A SERIES ON HOW TO DO RENEWABLES RIGHT

Introduction

Renewable energies are one of the most important assets for national and international economies to achieve the 2030 targets. The rapid technological development and expansion of renewable energies in many countries, certainly confirms that renewable energies will be one of the most important actors, economically and environmentally, of our time.

But, as the 2030 Agenda states, it is not only the economic or environmental contribution of these new industries that is important, but also the social one. So, the question this article tries to answer is: How can we include this aspect in renewable energy projects?

The key lies in community engagement, defined as “the process of working collaboratively with and through a group of people affiliated by geographic proximity, special interest or similar situations to address issues that affect the well-being of those people”. In this way we not only engage the community in the transition to renewables, but also provide a powerful vehicle for environmental and behavioural change.

Some of the benefits of community engagement are the establishment of strong relationships that allow for dialogue on issues or concerns about new projects, combating misinformation about the project, mitigating potential project risks and other potential cost overruns for developers. When they are developed in rural areas with disadvantaged populations, their voice is amplified, they are listened to and have a say in their lives. This promotes social cohesion and agency. 

Community engagement practices

There is no single way of doing CE, in principle there are a variety of techniques and all of them can be combined or adapted to the context. The advantage of community engagement is that it is an open field subject to creativity and practice, and by relying on community input there will always be opportunities for innovation.

The International Renewable Energy Agency’s brief on Community ownership models (2020) offers different techniques based on community owned projects. For example, electricity generation plants, where the electricity generated is destined to the community itself becoming “prosumers” (producers and consumers), district heating systems following the same scheme, community energy storage or energy efficiency systems among others, that you can read in depth in IRENA’s report.

These are excellent opportunities to give the community the power to decide and plan what will happen in their locality. But CE is not only limited to these types of business models, but there are also ways to include such an approach in companies with renewable project plans.

The first step is to accept, as an organisation, that engagement with the local population or leading organisations is vital for the success of the project and this must be initiated long before the project starts. Social acceptability plays a very important role and this is not only achieved through the creation of community funds or low compensation, it is achieved by listening to and validating the concerns of the community.

For this to happen, trust must be built. Having community representation figures within the company’s staff is vital, as well as training relevant personnel (engineers, developers, decision-makers…) on this topic. This includes soft skills such as active listening, non-aggressive communication, negotiation and conflict resolution; and hard skills such as research on the cultural context, demographics or landscape values, the emotional bond that people develop with the place. Do we understand the concerns raised by the project? Does the community and the company have common interests? Is there already a relationship with the community? What is the level of influence of the different groups and associations in the locality? What is their bond to the land? In Ireland there are well-organised groups who oppose such projects for fear of losing greenspace, an argument that is totally valid and shared in many regions of the country, how is the company responding to these fears?

Community dynamics are complex and acquiring local knowledge helps to navigate and avoid potential problems arising from a lack of interest in what is happening at the local level.

Creating codes of conduct, best practices and action plans on community engagement also allows for a roadmap that facilitates this work and allows all involved to understand the intentions and objectives of the project with respect to the community and the business.

Face-to-face meetings would be another point to consider. Events at local gatherings, one-to-one chats with concerned neighbours, meetings with local representatives. After all, it’s about being available to the community. Exposure and learning opportunities can also be provided on the technology the company is using during the different phases of the project, and as mentioned above this would break chains of misinformation and fears about the negative impact such technology may have on the region or their lifestyles.

The Asian Renewable Energy Hub in Australia is working together with the Aboriginal people (The Nyangumarta People) in the area. They are involved in approval and consenting processes and other benefits that will last for the 50+ years of the project.

Other alternatives are the hiring and training of local labour, provide possible benefit-sharing options to the community, such as a ‘gift’ of shares or turbines, where the wind or solar farm for example, grants a co-ownership opportunity to local groups or NGOs to share the benefits of the project and to generate dynamism in the local economy, as well as a greater connection or inclusion in the project.

An example is Lower Mattagami Project in Canada, which provided work, training and business opportunities to the indigenous population living in the area. They also received a 25% equity stake for the 90-year project duration. Or the Wind farms in South Evia, in Greece where 62 direct permanent jobs were created for locals in the operation and maintenance of wind turbines.

These are just a few examples, but in all of us lies the ability to innovate and develop new engagement opportunities.

Conclusion

To conclude, only stress the importance of truly understanding why community engagement is necessary to achieve local development beyond social acceptability.

Engagement must occur at all levels of the organisation, there must be a genuine interest in pursuing commitment. Failure to do so can lead to social conflict and delays in projects that have so much to contribute to the new climate paradigm.

“If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” African Proverb

Written by Silvia Garcés

References

[1] CDCP (1997) Principles of Community Engagement: First EditionCenters for Disease Control and Prevention: CDC/ATSDR Committee on Community Engagement.

[2] Clean Energy Council (2018) Enhancing Positive Social Outcomes from Wind Farm Development: Evaluating community engagement and benefit-sharing in Australia. Link

[3] Devine-Wright, P. (2005). Beyond NIMBYism: Towards an integrated framework for understanding the public perception of wind energy. Wind Energy, 8(2), 125-139.

[4] Devine-Wright, P. (2011b). Renewable Energy and the Public: From NIMBY to participation. London; Washington, DC: Earthscan

[5] Energy Ireland (2016) The importance of good practice community engagement. Link.

[6] HWEA (2018) The local benefits from wind farms in south Evia, Greece. Hellenic Wind Energy Association. Link.

[7] Norton Rose Fullbright (2020) Renewables projects must consider community impact. Link.