Effective community consultation and engagement is essential for wind farm projects to gain widespread support and earn the ‘social license’ to operate within the community. To be effective in community engagement, it is vital to actually ‘engage the community’ and involve the community wherever possible in the design and execution of programs related to the wind farm.
The level of community engagement varies widely across the wind farm projects observed to date. A key observation is that initial project developers that intend to ‘on-sell’ the project to a long-term developer or operator may not invest sufficient time and resources in community engagement or neighbour relations to be effective. These limited efforts can result in lower levels of community support and more divided communities, compared with projects where the project developers appropriately focus on effective community engagement from the very start of the development activity.
In some jurisdictions, such as New South Wales, the planning guideline framework has provided for an early and continuing focus community engagement, including the establishment of a Community Consultative Committee (CCC) that is maintained throughout the life of the project. Further, recent feed-in tariff arrangements established by the ACT and Victorian Governments, place a significant weighting on selecting developers/projects that have proposed and demonstrated effective community engagement programs and subscribe to community engagement as a high priority.
Many projects also establish Community Engagement Funds, funded by the developer, to fund a wide range of initiatives that benefit the local community. In some cases, such funds are a condition of the permit approval, but largely these are voluntary arrangements proposed by the developer.
The quality of and information provided by wind farm websites vary from project and/or developer. In general, there is more work to be done by developers to provide up-to-date websites with clear transparency of information about the developer, the project, how and who to contact at the developer, how to make a complaint and the complaint process along with access to all relevant project documents.
Some regions of Australia are experiencing increased clustering of proposed and approved wind farms which may result in multiple wind farms infiltrating and ‘surrounding’ communities. As a result, there is both the need and opportunities for individual project developers to communicate more effectively with each other and better coordinate engagement with the affected community. This could range from combined initiatives by wind farm developers through to coordination of construction programs to minimise cumulative impacts on residents and townships. Developers should also be aware of other key infrastructure projects that may be taking place in a region and ensure that project schedules are planned and coordinated to minimise impacts to communities.
Overall, there continues to be a wide range of opportunities for developers to further broaden and improve community engagement with respect to wind energy developments. A number of suggestions gained from observations of various practices across the industry are listed below.
3.2.1. The developer should ideally commence and invest early in community engagement – well before the commencement of the permit approval phase. An acquirer of a project still in development should conduct detailed due diligence on the extent and effectiveness of community engagement activities undertaken by the original developer – prior to finalising purchase of the project – and be prepared to make the necessary investments in community engagement going forward.
3.2.2. The developer should proactively identify and establish effective relationships with key community stakeholders, including stakeholders that may be opposed to the project.
3.2.3. The developer should, in consultation with the responsible authority and the community, consider establishing a CCC (or equivalent) with an appropriate charter and membership (noting that in some jurisdictions, a CCC may be mandated). The CCC Chair should, where practical, be a respected and representative member of the community at large as well as independent of any direct impact or beneficiary of the proposed wind farm. Ideally, the CCC should meet monthly during critical stages of the project’s development, approval, construction, post-construction testing and initial operations.
3.2.4. Many developers provide a range of information and education opportunities for community members to better understand the benefits and impacts of wind farms as well as address any questions and concerns raised. Initiatives to consider include:
- establishing a ‘shop front’ in the community town centre that provides project/permit information, a map and model of the project, information about wind farms and an ability to address questions or concerns raised by community members
- providing an informal channel for community members to ask questions and provide feedback about the project, and be able to do so anonymously if required
- providing opportunities for community members to visit operating wind farms
- providing access to a wind farm noise simulator to demonstrate wind farm noise to community members and enable them to experience simulated noise scenarios
- maintaining an up-to-date project website with full transparency on contacts, complaint process, project details and status along with planning permit details and documentation
- providing information sessions about the project and wind farms more generally, at convenient locations within the community, including presentations from key stakeholders, along with regular project newsletters and updates, and
- publishing the minutes, where applicable, of CCC (or equivalent) meetings and allowing observers to attend CCC meetings.
3.2.5. The developer should establish a formal complaints/enquiry process, including a system to record and manage complaints, as well as provide a transparent register of complaints/enquiries information (note: actual complainant details can be masked for privacy). The complaints process should ideally commence at the initial stage of the development activity to allow community members to formally raise concerns and have these concerns addressed in a timely, consistent and transparent manner.
3.2.6. The developer (and CCC if it exists) should consult widely and communicate effectively and extensively on the proposed construction and related transport plan. The developer should also ensure appropriate restoration and ‘make-good’ activities and seek, where practical, to leave local infrastructure in the same or better condition than prior to the construction. The developer should also proactively provide communications during construction using all forms of relevant channels, including text messaging. Where more than one construction project is occurring in the same area, collaboration should occur between projects to proactively identify and resolve issues, such as constrained supply of gravel, tradespeople, accommodation and road access.
3.2.7. Further to Recommendation 3.2.6, the developer may wish to seek out opportunities to help facilitate improvements to other related community/local infrastructure. Initiatives could include improving mobile phone coverage, utilising the project workforce to help upgrade local facilities (such as parks, playgrounds) and other practical activities which could benefit the overall community for years to come.
3.2.8. Local council(s) should proactively engage with the project and community and be clear in communicating the council’s support for the project as well as its role in facilitating and promoting effective community consultation.
3.2.9. Where possible, the developer should engage staff locally to lead community engagement activities and respond to community concerns and complaints.
3.2.10. Once a wind farm is in operation, the developer should continue to proactively provide information and updates about the wind farm and provide opportunities for the community to visit the wind farm (such as an ‘open day’).
3.2.11. The developer should consider establishing and maintaining a community engagement fund and ensure there is appropriate community involvement in the governance and management of the fund. In some jurisdictions, such a fund is mandated. The fund should allow for appropriate opportunities for community originated submissions to obtain funding for project proposals. Prioritisation of funded projects that may be of benefit to those community members more directly affected by the presence of the wind farm should be encouraged. The ‘community’ should clearly include and benefit community members that live in proximity to the wind farm rather than only supporting projects related to a regional centre.
3.2.12. Stakeholders to the project, including the responsible authority, council, bankers, investors and regulators, should seek relevant evidence of both the project’s community engagement plan and outcomes of the plan’s execution as part of any decisions or conditions the stakeholder may wish to place on the project and developer.
3.2.13. Industry bodies, such as the Clean Energy Council (CEC) and the Australian Wind Alliance (AWA), should continue to promote effective community consultation engagement and recognise those industry members that are achieving excellence in positive community engagement outcomes. Appropriate priority should be given to this topic when designing industry forum agendas.
3.2.14. State governments can continue to play a key role by prioritisation of promoting effective community engagement in wind energy projects. Examples include initiatives such as demonstrable community engagement plans as key criteria for eligibility to be awarded State government ‘feed in tariff’ arrangements through to utilising formal permit conditions.
3.2.15. Wind farm developers should ensure that all contractors and other project stakeholders are aware of their responsibility to be involved in community engagement and minimise community impacts. If there are multiple infrastructure development projects occurring in a region, wind farm developers should also be aware of potential cumulative impacts to a community and should liaise with local councils and other developers to proactively plan ahead so to avoid or minimise unnecessary impact on the community.