Transforming Lives: First Nations Job Opportunities Flourish with Solar Farm Projectent

Driving past the sprawling 600-hectare solar farm in Narrandera, Bel Atkinson proudly tells her children, “I built that out there.” The high-tech marvel of photovoltaic panels, poles, and torques may be inconspicuous from the highway, but its hidden impact on this small New South Wales town is profound, especially for its First Nations residents.

Shaurntae Lyons, a Wiradjuri Yorta Yorta woman, fought back tears as she spoke about the solar farm’s generational change in Narrandera. The catalyst for this transformation began with a unique partnership between Lyons and Justin Coburn from Beon Energy. Arriving in town well before ground was broken, Coburn sought a workforce and found a powerful ally in Lyons. Recognizing a fundamental barrier to employment – the lack of photo identification – Lyons and Beon collaborated to create an “ID Day.”

Justin Coburn and Shaurntye Lyons formed a special paternership

This initiative, conducted at the local TAFE, provided over 100 people with essential documents, including birth certificates and Medicare cards, enabling them to apply for jobs. With the support of Beon, Lyons, as an Aboriginal community engagement officer, played a pivotal role in bridging cultural gaps and smoothing the project’s pathway.

Unlike previous promises made by other companies, Beon stood out by genuinely consulting the community and delivering on its commitments. Coburn, the head of community engagement, earned the trust of the Wiradjuri elders, ensuring community involvement from the project’s inception. Over 30 First Nations individuals secured jobs, breaking down barriers for those with limited opportunities due to lack of experience or minor criminal records.

The solar farm, with its nearly 500,000 panels generating energy for 100,000 homes, became a source of pride and life-changing opportunities for its workers. Scotty Kennedy, formerly in and out of jail since 17, found stability and happiness through full-time work. Bel Atkinson’s transformation from a leader on the project to landing a job at the Narrandera Shire Council exemplifies the positive impact on individuals and the community.

What they did tell us and what they did was exactly what they said they would do

With the support of Coburn and Lyons, approximately 90% of solar farm workers secured ongoing jobs within months of project completion. The ripple effects extended beyond employment, with the 30 workers supporting a community of 600. As Lyons states, people have moved on to become “bigger and better than what they were before.”

Acknowledging the opportunities and challenges of the clean energy transition, Coburn emphasizes the importance of involving communities from the start. He advocates for First Nations communities to be treated not just as stakeholders but as right holders in renewable energy projects.

A lot of pride

Bel Atkinsonnow landed another job at the Narrandera Shire Council.

Lyons, now an engagement coordinator with another renewable energy company, emphasizes the project’s transformative impact on her community. She believes renewable energy companies provide opportunities for different life choices, as demonstrated in Narrandera.

As the Avonlie Solar Farm transitions to Iberdrola, the clean energy giant establishes a community fund in Narrandera. Matt Dickie from Iberdrola Australia recognizes the “fear of the unknown” in the shift to renewables but underscores the immense opportunities for people in country areas to participate in the energy transition. The success of the solar farm stands as a testament to how First Nations job opportunities can change lives and entire communities, creating a pathway to a brighter and more sustainable future.

Matt Dickie believes the opportunities of the shift towards renewables outweighs the costs.