Early stakeholder engagement vital for offshore wind success

Underestimating the impact of community and stakeholder engagement on the success or failure of a project can be costly, impact reputation and can see projects cancelled altogether.

Early movers in Australia’s emerging offshore wind industry face many challenges. With only one area officially declared for possible offshore wind farm development off Victoria’s Gippsland coast, there is a sense of urgency to secure those initial licences to develop.

But along with everything a developer needs to plan for – environmental assessments and approvals, access to ports and onshore infrastructure, finance – there’s also local communities and other interested parties to consider.

And these days, engagement with stakeholders is more than just a consideration – as well it should be.

An expectation

Engaging with all those who may have an interest in or be impacted by a project has shifted from being a formality, to being an essential ingredient to get a project approved and built.

Governments and regulators now want to see authentic stakeholder and community engagement.  They want to see that you’ve spoken to the right people about potential issues and concerns. They want to know if a development has broad community support.

If all stakeholders haven’t been meaningly engaged, then authorities will stop projects. This is particularly the case if Traditional Owners have not been consulted, as we have seen recently in a number of cases around Australia in other infrastructure sectors like transport, oil and gas.

Good engagement is about more than meeting legislative and regulatory requirements – engaging meaningfully can unlock benefits for communities and for the projects themselves. Engagement starts with finding out what people value – and the best way to do that is to ask them. It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking we know what’s important to our stakeholders, but assuming is dangerous. Having a conversation with communities and stakeholders, and really listening to what they value is the first step in considering their needs in project planning.

Understanding what’s important to your community can help projects and organisations tailor opportunities for people, whether that is influencing project designs, avoiding impacts or contributing to community legacy projects that are aligned to their values.

Knowing their future aspirations can also unlock training, development and employment opportunities for local people from planning to construction and operation, contributing to better social outcomes.

The power of the people

The importance and value of gaining local communities’ support for large-scale developments cannot be underestimated. For an offshore wind farm, this would be those living by the coast - but also the communities affected by the associated onshore infrastructure that needs to be built to support this emerging industry.

Community groups are more organised than in the past. They’re very effective at mobilising support and getting their voices heard about proposed projects. They can even stop them in their tracks. The ultimate decision about a development might come from government or a regulator, but fierce community objection is not ignored.

In fact, Infrastructure Australia’s 2019 paper An Assessment of Australia’s Future Infrastructure Needs reported that community opposition had contributed to the delay, cancellation or mothballing of more than $20 billion of infrastructure projects in the last decade.

In recent Federal election and state by-elections, we have seen a shift from the major parties, with an increased focus on climate change and political integrity. With this comes increased community expectations about renewable energy and transitioning to a cleaner economy. In the context of project development, we need to strike the right balance between the need to deliver on the transition and the impacts of the onshore and offshore infrastructure needed to do so. The narrative will be important, and part of this will be better engagement on benefits and community legacy, with a focus on the drive to net zero, regional employment and economic opportunities.

Engage early – and earlier again

At the recent Offshore Wind Australia conference in Sydney, one of the speakers made a great point: ‘If you think you’re engaging early – do it earlier’.

Early, authentic engagement and identifying and assessing those you need to engage are crucial to project success. For offshore wind, there will be some obvious stakeholders – the fishing industry, environmental organisations, coastal communities. But there will also be some unexpected groups or individuals that would take a great interest in offshore wind and should be identified early in the stakeholder assessment process.

The key is to constantly review all stakeholders as the project evolves and think broadly. If you miss a key stakeholder you leave yourself vulnerable to reputation damage and losing project support.

Costly if you don’t engage

Engaging with stakeholders takes time and money, so developers need to allow for it in their budgets and start-up costs. Because doing engagement well will save money down the line.

Failing to properly engage and having to do it retrospectively will cause delays – and as we all know in infrastructure, time is money. There are examples in other industries of projects having injunctions put in place because companies hadn’t engaged adequately with all relevant stakeholders.

That’s days, weeks, months of not progressing a project. It equates to real money lost when production and delivery deadlines are pushed out – or to put it differently, early engagement is more about avoided costs.

Engagement fatigue

There is a caveat to this piece. While engagement is essential, we also need to be aware of – and sensitive to – engagement fatigue. This is particularly important when reaching out to vulnerable groups.

Offshore wind has some unique challenges – there are concentrated zones where the industry will occur and there are demands for the industry to develop quickly. The cumulative impacts of multiple projects talking to the same stakeholders is a concern.

It might help to have a level of government intervention or guidelines so developers can navigate this space.

This is important to get right too. At the moment, there is broad community support for more sustainable, renewable energy sources. But this support must be respected. 

Stakeholders need to be properly engaged as we navigate the road to net zero targets.


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