Rio Tinto and Yindjibarndi Energy Corporation are aiming to approve their first solar farm next year as the first step in building multiple projects in the Pilbara.
Rio Tinto has struck an agreement with Yindjibarndi Energy Corporation to assess renewable energy projects in the Pilbara.
The venture will initially target development of a solar farm with capacity of between 75 megawatts and 150MW.
It is aiming to obtain all approvals and take a final investment decision by the end of next year.
That would allow construction to commence in 2025, with development expected to take 12-18 months.
If the project proceeds, it will be one of just a handful of large solar farms in the Pilbara, where project announcements typically run well ahead of construction (see more below).
YEC was established in June by Filipino company Acen Corporation, which has an internatiuonal portfolio of renewables projects, and Pilbara traditional owner group Yindjibarndi Aboriginal Corporation, which is in a long-running legal dispute with Fortescue Metals Group over mining royalties.
YEC chief executive Craig Ricato said his group was fully funded to pursue development of renewables projects.
“We have an agreement with Acen where ... they are supplying the original development capital or risk capital and once we get to an investment decision, we will use normal commercial project financing,” he said.
Rio and YEC have already selected a 500-hectare site about 50 kilometres inland from Karratha near an existing Rio sub-station for the solar farm.
Separately, YEC is in advanced studies for 300MW of wind farms.
Mr Ricato said Yindjibarndi country, which covers about 13,000 square kilometres, was ideal for wind as it was elevated, about 300 metres above sea level, and away from the dangerous cyclonic conditions on the coast.
YEC’s stage one target is to develop 750MW of solar, wind and battery storage “in the next few years”.
Its long-term plan is to develop up to three gigawatts of renewable energy.
“Long term, Yindjibarndi Energy is hoping to connect into the North West Interconnected System and supply power across the Pilbara,” Mr Ricato said.
He said the Yindjibarndi people (through YAC) would retain at least 25 per cent equity in each project.
Today’s agreement provides some good news for Rio, which has struggled to deliver on its previously stated renewable energy plans.
It had planned to gain final approvals for a 100MW solar farm in the June quarter of this year but failed to hit that deadline.
It cited issues with engineering and construction timelines, slow approvals and the need to integrate its plans with the needs of local communities.
As well as the YEC venture, Rio is working on plans for up 300MW of solar farms and also conducting site evaluation for wind farms in the Pilbara.
Its goal is to have 1GW of renewable assets in the Pilbara, including transmission and battery storage, by 2030.
So far, its only operating asset is a 34MW solar farm at its Gudai-Darri iron ore mine.
Other big miners in the Pilbara are also in the early stages of their renewables journey.
Fortescue has its 60MW Chichester solar hub and is building its 100MW North Star Junction solar farm and hopes to have between 2GW and 3GW of renewables by 2030.
Alinta Energy is building a 47MW solar farm at Port Hedland after signing an offtake with BHP, which is aiming to have 550MW of renewables in the Pilbara by 2030.
Iron ore chief executive Simon Trott said Rio was focused on replacing gas and diesel with clean energy alternatives through the end of the decade.
“We recognise we have a large carbon footprint in the Pilbara and are exploring a number of innovative solutions to help address this, including future collaborations with other traditional owner groups in the region,” he said.
YAC chief executive Michael Woodley said the Yindjibarndi people were encouraged by Rio’s interest in the partnership.
“This will strengthen our existing partnership and provide long-term benefits for our community, while also ensuring that we can protect and preserve the areas of cultural, spiritual and environmental significance,” he said.
Mr Woodley said he anticipated multiple commercial and employment opportunities.
This would include YAC’s contracting arm Yurra having a role in building and maintaining renewable energy assets on its country.
Today’s agreement builds on the close relationship between Rio and the Yindjibarndi people.
Last year, they signed an updated agreement that will deliver increased commercial opportunities and royalty payments to the Yindjibarndi people.