Why do developers, government (and some community members) tend to be afraid of community empowerment for commercial renewable energy project Co-Design, and how can we resolve this?

Why do developers, government (and some community members) tend to be afraid of community empowerment for commercial renewable energy project Co-Design, and how can we resolve this?

The hesitation and sometimes fear that developers, government and some community members often have towards inclusive and transparent community empowerment in the context of renewable energy projects or large infrastructure developments stems from several factors. Understanding these concerns is crucial for addressing them and fostering the more inclusive, cooperative project planning and implementation processes that earning local support often requires. Here are some of the primary reasons for this apprehension:

1. Perceived loss of control

Developers, government and some community members often fear that empowering all in the communities will lead to a loss of control over the project timeline, design, and implementation. There's a concern that increased community involvement could lead to delays, additional costs, or compromises on technical aspects that might affect the project's feasibility or efficiency.

2. Complexity and uncertainty

Engaging with communities introduces a level of complexity and unpredictability. Developers and government might be unsure about how to manage diverse community opinions and interests effectively. The prospect of navigating these complexities can be daunting, particularly if there are no established processes for community engagement.

3. Risk of project delays or cancellations

There's a fear that communities, once empowered, might oppose parts of projects which could escalate to the point of significantly delaying projects or even leading to their cancellation. Developers and government are concerned about the financial implications and the potential loss of investment that comes with such risks.

4. Increased costs

There's an assumption that engaging with communities and incorporating their input into project planning and execution will result in increased costs. This might include the costs of engagement processes, additional project modifications to meet community demands, or compensatory measures to address community concerns or externalities.

5. Past negative experiences

Previous experiences of difficult engagements with communities, where conflicts were not resolved constructively, might lead developers and government to be wary of community empowerment. These past experiences can shape perceptions and attitudes towards community engagement in future projects.

6. Misunderstanding of community concerns

Developers and government might perceive community concerns as irrational or driven by NIMBYism (Not In My Backyard), underestimating the legitimate concerns communities may have about environmental impact, social change, or economic outcomes. This misunderstanding can lead to reluctance to engage with and consider community perspectives in depth.

7. Lack of skills and resources

There might be a genuine lack of experience, skills, or resources to effectively engage with communities. Developers, government and communities may recognise the value of community empowerment in theory but feel ill-equipped to implement it in practice, and subsequently avoid meaningful engagement.

Addressing these concerns & bridging the divide: Overcoming the fear of community empowerment in project development

To overcome these challenges, it's important for developers and government to:

  • Recognise the long-term benefits of community empowerment, including enhanced social licence to operate, reduced risk of delays and cancellation from opposition, and projects that are more sustainable and socially beneficial: leading to enhanced brand recognition, credibility and fundability.

  • Invest in building capacity and skills for effective community engagement. Investing in the skills and resources needed for effective community dialogue is crucial. This means not only equipping project teams with the tools for engagement but also empowering communities to participate meaningfully in the conversation.

  • Develop and follow clear, transparent processes for community involvement that set realistic expectations for all parties - starting with standards that are closer to the developers mentality such as AA1000SES and OECD Meaningful Engagement, or a more country specific guidance such as A Guide for Inclusive Community Engagement in Local Planning and Decision Making in Ireland. Developing clear, transparent engagement frameworks can demystify the process for all stakeholders, setting realistic expectations and fostering a climate of trust and mutual respect.

  • View community engagement as an opportunity for innovation and improvement - leveraging local knowledge and insights to enhance project design, sustainability, and social acceptance.


Conclusion: The power of team

In the rapidly evolving landscape of renewable energy and large infrastructure projects, the fears surrounding community empowerment are not insurmountable. They are, in fact, gateways to deeper collaboration and shared success. By combining the principles of transparency, respect, and inclusivity with robust project design processes we can transform the landscape of project development—one where communities and developers are partners in progress, navigating the path towards a sustainable future together.

The journey towards reconciling these fears begins with understanding—recognizing the valid concerns of both communities and project proponents. It necessitates a shift in perspective, viewing community engagement not as a hurdle but as an integral component of project success, an opportunity rather than a challenge, leading to outcomes that are beneficial for all stakeholders. 


Join the Conversation

At the Earning Local Support Academy (ELSA), we're committed to fostering this shift towards more collaborative, community-partnered project development. Interested in learning more about ELSA or participating in its programmes? Contact us for more information and join us in shaping the future of renewable energy, one project at a time.

About ELSA

This work is being:

  • led by AstonECO, 

  • peer reviewed by the University of Galway, and

  • supported with financial contribution from the Government of Ireland through the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland under the SEAI National Energy Research, Development & Demonstration Funding Programme 2022, Grant number 22/RDD/874