How meaningful community engagement before wind energy developments delivers for you

How meaningful community engagement before wind energy developments delivers for you

Experience from a range of countries and sub-industries show that earning local support at the conceptual design stage of a project is a good investment for a development to smoothly obtain permits*. 

Many developers see such early community engagement as a risk mitigation tool to prevent opposition later, so as to protect their larger investment. However, the process required to earn local support, when conducted properly, offers much more than just ‘pain management’. Benefits for both the community and the developer include:

  1. No one gets blind-sided as all information, concerns, fears and aspirations are shared and understood at the earliest stage; and the project gets designed accordingly.
  2. Both the developer and the host community get to know each other, and work together to remove mis-information, address concerns, and prevent poorly designed projects that don’t add net local value.
  3. Impact assessments become more credible and useful through being done together, with the aim of not only protecting the local environment and community fabric, but also enhancing it where possible. 
  4. With concerns addressed, people are open to examine local opportunities and synergies that can come with a project - and so the motivation to engage with each other is enhanced.
  5. With potentially impacted parties and concerned people having a meaningful place at the decision making table for issues that concern them, surprises, delays and extra costs are removed.
  6. Good projects get approved, and the process of designing and building them enhances social cohesion. Poor projects get rejected at an early stage, thereby saving both investors and communities unnecessary loss.
  7. The resulting projects enhance the credibility of, and trust in, the country’s energy transition through alignment with community-focused economic, cultural, ecological, infrastructural and other needs that deliver on local Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Projects become not only accepted by the host community, but improved,  and in many cases embraced, by them. 

To achieve these successes a strong community engagement process is required, that delivers, at minimum,  a responsive dialogue partnership between all concerned people. It taps into the shared goals of the host-community and developer team of ensuring the sustainable success of people, planet, and profit. This robust engagement enables all parties to part-take in the required creative thinking co-design process. 

As more projects get rolled out with larger turbines, and with many of the easy sites already built on, developments are having a growing impact on the host community. And if offshore projects do not learn from the onshore ones, this will also be the case for offshore wind. The process outlined above, whether we call it early engagement, proactive listening, wider project team building etc., is critical for these projects to help ensure their success.  The definition of the process, therefore, cannot be left to chance. What does early engagement really mean? What is proactive listening? And who does the listening and to whom?

Extractive industries, amongst others, have contemplated these questions for quite some time, often in partnership with the respective governments. This has led to a number of solutions. These solutions point to a few key principles - namely early proactive listening, mutual understanding, a common language, and a dialogue platform to create win-win outcomes. Successful experience for this exists across Europe and further afield.

In Ireland, the 2023 Offshore Renewable Electricity Support Scheme (ORESS) requires the use of  AA1000’s Stakeholder Engagement Standard - AA1000SES(2015)** - or the OECD’s Due Diligence Guidance for Meaningful Stakeholder Engagement*** or equivalent, for offshore wind projects.

AA1000SES(2015) is part of the AA1000 series, launched in 1999. It is a global sustainability assurance standard, and mobilises sustainability to build the long-term success of an organisation through meaningful  stakeholder engagement. AA1000SES(2015) provides a framework to help organisations ensure stakeholder engagement processes are purpose driven, robust, and deliver results. The AA1000 standards are used by a broad spectrum of organisations throughout Europe from multinational businesses, small and medium enterprises to governments, civil societies, and communities.

The OECD - Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development - has witnessed first-hand the impact, both positive and negative, that organisations can have on local areas, and how this creates a long-lasting effect on communities. The OECD created this standard so that companies can contribute to positive social and economic development through involving key stakeholders, such as local communities, in their planning and decision making. The guidance observes that the extractive industry (that is, any organisation looking to harness local resources), is associated with extensive social, economic, and environmental impacts, and often creates challenges for the community in these regards. The standard’s nature is to transcend national laws and regulations, and offers practical guidance for these types of organisations to identify and manage risks with regard to stakeholder engagement to ensure the minimisation of adverse impacts.

The OECD developed this guidance through a multi-stakeholder process comprising representatives of OECD and non-OECD countries, business, civil society, and international organisations. The guidance is part of the work the OECD undertakes to create practical sectoral applications for the recommendations found in the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises. 

Given all the experience that European countries have with applying the various legal requirements for public consultation, why do we still need more in-depth standards? The simple answer to this is that the law often requires public consultation to be nothing more than a ‘public meeting’, with certain conditions attached. It does not require sharing of the design process to the extent that  decisions that can impact neighbours are taken with the neighbours. It results in what academics call a lack of procedural justice; or DAD: “Decide, Announce, Defend”. When compared to meaningful engagement standards, DAD can often become a case-study of counterproductive engagement that can make matters worse. It becomes a diversion from the path towards the constructive dialogue that meaningful community engagement can achieve.

By adapting from the existing DAD engagement approach to the meaningful dialogue enabled by these standards, we not only mitigate the risk of opposition, but also improve the design, and ultimately the outcome of the project; thereby earning local support. Developers must understand that communities are willing to host win-win projects; but they are not prepared to host something that is imposed on them, especially if they are unsure if it will be a pleasing guest. The main improvements delivered by a meaningful application of these standards as opposed to the existing DAD approach are as per the seven points on page one of this article. By systematically making this switch we avoid the complexities of dealing with growing opposition.


*The examples range the whole way from wind and solar to carbon capture and storage to mineral extraction to tourism - we are living in times when citizens demand more demonstrable joined up thinking.