The story of this incredibly significant energy transition is one that absolutely must include our Traditional Owners and our leaders.
It's actually the key reason why we set up the First Nations Clean Energy Network in 2021.
The idea was that we wanted to bring our community into the energy transformation. It was very clear that we haven't been at the table and we haven't been front and centre, and in order to do this mammoth task - to be successful, it absolutely has to be done with our community.
We believe that our people know what needs to happen in our Country. Our people know the solutions to our own issues. If we're given an opportunity to genuinely self-determine what happens in our Country, really good decisions are made.
Looking internationally, governments in the United States and Canada have already realised that establishing the right partnerships with First Nations in the clean energy transition is a sound investment decision. Australia must do likewise to support our transition at the pace and scale required.
After two years of listening to our communities and having talks with all levels of government, the First Nations Clean Energy Network suggests we collectively need to action eight policy and market changes that will support Australian governments partner with First Nations in the clean energy transition.
1. Provide energy security for First Nations families by removing policy and regulatory barriers to clean energy
Residential rooftop solar is now the cheapest energy in the world, but not so for many First Nations people.
Subsidies have not been readily available or accessible and are typically directed at home owners. Installation costs are high. For those in social or community housing, navigating policy and regulatory barriers of distribution networks, service providers and retailers is difficult or even impossible.
By removing these barriers we can democratise energy, and by installing clean energy like rooftop solar on every household, we can ensure all our communities, families and households participate in the clean energy transition.
This will reduce the cost of living, improve energy security, and address the significant economic, cultural and personal harm caused by frequent disconnections experienced by First Nations families.
2. Scale community-led clean energy solutions to replace diesel generators
Many remote First Nations communities get their electricity from diesel generators. Yet burning diesel is expensive and known to be harmful to the environment and public health.
Supporting community-driven initiatives to replace diesel generators with clean energy and storage will increase energy quality and reliability.
This in turn will lead to improved economic development, energy independence, and environmental and health outcomes.
3. Embed principles of Free, Prior and Informed Consent into legislative, policy, and decision-making processes and systems
An emerging trend in the US is projects will not be financed unless the FPIC of impacted First Nations communities has been obtained under new policy being developed by its finance sector. Governments in Australia must play their role too and keep ahead of these global developments.
Policy and legislative systems must incorporate principles of Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) as established in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.
However, industry does not have to wait for Governments to embed FPIC. To dispense directors’ duties faithfully and protect projects from risk, boards must ensure FPIC is standard across company operations. Similarly, investors should demand companies invest in and adopt FPIC standards and principles.
Resetting relationships and embedding FPIC should simply be seen as sound business practice, particularly now with the rush for land, waters and critical minerals to support the clean energy value chain.
4. Plan for Country, culture and people to facilitate mutually beneficial outcomes
Many First Nations across Australia are being approached on multiple fronts by project proponents: wind (including offshore) and solar projects, transmission infrastructure, energy storage, green hydrogen facilities, and critical minerals mining.
Daunting for anyone, First Nations must be readily equipped to deal strategically and effectively with the opportunities and risks of potential projects.
First Nations can be supported to explore building deeper partnerships and work towards the development of projects that work within the values of Country, people and culture.
This can be done by investing in First Nations to develop local or regional “Country plans” that include culture, people and aspirations (encompassing economic, cultural, environmental and demographic considerations). This will aid the delivery of mutually beneficial outcomes for all stakeholders.
5. Embed First Nations in the energy market through power purchase agreements (PPAs) with First Nations clean energy suppliers
Public and private sector First Nations procurement policies are designed to stimulate entrepreneurship, business and economic development opportunities.
This policy approach could be readily extended by requiring governments, corporates and educational institutions to procure clean energy from suppliers where there is a minimum percentage of First Nations ownership.
Attaching value to First Nations project participation through procurement policies will build unique opportunities for industry to partner with First Nations communities, while simultaneously incentivising First Nations to maximise their interest in clean energy projects.
6. Support First Nations ownership of clean energy infrastructure through innovative finance solutions
Innovative financing arrangements have a key role to play.
A government-backed loan guarantee program, perhaps similar to Canada's, would facilitate ownership by providing guarantees for the percentage of a First Nation entity’s equity in clean energy infrastructure projects.
This sort of approach would enable First Nations communities to partner in project development within their own Country while building strong equity partnerships between business and First Nations.
7. Support First Nations-led clean energy projects to supply electricity to the national and regional electricity markets
First Nations have the opportunity to develop clean energy projects that provide on-going and tangible commercial, environmental and social benefits to the community.
We can deliver a range of significant co-benefits and build the pipeline of opportunity that industry, governments and investors want through properly targeted funding and support of First Nations’ development of renewable energy projects on First Nations-titled land, covering critical project steps like feasibility studies, financial analysis and project approval costs (like Canada’s First Nations Clean Energy Business Fund).
8. Build First Nations participation in the clean energy workforce and supply chains
The success of Australia’s transformation will depend on building our currently understaffed clean energy workforce, especially in regional and remote regions where many renewable energy zones will be located.
We need coordination and a clear plan to ensure jobs and skills initiatives produce First Nations outcomes. Similarly, a clean energy future will need innovation in services, information, and technology - this requires entrepreneurship.
First Nations people are a huge resource to establish and grow clean energy businesses and to participate in supply chain opportunities. With targeted support, mentoring and advice, and access to the right early-stage capital, Australia can unleash First Nations entrepreneurs, particularly youth, to lead clean energy innovation and business opportunities.
While there's a lot of goodwill, we've got a long way to go to make sure that our communities have the capacity and the resources to do the country planning and all of those things to make sure we're not just kind of responding to proponents, but we're actually also the proponents of some of these projects ourselves.
I wanted to acknowledge the leadership and commitment of Minister Bowen and Assistant Minister Jenny McAllister. They've actually announced at the end of last year that they're going to co-design a First Nations Clean Energy Strategy which we hope will go some way to dealing with some of the range of issues we've just talked about.
Australia’s energy transition will require access to large areas of land, waters and seas, including for thousands of kilometres of new transmission lines and access to critical minerals. Interaction between the clean energy sector and First Nations is inevitable - First Nations rights and interests in lands and waters are formally recognised to over 50% of Australia.
Enabling and empowering First Nations to play a central role in the transition goes beyond social license issues. We must include, invest and embed First Nations as partners in our energy system transformation to deliver ongoing mutual benefits for the whole country.
It's going to take a bit of work to reset some of those relationships, rebuild that trust. But I think with a bit of collaboration, goodwill, and I suspect quite a bit of good old Aussie determination, I think we can make it happen.
This is an excerpt from a presentation by Chris Croker, steering group member of the First Nations Clean Energy Network, delivered at the Australian Energy Week conference on 22 June 2023.