• Rio Tinto is poised to become the foundational customer for a 75-150MW solar installation developed with the support of traditional owners in the Pilbara
  • The Yindjibarndi People will have a 25-50% share in the equity on up to 3GW of solar and wind installations they hope to develop in partnership with Philippines-based ACEN Corporation
  • FID on first project expected in late 2024

Having fought for decades to have their right to benefit from the wealth of mining projects pockmarked across their cultural lands, traditional owners linked to some of Australia’s largest miners are looking to play a major role in the development of a massive expansion of renewable power in their backyard.

The Yindjibarndi People, the traditional custodians of land incorporating some of Australia and the world’s largest iron ore mines and the famous Pilbara town of Roebourne, say Rio Tinto (ASX:RIO) is poised to become the first customer of a solar and wind network on their land that could run to 3GW of renewable installations.

Early works, including a flora and fauna survey on land around 50km from Karratha as the crow flies, have already begun on an initial installation that could deliver 75-150MW of solar energy for use by Rio, which operates a massive mine, port and rail iron ore network across the Pilbara that counts as the world’s largest iron ore export business.

Rio predicts it will need 600-700MW of renewable generation to displace most of the gas used at its operations, cutting into a 3.3Mt a year CO2 millstone at its Pilbara mines it wants to cut in half by 2030 in a US$3 billion investment to begin the decarbonisation process at its operations.

It has already built a 34MW solar farm consisting of 81,000 odd panels across eight Optus Stadiums at its Gudai-Darri mine, with plans to assess another 300MW.

The MoU with Yindjibarndi Energy, a planned JV between the Yindjibarndi People and Philippines-based ACEN Corporation which would see the Yindjibarndi have between 25-50% ownership in any renewable project developed, would come on top of Rio’s own projects.

Yindjibarndi Energy CEO Craig Ricato said the company is hopeful of hitting FID by the end of next year and making commercial arrangements in 2025 ahead of a 12-18 month build.

Yindjibarndi Aboriginal Corporation CEO Michael Woodley said at an announcement in Roebourne on Friday the group is eager to take a lead role in rollout of renewables in the Pilbara.

“We obviously have our views in terms of mining, but we think entering into this space is not only good for Yindjibarndi, it’s good for our community, it’s good for our country, and it’s good for the world,” he said.

“It’s gonna be part of something that is going to contribute to the world economy, but in a different shift.”


Rio lays out opportunities and challenges ahead

Rio Tinto, as well as its competitors Fortescue (ASX:FMG) and BHP (ASX:BHP), face an uphill task to rein in their emissions.

They count as some of Australia’s biggest industrial polluters, though their biggest impact is in scope 3 emissions, which dwarf scope 1 and 2 emissions generated at the mine.

Solutions to curb those will rely on technology to make the global steel industry green — still likely wedded happily or otherwise to coal for years, if not decades, to come.

But efforts and capital are being concentrated on opportunities to take emissions out of the mine, port and rail network each runs.

Green hydrogen peddling Fortescue has boldly claimed it will hit ‘real zero’ at a cost of US$6.2 billion by 2030. Rio and BHP are more moderate, but are also investing billions.

Approval times for mines have doubled in the past 20 years and there are concerns the renewable rollout will also be impacted by the increasing rigidity of environmental approvals and strain placed on under-resourced government agencies.

Having the traditional owner group with its in-house knowledge of cultural sites could provide an advantage and a template when it comes to getting green energy projects off the ground.

“One of the good things about this type of project you can go about selecting, where would be an appropriate place that doesn’t interfere or impact with significant cultural areas on sites, river systems, waterways and important places, for the Yindjibarndi People,” he said.

“We work closely with our elders and then we obviously land on a site that is obviously going to be best for the Yindjibarndi people when we’re considering those things.”

Rio Tinto Yindjibarndi
Rio’s Simon Trott and YAC chief executive Michael Woodley in Roebourne on Friday. Pic: Rio Tinto/Tom Rovis-Hermann


Wrinkles in time

Rio has its own invidious recent history when it comes to Indigenous relations.

Notably, shareholders forced a clearout of senior leadership after the destruction of the Juukan Gorge rock shelter in a 2020 blast.

It has recently been under the microscope, though is not talking further at the moment, after a blast at the Nammuldi mine disturbed a rock shelter and known cultural site 150m away on August 6.

For the Yindjibarndi, they continue to pursue a pitched fight with Fortescue for compensation for the Solomon mining hub, which they say was established and mined on their land without their approval.

Woodley declined to talk about the court case or hopes of ending the dispute with a settlement.

Rio Tinto’s iron ore chief Simon Trott said Rio continued to be open to look at opportunities to partner with traditional owners in the renewable energy space.

“We continue to be open to discussions with Yindjibarndi on this arrangement and on future arrangements, as we are with other parties within the Pilbara that are looking to progress renewables,” Trott said.

“We’ve obviously got fairly ambitious targets for our own business.

“We’ve talked previously about committing $3 billion to decarbonisation of our business here in the Pilbara. And this is a step towards that.”

Ricato said Yindjibarndi Energy was in parallel assessing the potential to develop a 300MW wind farm, saying around 900MW of potential wind resource has been identified on Yindjibarndi Country.

While Rio would be the JV’s foundational customer, he said the business was open to supplying to other customers in the Pilbara and the State Government’s North West Interconnected System.