The wind industry is positioned to contribute significantly to a clean energy future, yet the level of community opposition has at times led to unviable projects. Social acceptance is crucial and can be improved in part through better practice community engagement and benefit-sharing. This case study provides a “snapshot” of current community engagement and benefit-sharing practices for Australian wind farms, with a particular emphasis on practices found to be enhancing positive social outcomes in communities. Five methods were used to gather views on effective engagement and benefit-sharing: a literature review, interviews and a survey of the wind industry, a Delphi panel, and a review of community engagement plans. The overarching finding was that each community engagement and benefit-sharing initiative should be tailored to a community’s context, needs and expectations as informed by community involvement. This requires moving away from a “one size fits all” approach. This case study is relevant to wind developers, energy regulators, local communities and renewable energy-focused non-government organizations. It is applicable beyond Australia to all contexts where wind farm development has encountered conflicted societal acceptance responses.

KEY MESSAGE

This case study provides specific findings regarding aspects of community engagement and benefit-sharing practices that can be drawn on during wind farm development and can result in increased societal acceptance of the technology. These findings include the value of trust, the role of specific wind industry staff, the contribution of face-to-face engagement to relationship building, the importance of specific community engagement skills and qualifications, and the various models of financial and other benefits provided to hosts, wind farm neighbors, and the broader community.

INTRODUCTION

The wind industry is positioned to contribute significantly to a clean energy future globally, including those in Australia. It is an energy generation technology that is also well positioned to supply low cost renewable energy investment and jobs, particularly in regional areas. However, the development of some wind farms has faced community opposition for multiple reasons [1-3]. In UK studies, post wind farm development analysis has found that the original “fears” of the development often dissipate, and that “the reality is less visually intrusive, noisy and despoiling that they had expected” ([4], p.210). In this way, it appears that attitudes regarding renewable energy generation (including from wind) can differ from attitudes regarding specific wind farm developments [5].

In some cases, the level of opposition has led to unviable projects and the introduction of stringent policies for wind development. Successful uptake of wind technology requires a “social re-composition” that can positively integrate the technology into people’s worldviews, identity and sense of place [6]. Two possible approaches that could achieve this re-composition are effective community engagement and fair benefit-sharing practices [7].

CASE EXAMINATION

This case study examines best practice community engagement and benefit-sharing practices in Australia for both large-scale wind farms with multiple turbines and corporate ownership, and small-scale wind farms with two turbines and community ownership. It reports on data from five sources:

  • A literature review of publications regarding the relationships between the public and wind turbines. It involved a review of 57 academic texts, including peer-reviewed journal papers, published between 2005 and 2016. This represented studies from the UK, Europe, North America, and Australia.

  • An analysis of Community Engagement Plans (CEPs) written by developers for specific wind farms they are developing. The analysis involved a review of 32 CEPs supplied voluntarily by Australian wind developers on the condition on non-disclosure. These provide insight into the real-life application of community engagement and benefit sharing concepts.

  • A survey of the wind industry regarding community engagement and benefits-sharing. This included 50 questions (19 quantitative and 31 qualitative questions), covering the following aspects: the resourcing, staffing, timing, purpose, activities and outcomes of engagement, and benefit-sharing. The survey received 26 responses. The majority of respondents were managing wind projects in the states of Victoria (16%), New South Wales (14%), South Australia (9%) and Western Australia (7%), and most respondents were in community engagement (43%) or leadership roles (25%).

  • In-depth interviews conducted with 22 interviewees, representing wind developers, community, regulators and government, academics and experts, and non-government organizations, with their names and organizations withheld following requirements of ethical clearance. Interview questions were semi-structured and the transcripts were coded to identify dominant emerging themes.

  • A panel of 19 intentionally selected panel participants with experience and relevance to Australian wind farm development, who participated in iterations of interviews and discussion, following the Delphi Process [8].

A combined analysis across all documents provided specific findings that emerged on community engagement perceived as effective and on benefit-sharing perceived as fair.

EFFECTIVE COMMUNITY ENGAGEMENT

Research on community engagement around wind farm developments in the UK found that significant determining factors of local support for wind developments is “whether people have meaningful opportunities to engage in the decision making process” ([9], p.23). In Australia, a wind-focused study found that community stakeholders appreciated community engagement processes if they were founded on honesty and transparency, and in turn thus established a trusting relationship [10]. Five specific aspects of effective community engagement emerged from the five processes. These are detailed in following subsections.

Influence of Context

The contextual aspects of wind farm development were identified as having a strong influence on the way in which community engagement needed to be developed and implemented. This is because local contexts vary significantly by a number of cultural, historical, demographic, and geographic factors. This makes different community dynamics very complex and context specific. The community’s relationships with landscapes are often deeply connected and thus often emotionally loaded. In response, successful approaches to community engagement were found to be best when integrated within detailed understandings of the local community and founded on local knowledge. This engagement required respectfully navigating people’s existing relationships with the local landscape and how best the development can (ideally) compliment or have a benign impact on it.

Establishing Trust with the Community

Trust was emphasized as a keystone for achieving positive community engagement and associated social outcomes. Specific factors that were seen to influence trust included the following: being available to the community; offering access to decision makers in the company; engaging early, in many settings, and both informally and formally; and telling “the truth” about the development plans. Also of fundamental importance is setting clear expectations and delivering them in a timely manner.

The “People” Factor

The source data reflected that community engagement is no longer seen as a “nice to have” dimension but, instead, an extension of the company’s values. Having appropriate people in community-facing roles (ideally with specific community engagement skills and qualifications) was noted as a recurrent theme crucial for building lasting relationships and trust, which were found to be effective to build support, negotiate acceptable solutions, and discuss concerns. This was demonstrated by actions that embedded community engagement staff in a range of teams within the company, as well as by having staff based locally.

Value of “Face-to-Face”

A common feature of wind farm development proposals that had received few or no objections was a focus on personal engagement that is largely face-to-face: either one-on-one with wind farm neighbors or with a small group of community members. This was a common theme—regardless of the size and visibility of the wind farm. Engaging at a group level was found to provide a sense of transparency and openness regarding the development, rather than secrecy and suspicion. Community, expert, and some developers identified that it is particularly important for turbine hosts and their neighbors to be engaged together as a group.

Community Influence on Wind Farm Decisions and Designs

To be effective, engagement with the community was found to extend beyond information provision to include opportunities for community influence in project design and in decision-making. However, token efforts toward engagement were identified as damaging to the engagement relationship. An example of this effort is through use of the “decide–announce–defend,” involves taking complete plans to the community, with only very minimal opportunity for feedback [11]. Despite these challenges, most companies were able to identify areas for the community to make decisions regarding projects—including traffic routes for construction, turbine numbers and locations, design of benefit-sharing programs, and how engagement is conducted, with whom and how often.

FAIR BENEFIT-SHARING

In Australia, benefit-sharing has been proposed by applying a framework of consultation within a wind development that can explore strategies for sharing financial benefits equitably [12]. Five specific aspects of fair benefit-sharing emerged from the source documents. These are detailed in the following subsections.

Grant Programs

Community grants, community funds and benefits funds, are common in many communities hosting wind farms including Australia, but vary in focus, scale, and governance. A key aspect to a successful fund was that the community has a role in determining the level of commitment it has in the delivery of the fund [7]. If a grant or fund program is implemented, the source documents identified the following key aspects for best practice:

  • Be financially generous and transparent about how the funding amount is calculated, and base it on per megawatt of installed capacity or generation output, rather than per turbine;

  • Separate the grant program from the sponsorship program;

  • Be independently governed by a local community committee, or at least have community involvement in its management; and

  • Align with broader, longer-term local, and sustainable development initiatives for lasting local impact.

Neighbor Payments

Previously, local residents in Australia have criticized financial payments only being made to wind turbine hosts, rather than including other neighbors who also experienced the disruptions and noise [10]. This has been identified as creating financial “winners and losers” in small rural communities [13]. A recent development in Australia’s wind industry has been a form of benefit-sharing that provides a direct financial benefit to the neighbors of a turbine host. This was introduced in reflection of the significant incomes (up to and including AUD$15,000/turbine/year) paid to Australian turbine hosts and the perceptions of unfair distribution of benefits and impacts that can arise among neighbors as a result. Providing a financial gain to nearby neighbors can act as means to enact a fairer distribution of benefit according levels of impact. However, the source documents revealed a number of risks with providing financial benefits to neighbors: if this was perceived by other (non-recipients) to be unfair; if it occurs through private negotiations (“in secrecy”); if it is perceived as an attempt to buy support; if it replaces other rights (e.g., to lodge future claims or complaints); or if it emphasizes a “compensation rationale” (rather than a benefit-sharing rationale). To counter these risks, it was recommended that neighborhood payments be tailored to the context, integrated with the community engagement approach, and transparently negotiated with community representatives. This can be done via group meetings with neighbors and hosts, or a through the involvement of a representative community organization, who have some or all of the decision-making power over this process.

Non-financial Neighbor Benefits

Benefit-sharing can extend beyond (or in addition to) annual financial payments. In Australia, these have included free home insulation, energy audits, and subsidized solar hot water [7]. Other energy-related benefits suggested in the source documents included contributions to part or all of the home energy bill; installing solar panels and/or batteries on local homes; and ensuring the neighborhood with closest proximity to the turbines are a priority area for a community benefit fund.

Co-investment and Co-ownership

Wind farm research has been found in the UK that community co-ownership of the wind farm can be established through a range of opportunities, including investment and input to decision-making [14, 15]. Working with the community to create co-ownership or co-investment opportunities is an initiative that several Australian wind developers are considering, but a few have yet to be auctioned. Options that have been undertaken include the following:

  • Offering shares or bonds to local people with a low enough minimum entry (e.g., AUD$2,000) to allow people to participate, while also being administratively practical.

  • Providing a gift of equity in the project to near neighbors (e.g., offering AUD$1,000 worth of equity to each household within 2.5 km).

  • Partnering with a local group to facilitate co-ownership (e.g., local cooperative) of the wind farm.

Partnerships and Local Contractors

The construction stage of a wind development offers an opportunity for local contractors to secure work contracts and therefore support locally based employment. With regard to local content during the construction phase, it is important to ensure that the local industry is informed of the development, and that larger contracts are potentially broken up to enable participation by smaller, local contractors. The source documents included suggestions to create partnerships with training organizations to provide opportunities for apprentices or for upskilling of the workforce.

LESSONS LEARNED

Wind farm development in Australia occurs within a complex operating environment—one that is contingent on local and policy context, resourcing, and individual and company capacities and attitudes to engagement. In this context, it is likely that wind developer staff on-ground in communities are seeking to undertake meaningful engagement within a constantly changing context, while needing to meet a range of requirements associated with the commercial realities of developing a large infrastructure project.

The overarching finding from this research is that each community engagement and benefit-sharing initiative should be tailored to a community’s needs and expectations, as informed by community involvement. This requires moving away from a “one size fits all” approach, and considering each community as its own entity—with its own challenges and opportunities. Some specific lessons emerged from the research for this case study:

For Wind Developers:

  • Invest adequately in community engagement;

  • Become a long-term part of the community;

  • Clarify what aspects of the development are negotiable; and

  • Diversify the options to share benefits.

For Energy Regulators:

  • Share success (and other) experiences with the industry;

  • Communicate clearly to communities; and

  • Build local governance capacity to contribute to wind farm negotiations.

For Non-Government Organizations:

  • Build partnerships and share experiences to improve and diversify practices.

CASE STUDY QUESTIONS

On Community Engagement

  • Q

    Engagement benchmark: Can a benchmark be identified for effective community engagement in wind projects? Would this be helpful to evaluate the company investment in impact of community engagement?

  • Q

    In-house culture change: How can a culture change occur within wind development companies to ensure community engagement becomes widely understood and valued as an integral part of the success of the business? What evidence is required to underpin this change?

  • Q

    Training in community engagement: Who should be trained in community engagement—including public-facing, development, and senior management staff?

  • Q

    Scope of negotiations: Which decisions are genuinely open to change based on community feedback? Are companies able to trust the community will make good decisions—or is this perceived as interference?

  • Q

    Importance of context: The contextual influence on each wind farm under development does not seem to be well understood. How can this be improved?

  • Q

    Enhancing existing activities

    • Public meetings and community consultation committees: What is the key to making these meetings and committees helpful or unhelpful?

    • Providing feedback: How can reporting back to the community occur best regarding changes planned or influences they have had?

    • Group engagement: How can experiential or peer-to-peer learning opportunities in a group context be increased (e.g., wind farm tours, open days, community meetings)?

On Benefit-Sharing

  • Q

    Financial benefits: What aspects should to be assessed within each community before investing in benefit-sharing?

  • Q

    Evaluation of benefit-sharing impacts: What criteria should be set prior to effectively evaluating the impact of the benefit-sharing on societal acceptance of a specific wind farm?

  • Q

    Neighbor payments: How can neighbor benefit initiatives be tested to ensure they increase support for projects, reduce anxiety in communities, and/or deliver better wind farms?

AUTHOR CONTRIBUTIONS

NLH conducted the collated analysis of the four source documents and led the writing of this article; JH and TL conducted the literature review and survey analysis; EW conducted the analysis of community engagement plans; JH, TL, and EW conducted and analyzed the stakeholders interviews.

The authors gratefully acknowledge the contribution to this research by Alicia Webb, formerly of the Clean Energy Council, Victoria, Australia, and Franziska Mey, University of New South Wales, New South Wales, Australia.

FUNDING

This research was funded by some wind farm organization members of the Clean Energy Council, Australia.

COMPETING INTERESTS

The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.

SUPPORTING INFORMATION

Teaching Notes with a “Scenario for in-class workshop.”

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