Driving the high-tech jumble of photovoltaic panels, poles and torques, Bel Atkinson said to his children proudly: “I built that there.”
It is not easyto find the big solar farm from the highway. You might catch a glimpse of the Sun through the black glass panels if you’re lucky.
But its position is largely hidden from view in contrast to its impact on Narrandera, a small town in New South Wales with wide, tree-lined boulevards and historic buildings, on the banks of the Murrumbidgee River.
“The legacy that the solar farm has left in this city is a generational change,” said Shaurntae Lyons, fighting back tears while talking about it.
And it starts with the simplest things.
A wonderful partnership
Justin Coburn from Beon Energy arrived in town before any ground was broken in search of a workforce to build what would become the Avonlie Solar Farm.
As luck would have it, he found a “force of nature” in Lyons, a Wiradjuri Yorta Yorta woman with whom he would form a unique partnership.
When asked to identify barriers to employment in the city, Lyons answered bluntly: ID. Photo recognition.
Many of his mob have never had a job because they don’t have the most basic paperwork needed to even apply for one.
They essentially live as invisible citizens.
So, with Beon’s backing, the idea for an “ID Day” was born.
Word got out on the “Koori grapevine” and over 100 people went to the local TAFE, where a production line was set up.
At the first table, the local Aboriginal Cooperative Gundyarri helped organize birth certificates; then it’s Medicare cards and finally, Unique Student Identifiers that workers need to get their construction tickets for the solar farm. All of this is free.
Within days, these people were on the workforce map. The first obstacle to employment has been cleared.
“It’s a big day for us,” said Lyons, who works for Beon as an Aboriginal community engagement officer, along with another Wiradjuri woman, Jody Greedy.
Together, they helped smooth the way for the project and bridge the cultural divide.
Beon isn’t the first company to operate in the city promising jobs and prosperity, but Lyons says it’s the first to consult properly and ultimately deliver on its promises.
“A lot of people promise things when they come [the] community, but they didn’t come through and I think that’s the difference,” he said.
“What they told us and what they did was exactly what they said they were going to do.”
Lyons credits the success of Coburn, head of community engagement for Beon, who he described as “one in a million”.
Importantly, the elders of the Wiradjuri mob were Coburn’s first port of call, and it was only once he was blessed that he invited the community to a meeting to outline the project and what was on offer.
The community’s reception at the first meeting was “rightfully sceptical”, said Coburn.
“I’ve had people ask me directly, ‘Is this just a box-ticking exercise?’ And I understand where they’re coming from because that’s the experience they’ve had before.
But Coburn said Beon has a project ready to go, plenty of jobs on offer and a commitment to working with, and supporting, as many locals as possible.
More than 30 First Nations men and women put their hands up for a job and took advantage of the training offered.
Some have never worked before while others have criminal records “for small things”, Coburn said, limiting their opportunities.
“We’re not looking at that. We’re giving everything a chance.”
Now complete, the nearly 500,000 panels installed throughout the 600-hectare farm, have the capacity to generate enough energy to power 100,000 homes.
But for workers, the success of a solar farm is not measured in megawatts.
Having been in and out of prison since he was 17, Scotty Kennedy says adjusting to full-time work was difficult at first. But once he understood it, he woke up every day looking forward to work.
Kennedy says the job changed his life, enabling him to get his driver’s license and a new job building another solar farm.
“I’m going the right way now,” he said. “I’m happy. I’ve never been so happy.”
That sense of pride is shared by Atkinson, whose children had never seen their mom work before the solar farm.
According to his co-workers, he became the project leader and “the last Aboriginal person to install the last solar panel”.
When asked what he got from the project, he replied: “A lot of pride.”
He has since taken another job with Narrandera Shire Council.
With the support of Coburn and Lyons, about 90 percent of the solar farm’s workers found ongoing jobs within months of the project’s completion, some with employers who had never hired an Indigenous person before.
According to Lyons, the ripple effects are even greater, who says that the 30 people who work are able to support a community of 600.
“People moved to be bigger and better than what they were before,” he said.
“And that’s what every Koori wants.”
Opportunities and challenges
The clean energy transition presents many opportunities for regional Australia where solar and wind farms are being built on an industrial scale, supported by a new network of high-voltage transmission lines.
But there are costs too. The massive expansion of solar and wind farms is changing the landscape, and in some areas, communities feel they are being strong-armed by developers building the projects Australia needs to achieve. -ot the ambitious climate targets.
Coburn is aware of the potential backlash, which is why he says it’s important to involve communities from the start of projects and make sure they get some benefit from it not only in jobs and training, but from initiatives like community funding and community benefit- sharing schemes.
“We want to learn from the lessons of the mining industry how it did and make it better again,” he said.
“First Nations communities should be treated as not only stakeholders, but rights holders in these projects, they should have a seat at the table.”
Changing the trajectory
Lyons now has a seat at the table. He took a new job as an engagement coordinator for another renewable energy company.
Reflecting on the impact the Avonlie Solar Farm has had on his community, Lyons said it changed the course of his mob.
“What it does is give people the opportunity for different choices, to make different choices in your life,” he said.
“That’s what renewable energy companies can do. And I think in Narrandera it really shows.”
The Avonlie Solar Farm has now been handed over to clean energy giant Iberdrola, which has set up a community fund in Narrandera which is paying for a kitchen and a van for the Gundyarri Aboriginal Corporation.
Iberdrola Australia’s Matt Dickie acknowledges there is “fear of the unknown” about switching to renewables but believes the opportunities outweigh the costs.
“I think there’s a huge opportunity for people in those areas of the country to get involved in the energy transition,” he said.
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