New Report – Energy ministers should boost economic benefits to host communities

Energy ministers should boost economic benefits to host communities

A new report argues that energy ministers will need to increase the benefits to regional communities that host large-scale solar, wind and transmission infrastructure if governments want to ensure continued support for renewable energy.

The report is published by the Australia Institute and the Sydney Environment Institute and was launched by independent NSW MPs Alex Greenwich and Dr Joe McGirr on Wednesday 15 June. Read the media release here.

The authors found that although renewable energy enjoys a high level of community support, if the pace and intensity of development are not carefully managed and local benefits maximised it will risk creating conflict that could delay the clean energy transformation and harm energy security.

The report finds that governments can increase financial benefits for local communities, target First Nations participation, reduce negative impacts, and coordinate more sustainable economic development beyond short-term construction booms.

University of Sydney Emeritus Professor Linda Connor said: “This report highlights that the shift from coal to renewables is also a spatial shift that brings many physical and social changes to regional communities.

“This infrastructure is urgently needed for energy security and to reach zero emissions electricity, but we need to ensure it creates value for hosts. An unprecedented level of community participation, social impact assessment, and sustained local benefits is required.”

The report makes key recommendations for energy ministers:

Improve benefit sharing:

  • More inclusive and generous benefit sharing arrangements, which should also include new transmission infrastructure.
  • Encourage the pooling of community funds from energy developments in each REZ to enable funding of larger-scale facilities and programs that benefit diverse host communities.

Target First Nations participation

  • Create stronger processes for culturally appropriate consultation and inclusion of Traditional Owners in all aspects of REZ development to maximise socioeconomic benefits.

Manage cumulative impacts

  • Governments can work with residents and local agencies to schedule when and where projects are built to minimise negative cumulative impacts.

Coordinate economic development

  • REZ frameworks for multisectoral economic planning can help deliver employment, skills and other sustainable benefits to host communities.

Acquiring Social Licence for Electricity Transmission

While Energy Grid Alliance agree with recommendations that better manage cumulative impacts, coordinate economic development, and First Nations participation. However, the concept around Benefit Sharing really needs to be explored.

There is no doubt that community opposition to large-scale overhead transmission is rapidly emerging and signals a new challenge that will be faced by every new transmission project unless an enhanced regulatory framework is adopted, social licence is acquired, and community stakeholders are invited to actively participate early in the decision-making process. This opposition is not localised and is prevalent across our nation.

The common thread through [this report] and industry response is that we need to develop a balanced approach to community benefit and compensation issues. While this is promising news for projects that cannot avoid impacts, it is a band aid solution that does not address the root of the issue. Lack of understanding, lack of empathy, gaps in network planning policy and lack of social license within the entire energy sector are key drivers of opposition.

When discussing compensation and benefits with many potentially impacted landowners throughout Victoria, New South Wales, and Tasmania, many have said in no uncertain terms; 'I'll never sell'; 'We will not be bought off'; 'No amount of money will compensate for the impact on our properties, Community and environment'; 'We will not risk our kid's inheritance'; 'Our land is our superannuation, We will not sacrifice that'. The list of comments goes on, but the sentiment is the same, landowners do not see community benefits or compensation as the answer.

So, why are the responses to overhead transmission compensation and benefits so conflicting, so fundamentally opposite?

To understand this, we need to understand the connection between people, the environment, the land, and rural areas. We need to understand the person-place interaction that leads to attachment to place. This connection to place is experienced by traditional owners, landowners, neighbours, and visitors alike. The strength of this attachment often surfaces under threat of loss of place.

This deep attachment to place provides credibility to those who oppose a development that might negatively impact their land; it is not 'just' a reactionary 'Not in My Backyard' (NIMBY) phenomenon, often portrayed with negative connotations and easily dismissed, but opposition based on a sense of responsibility to care for the place, a love and intimate understanding of the land and water, and the intertwining of one's identity with a place through investment in the land.

Those in the energy sector need to understand that community benefits and compensation are not the answers they hoped they would be. In fact, pushing this agenda is very likely to further dilute trust and increase opposition.

Social licence cannot be bought, it must be earned.

Social license starts at the top, with social costs paid by the communities and environments that are impacted.

It is important to note that community opposition to transmission extends well beyond poles and wires. Community groups are well informed, well educated and have made it abundantly clear that opposition starts at the top, with considerable concern demonstrated about the ability of the regulatory framework to facilitate a just and fair transition to renewables.

We have a once in a lifetime opportunity to reset the process on new and existing transmission projects.

When many recognise that the regulatory environment is flawed, proceeding with existing planning mechanisms is akin to building a home without solid foundations. No amount of filler or paint (often referred to as an Environmental Effects/Impact Statements) or compensation will hide the cracks that have appeared or prevent the long-term consequences of not getting the foundations (framework) right from the start.

To facilitate acquisition of social licence and deliver the necessary transmission; climate, environment, and societal policies must be prioritised above 'putting downward pressure on electricity prices'. This will ensure the full impacts of decarbonisation are recognised, and the societal and environmental benefits are maximised.

Climate change models, environmental policies and public policy mechanisms need to be developed in the NEL, NER, NEO, RIT-T and ISP to provide transparency around climate, environmental, social, and economic trade-offs.

The energy sector needs to apply ‘lessons learnt’ over the past two years and work with all stakeholders, including community, to develop equitable laws, rules, policy, and framework that considers the triple-bottom-line to ensure least-impact transmission pathways are developed.

There is an urgent need for regulatory reform, not payment for social licence. The reform required will take time that some may argue we do not have, but you have to ask, what is the cost of inaction? 

When you consider the ‘business as usual’ alternative, the cost of inaction will lead to increased opposition to overhead transmission projects across the nation and will dispense with any chance of acquiring social licence. The resulting material project delays will adversely impact the industry, economy, consumers, investors and above all, our legislated climate change objectives.

Energy Grid Alliance will have more to say on this topic in an upcoming report.

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