The notion of a social licence to operate has become widely accepted, particularly in recent years. While a social licence is intangible, its practical, financial, and even legal implications are significant.
The social licence to operate is not something that, once earned, is fixed and unchanging. It varies over time in response to changes in the community and developers' behaviour. Different parts of a community might display different levels of acceptance to transmission route options. The social licence is therefore something that must be established then maintained every day; it is a goal towards which the industry must constantly strive.
The social licence helps to understand public sentiment toward energy transmission networks and guides actions that garner community acceptance and approval. It is therefore underpinned by the assumption that only genuine dialogue and willingness to understand and negotiate community expectations will enable successful network development in the long-term.
The social license to operate is made up of three components: legitimacy, credibility, and trust.
- Legitimacy: this is the extent to which an individual or organisation plays by the 'rules of the game'. That is, the norms of the community, be they legal, social, cultural, formal, or informal in nature
- Credibility: this is the individual or organisations capacity to provide true and clear information to the community and fulfil any commitments made
- Trust: this is the willingness to be vulnerable to the actions of another. It is a very high quality of relationship and takes time and effort to create.
Transmission developers, regulators, market operators, relevant peak bodies and government need to partner with community in every aspect of planning, development and decision making, including the development of sound alternatives and the identification of a preferred solution. Community engagement is key to the success of any major infrastructure project and is most successful when it establishes and delivers on clear expectations and gives people the opportunity to truly influence decisions.
To meet the increasing demands of renewable energy transition, well informed community stakeholders should be able to self-nominate to actively participate in the decision-making process and be involved in the planning phase of electricity transmission networks. This will help reduce land use conflicts by:
- Identifying potential transmission corridors and substation sites
- Identifying areas where undergrounding is essential and overhead transmission is acceptable
- Defining setbacks from materially populated township settlement boundaries, habitable dwellings, zones, overlays, buffers, culturally significant areas, and strategic agricultural/farmland
Developing constructive relationships and trust is most effective when it starts early, ideally during a project’s inception. Having routing and siting decisions guided by community through a more consistent rationale will be by far the greatest benefit to any electricity transmission project, particularly when considering the consequences of non-engagement. Community supported framework will produce more consistent, defensible, and transparent energy transmission route decisions.
Transmission planning increasingly will be driven by a fuller range of public policies, social license, and priorities, both state and federal. Policy needs to provide the stimulus to transmission planners to make those objectives a significant part of the planning process. It is vital we understand that public policy objectives need to include environmental and energy policy objectives. The number of state and federal initiatives to imbue land use and environment considerations earlier in the planning processes needs to grow considerably. The convergence of these state and federal trends, as well as new modelling tools and analytical methodologies should be implemented by planning authorities across the nation.
It is time to use the best information available by engaging with landholders and communities to inform infrastructure planning and to strive for those solutions that are high performers on energy supply, social, economic and conservation impact.