Renewable energy projects will be at risk unless governments and companies properly consult with regional communities and provide local benefits, warns a new report.
The Renewables & Rural Australia report, by the Australia Institute and the University of Sydney’s Sydney Environment Institute, recommends strengthening the social license of renewable initiatives by improving local social and economic outcomes.
Wednesday’s report argues that there needs to be better recognition that Australia’s shift from coal to renewable energy is not just economic and technological but also spatial. It found moving electricity generators to rural communities that had not hosted energy utilities at scale before brings physical and social changes.
One of the report’s coauthors, Dr. Rebecca Pearse from the Australian National University, said regional Australia was doing the country a “terrific service” by hosting the shift to renewable energy.
“So we need to make sure those communities have the mechanisms to negotiate beneficial deals for themselves,” Pearse said.
The study examined New South Wales’s Central-West Orana and New England areas because they will be the first two Renewable Energy Zones (REZs) developed in Australia. The authors warned that if local benefits are not maximized, it will risk creating conflict that could delay the clean energy transformation and harm energy security.
Dan Cass, a coauthor of the study from the Australia Institute, said the federal government had been instantly thrust into an energy crisis. Still, it could ensure that there would be no future crises through better planning.
“If [the federal government] works quickly with state governments to design a fair system for planning and developing REZs, it will be the last energy crisis Australia ever has to face,” Cass said.
Cass said the development pattern with REZs was very different from what has happened in the past.
“We’re closing 8,000 megawatts of coal in one area [the Hunter] … and then you’re building tens of thousands of megawatts in all those areas that have never had any generation,” Cass said.
The report recommends that the government increase financial benefits for local communities, create stronger First Nations participation, and more sustainable economic development beyond short-term construction booms.
The report also recommends the creation of a mechanism to enable communities to better pool the funds they receive so that they do not miss out on opportunities for more significant investment projects that may serve the host community better than smaller individual projects and clubs.
Engie’s controversial proposal for the Hills of Gold wind farm in the town of Nundle is to offer discounted electricity to residents and deliver $210,000 a year to local community initiatives, events, and activities to try to ease local opposition.
Megan Trousdale, an executive member of the community group Hills of Gold Preservation Inc, said the proposal was problematic because of the visual impact in a town known for its high scenic value, as well as the environmental impact on the area’s biodiversity.
Trousdale said although the proposal was first put forward in 2018, the approval for the project has been consistently delayed, and “part of the stress on the community is that determination being pushed out time and time again.”
But she said the greatest impact had been the social division it has caused in the community, breaking up friendships and causing conflict in families.
Although the Independent Planning Commission has yet to decideroject’s future, Engie has already given seven local organizations $20,000 in grants, including a food bank established and money for the local swimming club.
Cheryl Sipple, the secretary of the Nundle Sport and Recreation Club, told the Guardian that their club received $1,800 for a deposit for a new dishwasher and $1,200 for a sponsored bowls day later in the year.
Sipple said Nundle had been “dying over the last few years” with no permanent jobs to keep families in town long-term. Still, creating 211 jobs during construction and 16 once operational would help the town make up for the jobs lost in the forestry industry.
However, the Tamworth Regional Council has written to the Department of Planning, expressing opposition to the proposed Hills of Gold wind farm.
The letter said the council “supports renewable energy initiatives” but concluded the site chosen was unsuitable and the proposed development was “not in the public interest”.
“The development will have an overwhelmingly negative impact on the communities of Nundle and Hanging Rock and … the overall cost to the broader Tamworth region from an environmental, financial and social perspective outweighs the potential renewable energy benefits.”
A spokesperson for Engie said, “leading turbine suppliers and road construction companies have been on site as recently as this month and agree it is a good place for a wind farm.
“We understand that there is opposition, but many within the local community are in favor of it proceeding for the economic and social benefits it will provide,” the spokesperson said.
Ernie*, a Nundle resident, would not use his real name for fear of the repercussions in the community. He welcomed the grants and said the funding was changing the minds of many community members.
Richard Croft, a member of the NSW Farmers Association (NSWFA) energy transition working group, told the Guardian that the government and its various bodies had “very poor” long-term planning in renewables for over two decades.
Cass said, “our key recommendation is to empower communities to be part of decisions about where to build the transmission line, so that then guides the new projects to go in appropriate locations.
“The issue y is to encourage governments to do … what you could consider a master plan level of consultation, well in advance of any projects proposed … if you set the master plan right, then there’s less conflict later on,” Cass said.