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Community engagement has no cookie-cutter approach: It’s time to start listening

– Andrew Bray, National Director, RE-Alliance.

The start of the 2024 federal parliamentary year has brought the building of new energy infrastructure across rural and regional Australia into sharp focus.

The majority of regional Australians want renewable energy for the benefits it will bring to future generations. However, the overwhelming message I hear from the communities I work in is that there doesn’t seem to be a plan. They need to see that local considerations are well understood and reflected in government policy and project planning. 

This concern was echoed by the Australian Energy Infrastructure Commissioner, Andrew Dyer, in his Community Engagement Review, delivered last week.

State and Federal government policy frameworks are complex and scarcely get coverage in the media. The need for renewables, and how they are being rolled out across the country is simply unclear. 

It’s so unclear, in fact, that we sometimes hear from landholders who are eager for their solar or wind project to go ahead but oppose a local transmission line, not realising that without the transmission line their project is unviable.

Let’s look at the concept of a Renewable Energy Zone from the perspective of the public.

An area is marked out on a map, suitable for wind or solar and close to transmission line capacity (or where new capacity will be built). By the time this is announced, developers have already got multiple projects in the region, some in pre-planning and some in the planning system. More join over time and there are soon more projects than the transmission line capacity will support, at least according to future plans for grid upgrades. 

This “competition for capacity” is invisible to communities, and they hear from developers much more than from government. Developers will always try to build confidence in their project’s success – as they should – but communities are left with the impression their hills will be covered in turbines when, in reality, only a handful of projects will proceed.

You can see how difficult it is for local councils, First Nations groups, farmers and regional communities to try to make sense of what’s happening and when. 

When communities are not included as crucial participants in the transition, project delay will become more likely, risking billions of dollars of public and private investment, risking our climate targets, the wellbeing of future generations and the real possibility of lost opportunity.

The Dyer report outlined these issues and recommends that the federal government “initiate a process for the development and execution of a communications program that provides local communities with a clear narrative about the pragmatic reasons for the energy transition”.

It’s critical that our state and federal leaders and departments communicate more often and more clearly with the public about how renewables will be built and why they are needed. But it’s not the only piece of the puzzle.

On top of a high level plan, regional communities need locally relevant information about when projects are likely to happen, how roads, housing, and local amenity impacts will be managed, and how communities and councils can harness development to maximise business opportunities for local economies. 

While this type of planning is now beginning to happen in some Renewable Energy Zones, the information for local communities to understand it and the two-way engagement to allow them to participate, is largely absent. This is an area where state or federal government involvement is critical. 

The top concern we hear from communities about renewable energy development is its potential impact on nature. 

Some conservationists and renewable energy experts have called for no-go-zones or traffic light systems to assess and map where development should occur. Our experience working with regions is that what is considered to be of “high biodiversity value” is different from place to place, so mapping and zoning exercises will need to have the capacity to reflect local environmental and cultural priorities.

This is not an easy task and in-depth conversations with regional conservation, First Nations and Natural Resource Management groups will be needed to understand local priorities. The bioregional planning pilot run by the federal government in partnership with Queensland demonstrates that this process will take time. 

In the short term, developers should take care to engage with local First Nations and environmental groups to understand local conservation goals, avoid sensitive areas and look for opportunities to collaborate with local groups as part of benefit-sharing packages. This openness to feedback and collaboration builds trust with local communities. 

Overall, the Dyer review includes a great discussion of the issues underpinning the often thrown around term “social licence”. However, when it comes to solutions, the report’s recommendations are frequently unspecific and unambitious for the role regional Australia can play in driving the future of our economy through renewable energy generation. 

State and federal governments are spending billions of dollars to attract renewable energy investment, which is welcome. However, when it comes to the work involved in supporting communities to navigate the complex changes they face with renewable energy, there is a public investment gap. 

RE-Alliance has spent the last decade working with regions navigating renewable energy projects. It’s with this experience that we’ve proposed three community engagement recommendations to the federal government.

1. Communicate the plan

During the pandemic, state and federal governments communicated with the public about the problem, what the government was doing about it, and how individuals, workplaces and communities could play their part. We need a similar approach to the renewable energy build where governments invest in communicating plans and how we can get involved, whether that’s tips to make our houses more energy efficient or how we can provide input into the renewable wind project plans for our region.

2. Create a new research centre in CSIRO to investigate social and environmental impact mitigation of renewable energy builds

There is a vacuum of public and trusted information on what renewables mean for people and our environment at scale. In this vacuum, speculation, misinformation and disinformation are thriving and undermining public confidence in renewables. 

A research centre housed by CSIRO to focus on the social, economic and environmental impacts of renewable energy and how the impact can be reduced would support confidence and social licence for renewable energy in the long term by providing trusted information to the public and becoming a reference for industry on future practice. 

This centre could be modelled on existing research units such as GISERA, which was built to  help the public understand the practical impacts of the gas industry.

3. Establish Local Energy Hubs to help regions with all aspects of energy

Federally funded, independent and locally-run Energy Hubs can help rural and regional Australians with all aspects of the switch to renewables.

Hubs would be physical drop-in centres, staffed by well-networked, respected local people, who are independent from industry. Their role would be to demystify changes in our energy system, bolster local engagement in renewable energy projects, and independently facilitate constructive interactions between energy developers and the community.

The hubs deliver programs that are sensitive to local context, including supporting agriculture to develop electrification strategies, supporting community-led energy projects and improving energy literacy to help households and businesses reduce their energy bills.

Local energy hubs would ensure state and federal policy frameworks are made tangible for community groups and individuals at the local level, and help communities identify opportunities to leverage development to pursue their own visions for the future of their regions. 


This piece by Andrew Bray was published in RenewEconomy

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