Australia’s Pilbara and Kimberley regions have very high rates of Indigenous land tenure, whilst hosting some of world’s best co-located solar and wind energy resources. Simultaneously, technological advances in energy transmission and distribution raises the possibility of renewable energy export into Southeast Asia. This paper builds upon previous work Ensuring Indigenous benefit from large-scale renewable energy projects: Drawing on experience from extractive industry agreement making in considering the opportunities and risks of renewable energy developments for Indigenous communities in these regions. It considers renewable energy developments at two different scales – utility-scale and smaller dispersed models, finding that communities are more likely to obtain broader social and economic benefits from developments in which they have a significant financial stake and have power over aspects of development.
Proponents of utility-scale developments may negotiate agreements to offer Indigenous people access to energy, financial compensation for land use, or a stake in ownership. Yet, in considering research from the extractives industry in relation to agreement making we find that broader social and economic benefits for communities are often less than predicted. Research from Canada that looks at the potential for Indigenous ownership of smaller scale renewable energy developments to address local need and benefit, highlights the importance of First Nations’ voices in discussions of regional economic development associated with the coming energy transition.
- To date, renewable energy development in Australian Indigenous communities has been almost exclusively at a very small scale and off-grid – not for redistribution beyond a local group of households. In remote areas particularly, renewable energy development has occurred on a scale suitable to replace diesel generators. The approach to this type of renewable energy development has generally not occurred as part of regional development or systematic energy planning.
- For remote communities, replacing expensive diesel generators with solar and battery systems presents multiple benefits such as reducing household energy costs, increasing energy security and reliability, and enabling sustainable economic development through development of small businesses.
- The co-location of favourable wind and solar resources on large tracts of sparsely inhabited land in north-western Australia presents considerable opportunity for large scale renewable energy developments. The vast majority of this land is subject to Indigenous rights and interests, this suggests that a different approach might be necessary both to build-in Indigenous benefit in the future, and to secure Indigenous access to renewable energy.
- Like extractive industries, both solar farms and wind turbines can impact ‘landscape amenity’, a term which refers to the cultural associations of ‘pleasing’ landscapes. This could impact the Kimberley, an area associated with high ‘wilderness’ values in particular, although there are still vast areas of the both the Kimberley and the Pilbara that are rarely visited by outsiders. These developments also clearly have a potential impact on Indigenous cultural heritage. Their dispersed character means there is potential for such developments to coexist with other enterprises, such as cattle stations, or with agricultural developments, although the latter remains a rarity in Australia’s north.
- Opportunities presented to Indigenous people, particularly those in more remote parts of Australia, by the renewable energy industry could be significant, and could be quite different from the kinds of opportunities which have emerged from industrial developments on country up to now. Opportunities associated with larger scale developments may include benefits from land access and benefit sharing agreements negotiated with renewable energy companies.
In considering the potential benefits and risks to Indigenous people of smaller and larger scale renewable energy developments the issue of scale might not be the most crucial. Rather the intertwined questions of ownership and the potential downstream use of energy resources become central. The real opportunities for indigenous people in renewable energy go far beyond being recipients of a list of negotiated ‘benefits’, to longer term, strategic and regional considerations of ensuring the capacity for Indigenous involvement in an energy transition which sees Pilbara and Kimberley resources securing Australia’s position as renewable energy exporter to the region. The next phase of this research proposes to engage with First Nations’ organisations in the Kimberley and Pilbara regions to share these findings and engage in a discussion with them about their energy futures.