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Problems and solutions for energy project engagement

When community engagement goes wrong, it costs infrastructure projects big time and big money. 澳门玄机图 Community Engagement specialist, Crystal Serblan, discusses the engagement mistakes she sees most often in the energy sector, and how to fix them.
28 May 2024
Crystal Serblan
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Building trust the key to renewables project success

Development teams often see community engagement as a cost to projects.听I get it. They鈥檙e passionate about creating change, and driven by efficiency. Our industry just wants to get in there and get renewables projects built.

But, after more than 15 years working in the infrastructure sector, I鈥檝e seen firsthand the role that communities play in project success. And I鈥檝e seen time and again the issues that come up when community engagement is rushed, overlooked, or downright botched.

A few years ago, I worked on a project that failed to inform local landholders about the proposed alignment for a transmission line (potentially impacting their properties) before they released details publicly.听

This failure to invest in relationships created a situation where the landowners refused to speak to the project at all. For years. The project had no powers to acquire land, so in order to progress, the development team spent the best part of three years working on reopening the lines of communication, and rebuilding trust.

When community trust heads south, project costs head north. The breakdown in communication cost that project millions. This is a worst case scenario, but it鈥檚 all too common in the energy sector right now.

Here are the mistakes I see projects making most often, and my top tips for engaging successfully on renewable energy projects.

Wind Farm Rural Area Grazing Cows Australia

Common community engagement problems

Underestimating the time it takes to engage听

A lot of the people that I work with on renewables projects are engineers and technical specialists. They鈥檙e used to generating design outputs and achieving consistent, repeatable results.

But community engagement is far less predictable. People have diverse ideas and feelings. They have histories and cultures and deep connections to place. Creating relationships and building trust takes time. And if there is one thing I鈥檝e learned, successful community engagement always takes longer than the time allocated by whoever did your project鈥檚 program鈥

Project teams working in silos

When technical people plan and design without input from communications and engagement teams, social license issues almost always follow. This isn鈥檛 about comms and engagement team ego. It鈥檚 about risk management. Engagement specialists can give you valuable information about the stakeholders who could stall, stop or get your project cancelled. By involving them, you have a far better chance of heading community opposition off at the pass.

Changing legislation

The regulatory landscape is evolving. Australia鈥檚 Essential Services Commission (ESC) has recently introduced a Code of Practice which puts in place new engagement requirements for transmission service operators when dealing with landholders. The Australian Energy Market Commission recently approved a rule change which means energy projects need to engage communities earlier in the process.听

Projects must now actively involve local communities in the decision-making processes from the early planning stages, and utilities providers must demonstrate how they have considered community feedback and incorporated it into their project plans.听

The Australian Government is also implementing changes to the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (EPBC Act) which will require projects to incorporate First Nations knowledge and participation in environmental decision-making.

If you are doing the bare minimum and using current (or worse, old) legislation as the basis for your engagement strategy, it鈥檚 likely that you鈥檒l need to backtrack to comply with new engagement conditions in the future. And that adds up to additional time and cost.

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The easiest way to fix mistakes is avoiding them in the first place, so I always recommend:

Planning before doing

This sounds boring, but establishing comprehensive, detailed internal communication policies and procedures can save you a lot of time and heartache down the track. I鈥檝e seen community trust eroded on projects because the development team had no strategy for fielding enquiries, no FAQs, and different representatives responding to the same concerns with different answers鈥

In the marketing industry, they estimate the cost of acquiring a new customer at between five and seven times what businesses spend on retaining an existing client. The same principle applies to community engagement. Winning back stakeholders that you鈥檝e upset will cost you infinitely more than you鈥檒l spend on communicating with them openly and building trust from the get-go.

Engaging before you scope

This is perhaps the most controversial statement I鈥檒l make from an industry perspective 鈥 I can almost hear the engineers wringing their hands 鈥 but engaging with stakeholders and Traditional Owners before all the major decisions are made on project scope does pay dividends.

A $3 million scope inclusion that makes a project beneficial and attractive to local communities is a cost saving when the alternative is $20 million spent on legal proceedings and development delays due to community opposition. 听

Sapphire Wind Farm in the New England region of New South Wales is a great example of how engaging early and making community benefits central can help projects succeed. The project introduced the Sapphire Community Benefit Fund which fosters local economic growth, and implemented a community co-investment scheme that allowed locals to financially benefit from the wind farm.

Regional Community Members Australia

Humans make mistakes, successful projects admit them

I often use the Bay of Pigs invasion as an example when I talk about community engagement missteps and how to fix them. For younger players, the Bay of Pigs invasion was a failed military operation conducted by the United States in the 1960s in an attempt to overthrow the Cuban government and communist leader, Fidel Castro.

The invasion of Cuba was a complete disaster for the United States, but afterward US President John F Kennedy said: "There's an old saying that victory has a hundred fathers, and defeat is an orphan... I am the responsible officer of the government." He did the human thing and admitted the US was wrong. And his approval rating rocketed as a result.

Projects are run by human beings, and human beings make mistakes 鈥 especially when they are working as hard and as fast as we are in the energy sector right now. The lesson is that if you make a mistake with community, admit it. It鈥檚 the fastest path towards resetting relationships and rebuilding trust.

Spend to save on community engagement

Infrastructure Australia's estimated that $20 billion worth of infrastructure projects have been cancelled over the previous decade as a result of community opposition. There are听 over the next ten years.

It鈥檚 a lot of money. But to me, the true cost runs higher. Renewable energy initiatives that are unnecessarily delayed or cancelled are headwinds on our journey towards the real end goal 鈥 an energy system that is less costly to people and our planet.

So, rather than thinking about community engagement as an opportunity for cost savings early on, think of it more like an annuity that will pay dividends for your project鈥檚 future. 听听听听