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Community consultation and wind energy

Richard Royal

As the number of renewable energy projects increases, driven by the growing targets at national and EU level, NIMBYism – community-level opposition to schemes, especially in the wind power sector – is a potential showstopper that won't go away fast. Can this opposition be managed in a sensible way to the benefit of developers and community alike?

When the 27 most powerful men and women in Europe signed up to ambitious targets for increasing the use of renewable energy, the great and the good were quick to herald a breakthrough in the long-term challenge of sustaining our global environment.

Germany of course, along with Spain and Denmark, are considered leaders in the use of wind and solar (PV) energy, and amongst those setting a pace toward the EU's target of 20% of energy supplies from renewable sources by 2020. Unfortunately, for other signatories the progress is not so good. The UK Government for example has stated that the UK is “slightly behind the course needed to meet this aim”. That is political speak for saying the UK will not meet the 20% renewable energy target. And they are not alone amongst the 27 member states of the European Union.

Communication with the NIMBY set

Whether in London, Milan, Munich or Paris, ask anyone in the street if a more sustainable future is a good thing for any country and the survey will boast massive ratings for a cleaner greener future. Ask the same people if they want a wind farm in their village and the pollsters will report massive opposition.

In the UK for example, well organised and extremely vocal groups of residents, who have a tendency to oppose any new development in their community, are delaying – or sinking altogether – countless wind energy projects that would otherwise play a leading role in meeting the 2020 renewable energy target. The wind industry is faced with such opposition in many countries, so how can it ever reach a point where any target subscribed to by Heads of States are achievable?

Too often the wind farm sector fails to effectively communicate the inherent benefits that its projects hold. Despite the constant drip feed from the media – warning of impending global environmental disaster – it is still difficult to win the wind farm siting debate based on this argument.

The wind farm industry is an easy target for opposition. Scare stories about noise levels and killing of birdlife are compelling arguments to oppose the development of wind farms, and also make for great local newspaper headlines. But despite certain problems being recognised – and addressed by the wind industry – many claims border on the urban myth rather than exist as factual information; wind farms are virtually silent and in the UK the RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) has long supported the vast majority of such planning applications [for a further investigation into this topic, see renewable energy focus July/August 2007].

Wind consultation: addressing the claims sensibly

Hopefully, the solution to such exaggeration of perceived problems isn't far away. In any planning system, anywhere in the world, consultation is king, or should be. Whatever the local planning regulations in any country you care to mention, ignoring the 'community view' is a sure fire way of making life extremely difficult.

And far from being a hindrance, public consultation can save the wind industry a great deal of time and money in the long term; carefully planned strategic consultation can motivate, support, and deliver a valuable development. In fact, in the past, many wind developers thought of consultation as, at best, a nuisance or at worst, an expensive nuisance. But by engaging early and intensively with communities and their representatives, there is an ability to bring speed into the system.

Planning the approach

It is important to be clear about the levels and the aims of the participation from the outset, and everyone must be aware of each other's boundaries, agendas and pressures. In any situation there will be limits to how far decision-making can be delegated. Also, different levels of engagement will be appropriate at different times and places and stages.

The key to any consultation process is buy-in from those who require or request consultation:

  • A prefabricated exhibition in a hotel suite remote from the heart of the community will not work;
  • If it is open at the wrong times, on the wrong weekend, then it will be disregarded;
  • If the consultation is not seen to be fair – it is not fair.

With community participation it is important to ensure that the method of involvement is suitable. If it is not, and the wrong form is taken, then both sides lose. This is again where the community you are consulting can lead – where is the best place?, how best can we consult?, who are the key people we need to motivate?

Consultation is often projected as a tick-box exercise. It is not, and never should be. Each wind farmproject is totally different and needs a mix of strategies designed to reflect the project, and communicate with the communities involved. Programmes that have been regularly run include exhibitions, steering groups and community workshops.

Consultation is not an optional bolt-on. It provides far-sighted companies with the opportunity to enhance their reputations and get faster planning permissions. Through the effective engagement with key stakeholders, the 2020 target will become an achievable milestone in the journey towards the sustainable future that we all support.

Common strategies for engaging the community

Planning the approach – exhibitions

An exhibition is a very valuable way of taking developed draft plans to the wider public and receiving detailed, considered responses. It can be used effectively in conjunction with a number of other consultation products to form a larger programme. The format allows members of the public to view plans for a development in a controlled environment, and put questions to the project team.

Planning the approach – workshops

Workshops work best earlier on in the planning stage than exhibitions. These allow key representatives and interested locals a real opportunity to influence the progress of a project. They facilitate the in-depth discussion of issues based on plans and other visual materials, and can generate community-led, creative solutions.

Planning the approach – community or neighbourhood forums

Within any community there are a small number of key decision-makers. It is these people who can make or break a project. Often, they are shouted down by the protestors and those who are totally opposed. Community or neighbourhood forums are a way of bringing these people together so they can discuss the development, ask for changes and modifications and understand the constraints under which the developer may be working.

Planning the approach – opinion research campaigns

This is a more quantitative method of researching the views of the public towards a proposal. It is particularly useful in gauging the level of support within a community to a development, or if a large project requires a very wide area to be consulted. The polling programme can be conducted in person, by telephone or face-to-face – or alternatively can be a surveying exercise by mail. Polling staff use a prepared script and conduct interviews within a given area.

Planning the approach – roadshows

Another method of consulting a wider area that has a proven success record is a roadshow. This takes the format of a standard presentation on the project, which can be used to discuss the main points of a development with a number of different stakeholder groups, for example village, town or community councils, residents' associations or sports clubs. This option can be particularly successful for large strategic sites covering a number of communities that have a range of interested groups.

Planning the approach – the media

The media can often make or break a project, and can certainly impact the way a scheme is perceived in a local area. It pays to establish a relationship with the local press covering a development area, especially if the project is large, long or controversial.

About the author
Richard Royal works for community consultation specialists – Green Issues Communications


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Policy, investment and markets  •  Wind power