Winning over your solar farm community
Effective engagement can reduce community opposition to a solar farm, but, better yet, it has the potential to create a level of community support that results in locals themselves promoting it.
Regardless of the technology, any large-scale renewable energy project will attract attention from its nearby communities. Without a ‘social licence’ to operate, the project may face significant hurdles including negative publicity, public protest, litigation or even cancellation of permits.
Engaging with the host community early in the development stages is key to a successful project and developers may be required to demonstrate that they have done so, even before submitting a permit application. This will help assure authorities (and potential buyers) that the project has support.
These are our top community engagement tips for developers to ‘keep the sun shining’ on a large-scale solar project.
Know your community
Despite the exponential rate of increase in large-scale solar installations in recent years, it is still a relatively new technology. While some community members may be quite knowledgeable about renewable energy technology, others may know little.
Each person will have different attitudes and expectations of a solar farm, and engagement should include all stakeholders in the community to make sure nobody is left out of the conversation. Someone living close to the solar farm may be interested in how it will affect the value of their property or if PV panels will reflect light in the direction of their home. A business owner in town may be interested in employment opportunities or how construction will affect local roads. An obvious question for everyone is whether the project will lead to cheaper electricity!
A developer, owner or operator should identify and meet as many different stakeholders in the community as possible to get to know their individual interests and needs.
Design a relevant engagement program
A comprehensive engagement program must communicate accurate project information, set realistic expectations, listen to the community, incorporate feedback into project design, and find opportunities for the solar farm to ‘give back’ to the community in some way.
Well-planned projects need engagement strategies designed specifically for the community in which the project is located. Using a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach won’t cater for the unique circumstances of each community.
To inform the choice of engagement methodologies and tools, developers should consider the size, interests and skills of the local and regional community, the number of neighbours, who the local influencers are, and what other energy developments are present in the region.
Methods to engage with different stakeholder groups will vary depending on the stage of the solar farm’s development and the objective of the engagement process at that stage. Engagement practitioners use a range of different communication tools, from more traditional techniques to social media, from ‘kitchen table’ meetings to reference groups and focus groups.
Communicate realistic expectations
Large-scale solar farms are generally less controversial than wind farms or hydropower projects due to the relatively low physical impact they have on communities and the local environment. However, there may still be questions and concerns in the community, especially for communities in remote and rural locations where there may not be any other large infrastructure.
Throwing scientific facts and figures at people to convince them of benefits or mitigate fears will not necessarily help concerned locals feel any more confident about a project. Anecdotal negative information can be readily found on the internet to undermine confidence, and some community members may distrust the intentions of developers from large corporations.
The task of building the community’s confidence in a project is therefore an important yet sometimes difficult activity. The best approach is to communicate any foreseeable short-term and long-term impacts as early as possible and in an open and non-defensive manner before the community dwells on the risks. Listening to the community and working together to identify social and environmental risks will help build trust between the project team and stakeholders.
Build trust and confidence
Genuine community engagement is not ‘spin’. It’s about building an open and ongoing relationship with local stakeholders. The more work that is put into building healthy relationships and trust, the stronger the foundation for achieving a social licence to operate.
As communities generally become more familiar with large-scale solar technology, there will likely be a shift towards greater community acceptance of solar projects. Until then, developers need to recognise the community’s interest in a project and take responsibility for explaining solar technology and identifying risks for the community.
Local stakeholders should be told about a project prior to applying for permits. By engaging early, the developer will have time to explain how solar technology works, outline the construction process, and conduct a social risk assessment. Preferably engagement should be face-to-face and consistent. People are far more likely to accept projects when they feel that they have been included, heard and respected.
Obtain a ‘social licence’, but don’t stop there
Obtaining a social licence to operate is essential. It can mean the solar farm and its owner are talked about positively in the region and the project encounters few hurdles. But obtaining a social licence is not the end of the journey. A social licence must be maintained throughout the project’s lifecycle.
Owners and operators can maintain a social licence through ongoing and regular communication with the local community and other key stakeholders. Communication should be two-way and communities should know how to easily provide feedback that is treated confidentially. Stakeholders should also trust that their concerns about the solar farm will be recorded and responded to in a timely manner. Evaluating and reporting on feedback will also help to promote a transparent and constructive process.
April 26, 2018