Rivers of Prosperity

Actuary Sharanjit Paddam reflects on the risks and opportunities for First Nation Australians from renewable energy.

At a bend in the Barwon River, on the northern outskirts of Brewarrina in far Western NSW, lies a complex network of river stones arranged to form ponds and channels to catch fish. Traditionally known as “Baiame’s Ngunnhu”, the Fish Traps are thought to be one of the oldest man-made structures in the world. For millennia they have shaped the political, spiritual, social and economic relationships between First Nation Australians in the region. The river brought food, wealth and social connection to the town and the local communities.

Professor Heidi Norman (C), with her team Therese Apolonio (L) and Nghaeria Roberts (R)

I am here with my colleague, Calise Liu, to deliver a climate physical risk assessment of the area. We are participating in a workshop organised by Gomeroi woman Professor Heidi Norman of UNSW for the Local Aboriginal Land Council (LALC) on renewable energy opportunities. Professor Norman’s workshops aim to build capacity and knowledge for First Nation Australians so they are prepared to seize these opportunities.

The challenge is not missing the opportunity and letting Australia’s rapid energy transition be another wave of dispossession for First Nations people.

Opportunities and Challenges, Hopes and Fears

In Brewarrina Community Centre, we sit with the Brewarrina LALC, discussing the risks and opportunities of climate change. The UTS Institute of Sustainable Futures team has assessed the LALC’s land holdings, and their potential for solar and wind generation. We discuss potential sites for electricity generation and storage and their relative advantages and disadvantages.

Brewarrina Community Centre

The opportunity is generational. Energy costs are high in this remote part of the country, so gaining access to cheaper, renewable energy alone would have a substantial impact on household budgets. The jobs that come with building and maintaining renewable energy represent real opportunities for young people in an area that has long suffered from high unemployment. Potential future revenue from a grid scale operation could help reverse the fortunes of a community – driving improved health, housing and economic opportunity.

But with the hope comes fear. Many of the LALC members have experienced decades of broken promises. Perhaps the biggest illustration is a paddock we visit the next day to the South of the town. The site sits in the town commons and is the oldest unresolved land claim in NSW – a claim that has been outstanding since 1984. Protected from flooding from the river, it could be the perfect spot for a mid-scale solar project. But instead Brewarrina LALC has been in negotiations with government and other parties over many years to have this land returned.

Site of the oldest outstanding unresolved land claim in NSW

The LALC members take us to other sites across the region. We follow the transmission wires that run into the substation just outside the town. Connection to the grid is critical, and the wires are a new river bringing wealth, prosperity and health to the community.

A Lesson in Humility

Professor Norman has built a deep relationship with the NSW LALCs over many years, and under her guidance, we present our assessment of the Aboriginal land estate – the risks of future floods, bushfires, storms and heat stress. It’s part of Finity’s Reconciliation Action Plan – a pro bono climate physical risk assessment of LALCs across NSW.

We start our presentation with an apology. We have sat with our maps and actuarial models, assessing fifty years of data to arrive at our results. But we’ve never been here before.

What could we possibly know of this land that the locals who have lived on it for 50,000 years don’t already know?

Finity, UTS, UNSW touring local sites with Uncle Ted Gordon (second from the right) and John Reidy (Centre) from Brewarrina LALC

Uncle Ted Gordon, Deputy Chair of the LALC, knows when every parcel of land last flooded or burned in a bushfire. He jokes that you could drop him off anywhere in the region and he’d find his own way home without a GPS. Despite this, the LALC appreciates the information we share. We note that in what is already one of the hottest parts of Australia, increasing heat stress will drive up energy costs, unless the community gets access to cheaper energy. When we discuss the increasing flood risk, to our initial surprise, they’re not concerned. Two years ago, a levee was built to protect the houses, and the recent flood was welcomed after a decade of severe drought. That’s not something you see in maps or models.

Finding the Road Forward – from Challenge, to Opportunity, to Reality

After a night at the local RSL over a Chinese meal with the Mayor and other town members, on the second day Professor Norman works with the LALC to develop concrete action plans. It’s hard work. Energy is complex and we work through multiple options. From household batteries to improve energy reliability, to community batteries. The relative merits of solar to wind. The pros and cons of grid connection. The critical importance of distance to the transmission line. To making sure that none of the new development is going to be on sites of cultural and spiritual importance to the community. The research team bring their deep knowledge to the table, answering questions like how long does a windmill last? How many solar panels will we need to power Brewarrina? How many jobs are there maintaining sites? What governance structures will best preserve LALC decision-making?

Dinner at the Brewarrina RSL

Jonathan Kneebone from First Nations Clean Energy Network provides examples from across the world where Indigenous people have benefitted from renewable energy. He emphasises the benefits of an ownership model that provides a route to future ongoing wealth and self-determination, rather than a short-term boost in funds. John Reidy, the LALC CEO, asks if there are examples of this ownership model in Australia. There are not, though many LALCs are trying.

There is government support. The Australian Renewable Energy Agency has allocated $75 million to fund up to half the investment in First Nations renewable microgrid projects. But what’s desperately needed right now is professional support and expertise to undertake pre-feasibility and feasibility studies. Support for communities in negotiating equitable agreements with energy companies and the many opportunists that approach them each day. The LALC land holdings that many perhaps thought was worthless decades ago now is now rich in solar and wind resources. Associate Professor Sven Teske, an engineer at UTS Institute for Sustainable Futures, points out that the Aboriginal land estate has more than enough resources to power all of Australia.

The road to Brewarrina

What’s at Stake

This is the second workshop we’ve done, the first was at Dareton. Professor Norman and her team are planning to do more workshops. It’s hard not to get swept away in the emotion of it all.

While it cannot solve all the complex problems facing Australia and its relationship with its First Peoples, renewable energy and climate transition offer a real opportunity for change, a real future made in Australia. But it could also be yet another time when Australia lets down its First Nation peoples. Will the flood of renewable energy break the drought of broken promises and bring prosperity and self-determination for First Nations?

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