You need to talk to people before you run ahead and build things

Wind farms are bad for health

In October 2015, the Australian Government, under the centre-right Liberal Party appointed a National Wind Farm Commissioner:

His role was to resolve complaints from communities about proposed and operational wind farms and develop best practice approaches for wind farm projects.

The appointment led to ridicule, from the public, commentators, and the parliamentary opposition.

The appointment had few friends, and was seen as either unnecessary, a waste of money, or powerless to make any real changes.

Ed Husic, Labor MP on 7:30, 19 June 2015

By March 2021, the Commissioner’s role was expanded to include all energy infrastructure. In May 2022, the opposition Labor government, was elected and maintained the Commissioner’s role.

Both sides of politics understood that while many of the concerns about health issues were unfounded, or could be explained by causes other than wind turbines, the Commissioner’s ability to listen to concerns and diffuse opposition unlocked an uninterrupted rollout of renewable energy.

Climate Change Authority 2018, Review of the National Wind Farm Commissioner

It’s the people, stupid

Wind projects have also been affected in the Netherlands due to a lack of local support, with dozens of projects cancelled or delayed.

This is not unique to the Netherlands and similar trends against onshore wind have occurred throughout Europe, including Germany, Norway, and Sweden.

To those in the know, all of this is no surprise.

Setting up dialogue between citizens and government has long been seen as a way to smooth the path for projects.

While the exact type of consultation can come about in a variety of ways…

What’s most important is that the approach is context-specific and fit for purpose.

Furthermore, early engagement with potential local opponents can avoid extended delays or project cancellations.

Build first, ask questions later

Why set up an expensive and time-consuming consultation process?

There are five key reasons why it makes to reach out to people affected:

It helps make more legitimate decisions

Legitimacy occurs when there’s public buy-in, which can only occur when people’s values are taken into account.

It leads to better policy

No one has all the answers, so drawing on people’s input can lead to better outcomes

It overcomes polarization

If people are engaging with one another, there is a change that they start to understand people’s positions better. Through engagement, trust is built and collective decisions are made, saving time in the long run.

It makes people less cynical about politics

By getting citizens to participate, and seeing success as a result, people begin to become more confidence in political processes and are likely to participate more.

It brings in minorities

The views of minority groups can often get forgotten. Creating a space for engagement bring them back to the spotlight and addressing their concerns.

…and like adding oil to an engine, it smooths the process

You might be thinking…

It doesn’t matter.

Like many of the other blockers presented, the things blocking the response to climate change are rarely technical matters, but go to the heart of peoples’ identities and their values.

Sure, someone can be compensated for their loss of land, but what about their community networks? What about the perceived impacts? What about the disenfranchisement? The loss of livelihood and identity?

This means impact can be subjective, but resistance can be mitigated through early interaction and collective decision making.

The problem with turtles

Two real-world examples demonstrate how reaching out to others can improve the quality and sustainability of projects.

The Ivanpah Solar Project had everything going for it—300 days of sunshine per year, proximity to transmission lines and no one around for miles.

Through consultation, it became apparent that the area was home to several desert tortoises, and other imperilled or engaged species.

Once construction began, it was clear that the number of tortoises was higher than expected and the project was modified to include tortoise monitoring, fencing and re-location.

As a result, the project was redesigned with a plan put in place to avoid the turtles including monitoring, fencing and re-location.

As part of Hawaii’s effort to be 100 renewable by 2045, the Nā Pua Makani project was set to power 16,000 homes through wind power.

Following opposition within the community, the original project was modified —reducing the number of turbines and siting them further from homes.

Nonetheless, opposition to the project persists and further engagement could be required to minimize ongoing conflict.

A look at the global south

All of this has implications for low emissions projects in emerging economies, something we can expect to see more frequently in the coming decades.

The Baharini Wind Power project in Kenya shows how renewable projects in emerging economies can become unstuck through resettlements and a breakdown of trust between project proponents and community.

The experience with geothermal energy in Chile provides a model for how citizens can be engaged for other renewable projects.

Projects can fail in emerging economies because those impacts feel their voices are not being heard and that decisions made do not necessarily reflect their values.

As emerging economies begin to roll out low emissions technologies, consultation and engagement can improve public acceptance and lead to success.

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