An Open Letter to renewable energy developers to get a grip and do better

Upstairs Downstairs - the growing gap between community and renewable energy developers

Dear Renewable Energy Developers,

I’m sure you have noticed lately a significant slip in your popularity. Surely you've noted the inability to simply rely on benevolent feelings towards green energy as a ticket to social acceptance?

I attended a conference at the International Convention Centre in Sydney on 6-7 March. You were all downstairs at the Smart Energy Council conference with trades halls full of shiny products. Big name international speakers were up the front, and men in suits and high powered politicians milled around.  

One of the topics of conversation was the need for social licence for renewable energy projects, and how to engage successfully so that we can all have a speedy and successful transition to renewable energy.

And yet, upstairs I was at the Community Energy Congress, where there was a room full of, mostly women, mostly on volunteer time, all talking about community energy’s role in a speedy and successful transition to renewable energy.  

We heard about a vast array of amazing renewable projects that were initiated by, or run by community members, creating excellent benefits and helping people understand the transition by taking part in practical projects.

Josh Galloway (Essential Energy), Sally Hunter (Geni.Enregy) and Alistair Fletcher(Essential Energy) at the Community Energy Congress in Sydney in March 2024 (Image: author supplied)

But the industry members were almost entirely absent from the Community Energy Congress (a notable exception was Squadron Energy).  It seemed as if, while industry was downstairs giving lip service to the need for community engagement, they were just not prepared to actually walk up a flight of stairs.

The gap was stark to us.

In my role with non-profit renewable advocate, Geni.Energy based in Narrabri northwest NSW, I have in the last year or so, met with seven different renewable energy developers.  All of these companies propose to put some kind of development in our region at some stage.  

Our message to each and every one of these developers has been clear: we welcome the renewable energy sector and know that this transition is needed in our region, but we need local benefits and our community needs to be brought along with the transition. We want you to back our region first and foremost, and seek site-based approvals second.  

We provided a bunch of practical options like: what if the community owned a portion of the solar farm or the battery; what if the community could access cheaper solar panels through your purchasing power; what if we could offer our neighbours cheaper energy plans; what if locals had some decision making influence on projects, and many more.  

We presented our theory of change - by local people participating directly in renewable energy practical projects, we will grow social acceptance of renewables.

Geni.Energy has a shopfront in the main street of Narrabri (Image: author supplied)

We pointed out a recent national survey showing 92% of respondents were dissatisfied with the extent to which project developers’ engaged with the community. 71% of respondents strongly disagreed that landholders and communities would benefit from renewable energy projects.

We mentioned that doing community engagement poorly costs projects on average an extra $3.5 million dollars and caused an average of 36 months delay to projects.  Yes some of this dissatisfaction is due to transmission projects - the Central-West Orana Renewable Energy Zone environmental impact statement (EIS) recently attracting 398 submissions, 93% of them objecting to the project.  

However, there is also strong opposition to some renewable energy projects, leaving the door open to vested interests politicising and weaponising them and adding further fuel to the fire.

Geni.Energy offers to help with this problem for our local proposed projects. We provide a visible main street presence, a communications platform with the community and we are a trusted and credible source of information for our businesses and residents. We are the face of renewables in the community. Whether renewables developers like it or not, we are the face of your projects.

The companies invariably give us positive feedback such as, “the information you provided is of a high quality and very relevant. Thankyou, we have distributed it to our team for use in our large pipeline of projects”.

BUT……. time and time again after meeting with these developers, what we hear from you, is crickets….. Cheep cheep…….  No response, no support, no plan…. Not yet, you say!

My most recent experience of this was just prior to the duel upstair-downstairs, conference event.  A developer wants to put in a solar farm locally and holds two, 2 hour information sessions to inform the community.  

This is met with some dissatisfaction, shock and irritation by locals.  We meet with them, and offer a genuine partnership to help match the gap between the community and the company.  The company leaves town and tells us they will be in touch, later.

Little do they realise that engagement about their project does not leave town as well.  

The next day, a weekend, during my social life, people ask me and other Geni.Energy team members about this project.  Locals share their views about it, their concerns and frustrations, they ask us about its details.

Am I to defend the company who has also left me in the lurch, unsupported, and nonfinancial?  

Well of course I do, because I want to see decarbonisation of our electricity system urgently, and I want to see local benefits created from new projects.  

But how long should I keep helping to engage and educate the community about these projects as a free service for developers?    

What if communities were supported by the federal government to establish a model such as the Local Energy Hubs.  Community hubs across the nation could be established to play the role that Geni.Energy is suggesting, to engage in the energy transition from the ground up. To make sure that communities are supported to understand and be involved in renewable energy. And to create a constructive touch point in the community for developers when they come to town wanting to build social licence for their projects.

Our community here in Narrabri has been put through the ringer by developers that lack genuine care for our community.  

The Narrabri Gas Project created 22,721 submissions to the EIS, 98% of which objected to the project.  It was the most contested project ever to go through the NSW planning system.  It caused and continues to cause social impacts.

Human sign made in 2017 in Bohena Creek just south of Narrabri (Image: author supplied)

We do not need a do-over of the division and social ruckus that this has caused.  We expect more from renewable energy and we will give more, but only if you do better.  

You need to engage genuinely and early.  You need to commit to our community first and foremost, then the projects will flow more easily from that.  Don't wait until you have some of your approvals for a single site and you are writing your EIS before you start to genuinely engage with us.

By then it is far too late.

Author
Sally Hunter
Managing Director, Geni.Energy
April 6, 2024
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