Australia Must Improve Community Consultation on Renewable Energy Projects: ReportAustralia needs to improve the way in which community consultation is undertaken on new renewable energy projects, a report has found.
On Friday, Minister for Climate Change and Energy Chris Bowen released the final report from a review which was undertaken by Australian Energy Infrastructure Commissioner Andrew Dwyer.
The review examined current experiences regarding community consultation in respect of new solar, wind, energy storage and transmission projects which are being undertaken as part of the nation’s clean energy transition.
It uncovered widespread dissatisfaction in current practices and processes.
Its nine recommendations include the creation of a rating scheme for developers and a new Ombudsman in each state/territory to improve the management of complaints.
The report comes as Australia is undertaking a massive scale of construction in order to meet ambitious targets of increasing the penetration of renewable energy in the National Electricity Market from 32 percent in 2022 to 82 percent by 2030.
These targets are part of the Commonwealth Government’s ambition to reduce carbon emissions by 43 percent compared with 2005 levels by 2030 and to achieve net zero by 2050.
To achieve net zero, the Integrated System Plan published by the Australian Energy Market Operator in 2022 says that the nation will require a ninefold increase in utility-scale renewable energy generation capacity from sources such as solar and wind, a tripling in ‘firming capacity’ provided by storage technologies such as batteries and pumped hydro and the installation of more than 10,000 kilometres of new transmission to connect new projects with energy users.
For farmers, the energy transition can provide an additional source of cash flow and income in terms of compensation payments that are received in exchange for allowing the placement of renewable energy infrastructure on their property.
Nevertheless, the scale of development that is required has led to concerns about the potential impact of renewable projects on agriculture, regional communities and the 4environment.
According to the report, the review uncovered current unease across several areas.
First, it found that there is widespread dissatisfaction among landholders and community members about their experience of engagement on renewable energy projects.
This has led to distrust of renewable energy developers – particularly on long-distance transmission projects.
Of 250 respondents that took part in a survey that was conducted as part of the review:
- 92 percent were dissatisfied with the extent to which project developers engaged with their local community
- 85 percent were not satisfied with explanations that were provided by developers in response to their questions
- 89 percent say that information which they received from developers was not relevant to concerns which they had raised; and
- 85 percent indicated that their concerns were not addressed in a timely manner.
Another area of dissatisfaction is the way in which complaints are managed by developers.
Among survey respondents, 90 percent indicated that they did not receive relevant information in response to concerns raised with project developers.
A further 89 percent and 93 percent indicated that developers failed to manage their concerns in a timely manner and that they did not receive a satisfactory response to concerns that were raised with developers.
On the developer side, meanwhile, there were concerns about a lack of a clear narrative and adequate messaging to inform the community about critical aspects of the clean energy transition.
In particular, there are concerns that there is a lack of understanding among some landholders and community members as to the contribution that specific projects on their land or within their communities can make in terms of Australia’s clean energy future.
There are also concerns about a lack of awareness regarding the importance of new transmission infrastructure in terms of delivering secure and reliable energy supply and meeting Australia’s decarbonisation objectives.
To address these and other issues, the report made nine recommendations.
First, it called for the creation of a developer rating scheme that would provide transparency on the performance, capability and track record of developers. The scheme would have a particular focus on developer performance regarding community engagement.
The tool could be used by jurisdictions in deciding whether or not to grant authority for the developer in question to prospect or develop a particular site or project.
Acceptable rating scores may also be used as a criterion against which to assess developer access to federal and state programs.
For example, emerging programs such as the NSW Electricity Infrastructure Roadmap Tenders, the Victorian Transmission Investment Framework (VTIF), Queensland’s Renewable Energy Zone (REZ)
Management Plan, along with equivalent programs being developed in other jurisdictions, could include the requirement for bidders to hold an acceptable developer rating score. The score could be used either as a criterion for selection or as a requirement for eligibility.
According to the report, such a scheme would not only deliver transparency over developer performance in community consultation but would provide incentives for developers to improve their performance.
In terms of complaint management, the review recommended that each state and territory establish a new ombudsman to handle complaints about the prospecting, development, construction, operation and commissioning of new renewable energy, storage and transmission assets.
In terms of messaging, the report says the Commonwealth Environment Minister should develop and execute a communications program that provides local communities with a clear narrative about the pragmatic reasons for the energy transition.
Other recommendations include:
- Continuation of Commonwealth and state/territory efforts to control the deployment of programs and better control the development of new generation and transmission projects, whereby a developer is required to bid or apply to be selected to then prospect and develop a particular project at a particular site or location.
- Better sourcing and mapping of information that will assist in identification of preferred location of new projects as well as providing confirmation of ‘no-go;’ or inappropriate zones.
- Ongoing effort to speed up approval processes and reduce the time needed to obtain planning and environmental approvals for new projects.
- Having the Commonwealth work with state and territory governments to review and/or implement appropriate oversite of governance arrangements.
- Having the Commonwealth work with states and territories to ensure that appropriate arrangements are in place to ensure a whole-of-government approach to generate tangible economic and investment opportunities for regional business including First Nations people and enterprises.
- Having state, territory and local government encourage local community groups to proactively identify opportunities for broader community benefit.
The Commonwealth Government has agreed in-principle to each of the recommendations.
It noted, however, that implementation would require action at state and territory level as well as Commonwealth level.
Federal Environment Minister Chris Bowen said the recommendations will help to improve consultation of projects.
“This report signals to regional and rural communities that we are determined to improve developer engagement to provide better information about an individual’s rights, involve communities earlier and more effectively, and properly handle complaints,” Bowen said.
“Commissioner Dyer’s findings will help smooth Australia’s energy transformation and ensure greater project participation and equity.”
Renewable industry lobby groups welcomed the report, saying that stronger community engagement is critical to the development of renewable energy projects and meeting Australia’s climate targets.
But the Clean Energy Council cautions that the specific recommendations about developer rating schemes and a greater role for governments in determining the location of early-stage project feasibility work would need to be carefully worked through to ensure that these do not lead to delays and energy security risks.
Furthermore, the report has been heavily criticised by the National Farmers Federation (NFF).
NFF President David Jochinke said that the report failed to address several concerns of the farming industry.
In its submission to the review, the NFF had lobbied for enforceable obligations on energy proponents.
These would government engagement, compensation, land access arrangements and minimisation of impacts upon land use.
Whilst the NFF acknowledged the recommendation about the developer rating scheme, Jochinke expressed disappointment the report did not make any recommendations about the enforceable undertakings referred to above.
“The report confirms there are chronic problems, with a survey showing a staggering 92% of respondents were dissatisfied with the level of engagement from project developers,” Jochinke said.
“The survey also found more than 90% of people were dissatisfied with the information being provided or with their concerns being resolved.
“This is a staggeringly poor reflection on the situation to date and it simply can’t go on.
“Yet the report does very little to provide concrete solutions, instead referring to development of best practice guidelines and rating schemes.
“This is the exact kind of bureaucracy farmers and every day Australians are sick and tired of. It will do nothing to reassure farmers and communities their interests are being acknowledged or protected.
“It’s critical engagement is a two way street and that engagement is genuine, addresses concerns and goes further than energy companies ticking a box ‘we’ve told them our plan’.”
“The report suggests there needs to be better identification of preferred locations for new projects, as well as provision and confirmation of ‘no-go’ or inappropriate zones.
“We need to see strong leadership from the Government, so we don’t lose valuable agricultural land in the rush to get transmission connectivity. The NFF stands ready to work with government to drive these outcomes as a matter of urgency.”
“(Finally,) The report contained no commentary on tax treatment of payments and compensation, nor equitable processes for negotiation of access and payment regimes. These need urgent attention.”
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