotiating on the massive green hydrogen project, the 50GW Western Green Energy Hub. He’s hoping to get good social and economic opportunities for his people, but also to be an example that others can use in negotiations for future projects. He says it’s important that First Nations people are engaged in renewables projects: “We need the best deals and can’t sit complacent.”
Schultz also says that free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) is crucial. He says that project decisions need FPIC, and emphasises the ‘informed’ aspect – he says that a lot of communities don’t have internet access, so it is very difficult for them to be aware of what’s going on. He proposes this is something civil society, the First Nations Clean Energy Network, government and industry must work to address: “We need a national framework for heritage for renewable projects.”
First Nations clean energy examples overseas
A standout session was on First Nations clean energy achievements globally. Two speakers Zoomed in from North America, and Karrina Nolan described their case studies as being “10 years ahead of Australia.”
A key consideration for the renewable energy roll-out must be free, prior and informed consent – and these successful examples of projects led by First Nations communities demonstrate its importance.
Brett Isaac, a member of the Navajo Nation, is the founder and co-CEO of Navajo Power, which was established to maximise the economic benefits of clean energy for “tribal and impacted communities.” Isaac said the organisation’s first projects created lots of interest in local communities.
“Solar has a low barrier to entry that can be scaled up. Community needs income to dictate their future… we’re going to get 3GW by 2030. I’m interested in the future and what happens next for the communities.”
He said that Navajo Power connects their activities to government climate goals, while also advocating for Free, Prior and Informed Consent, which refers to a right of Indigenous peoples to consent, on a free and informed basis, to developments that affect them and the lands on which they live.
Freddie Huppé Campbell, a proud woman of the Ktunaxa Nation and a Global Hub Manager at Indigenous Clean Energy, gave insights into the Canadian First Nations clean energy experience:
“We created a community-led approach to support Indigenous experts… now there are over 1200 projects that have over half equity from Indigenous communities.”
A renewable energy procurement program in Canada, LORESS, Locally Owned Renewable Energy Projects that are Small Scale, has helped drive partnerships with First Nations people.
One such project is the Wocawson Energy Project, an impressive five turbine project that is co-owned by Tobique First Nation. This co-ownership means that Traditional Owners have a seat at the table on project decisions – everything is “all done in-partnership.”
“This is an exciting day for the people of Tobique, this green renewable energy project is a step forward in my people's future and assists my community in our goal to become economically self sustainable. The revenue that's generated from that project will in large part give leadership the means to build houses for our members, upgrade community infrastructure, create employment and make strategic investments in education, economic development, and future renewable energy projects. It will also be a great boost for the local economy. Tobique is proud to be a part of a movement towards a clean, sustainable, green and renewable future for all."
- Chief Ross Perley from Tobique First Nation
Wocawson Energy Project. Image: Natural Forces
Another instance is the one turbine Oinpegitjoig Wind Project, co-owned by Pabineau First Nation.
For comparison, Australia’s biggest community-owned renewables project is two turbines, which took a mountain of effort by the amazing Hepburn community. There have also been a number of projects on First Nations land, such as Ramahyuck Solar Farm, which is currently in development and will be Victoria's first Aboriginal owned and operated solar farm – but these Canadian examples show that there is a lot of room for improvement.
“Now is the time to do it right,” said Campbell. “It’s time to not have colonisation in the energy transition.”
Session on agreement making
An excellent session of the symposium was on agreement making and negotiation. It featured Karrina Nolan, the CEO of Original Power, Professor Heidi Norman, a senior lecturer at the University of Technology Sydney, and Dr. Lily O’Neill, a senior research fellow at Melbourne University Climate Futures.
Nolan presented a guide that is in development for communities on how to engage with industry and make agreements. It is set to be an invaluable resource, coming at a timely moment.
Professor Norman has written previously about how Aboriginal communities can be part of the NSW renewable energy transition, and has stressed the need for a collective regional response by NSW Traditional Owner groups when it comes to transmission projects, so they can better negotiate.
Dr. O’Neill has previously written about free, prior and informed consent and what good agreements look like and covered this in her presentation. She gave an overview of NSW First Nations Guidelines, which will open up opportunities for training and employment, co-ownership and co-investment, and she highlighted the need for legislation to be developed so that it complies with the guidelines.
Since the symposium, the NSW First Nations Guidelines and a First Nations Guidelines specifically for the Central-West Orana Renewable Energy Zone have been released. The guidelines create an engagement framework for proponents. It will mean proponents for renewable energy projects and transmission will have to create Aboriginal participation plans with the goals of consulting and negotiating with local Aboriginal communities about opportunities. The Central-West Orana guide has a long term goal of 20% local employment and contracts to be held by local Aboriginal people and businesses. They are well worth a look and we hope that other states follow suit in creating such guidelines that are part of the merit criteria for generation and transmission projects.
Challenges in centring First Nations people in our clean energy roll-out
There are significant challenges to centring First Nations people in Australia's clean energy roll-out.
A notable one is the need to get more First Nations people into renewable energy jobs. Kane Thornton, Chief Executive at the Clean Energy Council, acknowledged this: “There’s a skills shortage and there’s an opportunity. Less than 1% of the workforce is Aboriginal and obviously that needs to improve.”
A potential solution for this was raised in a panel on best practice for industry by Justin Coburn, Community and Stakeholder Engagement Manager for Beon Energy Solutions. He pointed to a project for Beon, in which they’d prioritised and actioned increasing employment opportunities for Aboriginal workers. They did by employing local engagement workers who had local knowledge, and by creating a culturally safe workplace.
Hopefully initiatives like the NSW First Nations Guidelines and the Clean Energy Council’s First Nation Benefits and Engagement Guide will help on this front.
Soon after the symposium, Federal, State and Territory Energy Ministers committed to a co-designed and resourced First Nations Clean Energy Strategy to ensure First Nations people are central to the energy transformation.
The Energy Ministers’ Communique, dated 12 August, committed to seeing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people share in the benefits of the renewables revolution. Read the First Nations Clean Energy Network's media release welcoming this significant development.
The First Nations Clean Energy Symposium was an example of the benefits that our renewable energy transformation can provide, if we are guided by First Nations leadership. It’s crucial that First Nations people are actively engaged in and central to our clean energy future.
There is great work happening to this end – but we still have a long way to go.
Supporting First Nations initiatives is key. The First Nations Clean Energy Network is one First Nations organisation that’s working to ensure First Nations people harness the opportunities from Australia’s renewables boom. They’re doing vital work in community, industry and policy, and we encourage you to support them if you can.
What can you do?
If you have read this far, and you are wondering how you can support the fantastic work of First Nations leaders working in the renewables sector, please consider financially supporting some of the organisations below, following them on social media, and signing up to their email lists to stay informed about their important work.
These are taken from a presentation at the symposium by Emeritus Professor Jon Altman of the Australian National University and Director of Original Power. They are all First Nations led organisations that are working to meet the challenges of a just transition.
- To advocate for First Nation landowner and community interests in the clean energy transition
First Nations Clean Energy Network of community organisations, land councils, unions, academics, industry groups, technical advisors, legal experts, renewables companies and others, working in partnership to ensure that First Nations communities share in the benefits of the clean energy boom.
To advocate for the rights and interests of all First Nations people
The National Native Title Council (NNTC) is the peak body for the native title sector. We support First Nations people’s right to true self-determination – their right to speak for and manage their own Country, to govern their own communities, to participate fully in decision-making and to self-determine their own social and economic development.
To provide assistance managing rights and interests in land, salt water and fresh water country
The Indigenous Land and Sea Corporation’s long-term vision for meeting its mandate is for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people to enjoy the rightful entitlements, opportunities and benefits that the return of country and its management brings.
To realise energy justice for First Nations communities and oppose imposed environmentally destructive high emissions fossil fuel extraction projects
Original Power is a community-focused, Aboriginal organisation that builds the collective power of our people and backs our leadership, skills and capacity to genuinely achieve self-determination in our community and on country.