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Elders from Wujal Wujal head to Brisbane to seek support for their own renewable microgrid and hydro asset

Two Elders and one CEO from flood ravaged Wujal Wujal arrived in Brisbane today to ask Ministers and energy service providers to remove the barriers to realising a 40-year community-led vision for developing a renewable energy asset to ensure reliable affordable power. 

Wujal Wujal elders Kathleen Walker and Marie Shipton with Jabalbina Yalanji Aboriginal Corporation CEO Josh Paterson are also presenting at the Queensland Energy Development conference today.

They will talk about the enormous hurdles they have been facing since December’s Tropical Cyclone Jasper, including not being allowed to return to Wujal Wujal after being evacuated, and government barriers to their community-driven renewable energy proposal.

Ergon Energy restored power to ‘more than 99% of the 50,000 customers impacted by Tropical Cyclone Jasper and flooding’ by 22 December 2023. 

But not Wujal Wujal. More than two months later, some 300 residents are still living in hostels and caravans or with families in Cooktown and Cairns some 300km away.

“We have 56 houses untouched, they’re the good ones, but still no essential services - no water, sewer, or power running,” said Mayor Bradley Creek last week. 

Not being allowed to return home is having a serious impact on Wujal Wujal’s Kuku Yalanji, Kuku Nyungul and Kuku Julunji community members. 

Traditional Owner Kathleen Walker says with nothing to do and no home to go to, people are in extreme despair, with two deaths since the community was evacuated.

I can't face my own people, I don't know what to say to them. People need to go home. We’re here to ask government to do the right thing. My people need this energy project.”

Assisted by a federal government scoping study, Wujal Wujal moved their 40-year vision for a hydroelectric asset into a solid business case in 2022. Coupled with a solar/battery microgrid, they now have a plan to keep the power on, reduce electricity costs, create local jobs, and build economic empowerment.

In early 2023 however, the Queensland government rejected Jabalbina Yalanji Aboriginal Corporation’s renewable energy proposal (submitted with Volt Advisory Group) because the project offered no pathway for ownership by state-owned utility, Energy Queensland.

The Queensland government then legislated in October 2023 that the majority of renewable generation assets in the State must have public ownership, with no identified plans for sharing asset ownership with community proponents.

“This remains the critical barrier to the development of our renewable energy project,” says Josh Paterson, “with no pathway for grid connection or regulatory approvals.” 

Wujal Wujal is connected to the national grid at the end of a long fringe of grid feeder line, causing a significantly higher distribution cost of supply for Ergon.

Josh says the government needs to rethink their definition of public ownership. 

“The prioritisation of publicly owned assets must include community owned assets. 

“Our project is an opportunity for the State to support community-scale energy projects that will help Queensland meet its renewable energy targets, will realise savings for Ergon, and will give local communities affordable reliable power.

“The Queensland government must reassess this crucial barrier to realising a just and resilient energy transition.”

In early February 2024, Kathleen gained a commitment from the Premier of Queensland that the community’s renewable energy plans would be inserted into the government’s Wujal Wujal recovery budget (however there’s still no sign of that money coming through).

Josh says the Premier’s commitment may be an indication the government sees the link between First Nations energy resilience and disaster relief.

“First Nations people are identifying renewable energy solutions needed in homes and communities that are shaped around country and local weather events, to positively impact families, with benefits going back to our communities.

“Supporting Wujal Wujal’s initiative to plan, build, operate and own clean energy and storage will lead to improved economic development, energy independence and productivity, and climate resilience, including environmental and health outcomes.”

“If the government stands by its commitment to Kathleen, the community could start building the solar and battery system which would keep the power on in case of future disaster events. They could then move to the hydroelectric development.

“We have the economic modelling. With the right government support, the first phase could be delivered in 18 months.

“This would provide the community with secure power and ensure key facilities such as the telecommunications tower remained powered in major events.” 

Karrina Nolan from the First Nations Clean Energy Network says with more extreme heat and hazardous weather events predicted, a secure power supply and long life local storage system is critical for regional and remote communities.

“This is an opportunity for Government to work proactively with our communities wanting to develop First Nations renewable energy initiatives, including addressing policy and regulatory settings to enable genuine benefits from renewables and for community-led solutions to be implemented.”

Watch a short film about Wujal Wujal’s renewables plan