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Mega project lessons for offshore wind community engagement

RPS’ General Manager of Insights, Communications and Creative, Joanne Lewis, explains what the rapidly developing offshore wind sector can learn from other Australian mega projects

12 October 2023
Joanne Lewis

Australia

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Community engagement key to offshore wind progress

Offshore wind in Australia has the potential to make a significant contribution to the country’s sustainable energy transition.

So far, the Australian Government has announced two Declared Areas for offshore wind development – off Gippsland in Victoria and off the Hunter-Central Coast in New South Wales – attracting interest from numerous developers.

While it is impossible to know which projects will progress, it’s clear that offshore wind is going to become a major feature for many coastal communities in the coming years.

Offshore wind development brings with it incredible opportunities, not only for the nation’s energy future but also for the communities hosting these projects.

And as with any major infrastructure project, it will also mean navigating many difficult conversations and decisions. Ensuring this is done sensitively, and local communities are treated as true partners in this process will likely be the difference between a smooth and rapid adoption across the country or a slow, bitter project by project battle.

For three decades, Australia has invested heavily in major infrastructure projects, and alongside this RPS has worked on some of the country’s defining mega developments from roads and rail through to water and energy.  

So, what lessons can we take from those mega projects to help Australia better manage the development of the offshore wind industry and ensure communities benefit from its rapid ascent.

Workers at work on Victoria's Level Crossing Removal Project
Image credit: LXRA

Level crossing removal: an open conversation

The Level Crossing Removal Project - a major project in Victoria to remove more than 80 train level crossings – has some salient lessons to draw on for offshore wind.

Both projects generate ‘greater good’ benefits: offshore wind helps address climate change by generating clean energy, and removing level crossings improves community safety. But like any mega project, just because it’s a ‘good’ thing to do doesn’t mean it won’t be complicated to deliver.

Removing level crossings can be contentious for those living and working nearby as delivery involves significant impacts and disruption. Despite this, the project has won International Association for Public Participation awards for its industry leading approach to engagement.

I believe the key reason is because the project went above and beyond to actively and genuinely involve the community in the decisions that mattered to them. Engagement was not simply about informing the community about impacts. It was about having a conversation and exploring options where the community could have an influence, while also explaining why some things couldn’t be changed.

Having a genuine conversation with the community would benefit offshore wind projects. Community engagement work on the level crossing project uncovered the full scope of issues and benefits – some that hadn’t been anticipated. The lesson being: don’t assume – ask. Because if you don’t know, that’s when you can be blindsided, and issues can escalate quickly.

Melbourne Water: engagement buy-in starts at the top

Looking to another sector, RPS supported Melbourne Water to undertake an organisation-wide review to implement a new approach to community engagement.

The key lesson from this project was to ensure there was buy-in from senior level executives. Engagement can’t just be the responsibility of the communications team. It must be taken seriously and embraced by everyone in the organisation - and that has to start at the top. 

Our consultants worked with Melbourne Water’s senior team to agree on key success indicators, aligning these with industry standards set by the International Association for Public Participation. The indicators could then be measured, and the results considered by the senior executive. Accountability and viability are critical.

This is true for offshore wind. Engagement buy-in from developers’ leadership teams is a must to foster accountability and create positive social partnerships with communities.

Transmission Tower

Energy transmission: an opportunity for the next generation

Coming back to the energy sector, RPS has supported TasNetwork’s North West Transmission team to involve young people in the overhead transmission line project in Tasmania.

Rather than ignoring a group that is often overlooked in engagement and development activities, TasNetworks has done the opposite. They have involved young people from the beginning, asking questions like: ‘How can we use this project to help provide opportunities for young people to stay in communities?

For offshore wind, this is very relevant. The industry promises new jobs and to help address climate change – both things that will impact young people for many years to come.

It's an exciting time in the development of offshore wind, and there are already examples of projects working hard to forge relationships with communities. We could strengthen this further by continuing to examine best practice engagement on other mega projects as well as foster information sharing and collaboration in the renewable energy sector.

Australia has strong community engagement practices and professionals – the offshore wind industry needs to harness this to ensure we can deliver a smooth and rapid adoption of farms across the country – and not a slow, bitter project by project battle.