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ABC: First Nations clean energy network set up to deliver cheap and reliable power to Indigenous communities

First Nations groups, unions, industry bodies and academics have launched a new network to build renewable energy projects in Indigenous communities.

The First Nations Clean Energy Network aims to forge partnerships between communities and industry to develop renewable energy projects on Indigenous land to provide reliable power and end energy insecurity. 

Karrina Nolan from community group Original Power said the network's goal was to bring clean, reliable and affordable power to communities with projects that were community owned with huge potential for solar power, especially in the outback. 

"It's about making sure that our people are front and centre when it comes to the clean energy transformation that we are experiencing in this country and certainly need worldwide in order to deal with climate change."

Ms Nolan said there were only a handful of clean energy projects in Indigenous communities, even though they were early adopters of solar through the Bushlight program in remote areas of the Northern Territory, Western Australia and Queensland, which ran between 2002 and 2013. 

"We're not seeing enough involvement in medium to large-scale enterprises, certainly the large-scale export projects at the moment," she said.

"There's really only one of those that's jointly being done with an Aboriginal community."

"But what we're hoping to see by developing the network is that those companies and businesses get on board and actually do role model best practice on what it could really look like to make sure that benefits are shared by all, and certainly by our communities."

Nearly a quarter of Australia's energy generation comes from renewable energy, such as solar and wind power, and the country is expected to surpass the target of 50 per cent renewable energy by 2030.

Energy poverty

Much of the housing in remote and regional Indigenous communities is substandard and overcrowded because of a lack of maintenance by authorities and disputes over funding between governments. 

Norman Jupurrurla Frank, a senior Warumungu traditional owner from Tennant Creek, led a pilot project to integrate rooftop solar with pre-payment meters in town camps.

"For too long, our communities have been forced to rely on dirty, expensive and unreliable power that is undermining our people's health and wellbeing," he said.

"Clean energy is the medicine that our people need. I dream of having solar on every house in town."

Marlinja in the Northern Territory's Barkly Tablelands is home to 60 people and has set up a community solar project which has slashed power costs for the community centre from $150 a week to about $40 a month. 

A recent report from the Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute found global warming and inadequate housing were putting Indigenous communities in remote and regional areas at risk. 

The report called for the construction of housing that could better withstand climate change and be regularly maintained by authorities.

Ms Nolan said poor housing and unreliable electricity contributed to poor health in remote and regional communities, and having access to cheap and reliable power would improve living standards.

"What we're seeing with rising temperatures is that people aren't able to cool and heat their homes, that food can go off, medicines can't be maintained, medical life support equipment can be disconnected."

Ms Nolan said temperatures reached more than 40 degrees Celsius in some places in the outback, with diesel often used to power homes. 

"We're hearing stories where people are choosing to cool one room and then taking it in turns and sleeping in that room that is cool enough," she said.

Financing projects 

One of the issues in setting up power projects is getting finance and developing fair power-purchase agreements between communities and electricity firms, with a lot of the funding currently coming from government grants. 

Chris Croker, managing director of Impact Investment Partners and a member of the network steering group, has led several renewable energy projects in and around the Uluru-Kata Tjuta National Park in the Northern Territory. 

The mining engineer is developing a solar microgrid project in the community of Santa Teresa (Ltyentye Apurte), south of Alice Springs, and a solar project at Borroloola, home to more than 1,300 people in the Gulf of Carpentaria. 

He said while the potential for clean energy projects in communities was large, there were many barriers to entry. 

"It is hard," he said. 

"There's a lot of potential issues and requirements both on the legislative, regulatory, commercial side of things.

"But by having the right supporters in a coming together as equals to making the project work, we can collaborate.

"The Ltyentye Apurte micro grid project was supported by an AusIndustry remote renewable energy feasibility grant, which then allowed us to engage the right technical and legal advisers to work out the best way forward."

Creating jobs

Electrical engineer Ruby Heard runs Alinga Energy Consulting and is also a network steering group member. 

She said one of the aims of the network was to set up power projects to provide training and employment in communities.

"So we expect to have employment for Indigenous people, who can actually work within their communities," she said.

"There's limited opportunities for that at the moment, but we hope that this will bring many jobs into communities."

Industry collaboration

The network will set up a partnership with industry to look at what sort of investments can be made in small, medium or large-scale projects that are community owned. 

Ms Nolan said the First Nations Clean Energy network was modelled on clean energy projects in Indigenous communities in Canada, where more than 200 medium to large-scale projects were operating, all community owned. 

"They've got 2,000 to 3,000 small-scale projects that have been developed, and a projection of $1.5 billion that will be Indigenous employment contracts over the next decade."

"What we need is industry and government to get on board and make sure that these projects are really being done the right way and driven by our communities," Ms Nolan told the ABC. 

Project partners in the First Nations Clean Energy Network include the National Native Title Council, the Australian Council of Trade Unions, the Electrical Trades Union, the Smart Energy Council and the Centre for Aboriginal Economic Policy Research at the Australian National University. 


Full ABC piece published 17 November 2021 here.