How can communities share in the big renewables boom?

Many parts of regional Australia are experiencing a boom in renewable energy development, with potential economic opportunities unseen since the gold rush. With so much of the proposed development being led by foreign owned companies, how can communities ensure benefits are captured and retained?
A regional prospectus is being developed to help communities connect with large scale developers in regional Victoria.
How large-scale developers engage and provide value back to local communities will be critical if the industry is to build long-term social license and support. Ambitious State and Territory renewable energy targets drive much of the recent and anticipated investment in these regional areas and are requiring companies to demonstrate strong levels of engagement and shared value back to communities.
Shared value is defined as policies and practices that enhance the competitiveness of companies while improving local economic, social and environmental conditions in the regions where they operate. Through schemes such as the Victorian Renewable Energy Auction Scheme, the State has made a compulsory requirement that all participants in the Auction Scheme must demonstrate shared value.
Similarly, corporate and local governments in urban locations are increasingly looking to procure renewable energy from regional areas, such as the recently announced Melbourne Renewable Energy Project. The MREP project, a consortium of 14 organisations and businesses, will support an 80MW capacity wind farm in Western Victoria. These types of projects place increasing emphasis on “non-price criteria” such as local social and economic benefit in the tender process.
There are obviously many ways a large-scale renewable energy development can provide value to local communities. There are the direct jobs that come from the build, operation and maintenance of the plant itself. There are the supply chain jobs that come from providing services to the plant such as manufacturing components locally or training centres.
Some projects also offer grants for local projects and programs or allow for part community ownership of the generation infrastructure such as the Sapphire Wind farm in NSW.
The ACT Government’s Reverse Auction process has led the way in incentivising developers to engage with local communities in a more meaningful and co-operative manner, for mutual benefit of developers and communities. It also places clear emphasis on local economic development as part of its tender requirements.
Building on this, the Victorian Government has recently released a useful best practice guide on community engagement and benefit sharing in renewable energy development. The guide identifies key factors that lead to best practice engagement beyond what is simply required for planning and compliance. This includes:

  • starting engagement early in the development process
  • integration of the development with local landscape values and local identity
  • completing a social feasibility analysis
  • community participation in decision making and design
  • sharing the benefits from the development in an equitable way
  • building trust and relationships between stakeholders
  • regular and face to face engagement
  • prioritising an accessible complaints management process
  • managing community engagement for legacy projects

At the end of the day, communities who are on the front foot and public with their ideas and needs will seek to gain the most. However, providing an equitable playing field for community groups, organisations and businesses to have these conversations with developers is important for creating broad support for the sector.
In Central and Northern Victoria, a regional prospectus is being developed to assist the State and developers identify and connect to local projects. The prospectus being led by the Central Victorian Greenhouse Alliance and partnering local governments are inviting local organisations, businesses and individuals to an Expression of Interest to capture local project and program ideas.
The prospectus will provide a living database of local ideas and needs that developers can tap in to begin conversations. The regional prospectus helps to highlight the potential local benefits that are there to be captured by communities from renewable energy, building social license along the way.
Any type of organisation or individual is able to register their idea through this process. The key attribute will be about delivering local benefits to the region the developments occur within.
The prospectus is inviting ideas so if you have a project or program idea that you would like to be supported, please go to www.cvga.org.au/prospectus for more information.
Author: Rob Law, Executive Officer, Central Victorian Greenhouse Alliance .

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