To obtain a social licence to operate, community engagement in the utility-scale solar sphere needs to be well planned, long-term, flexible and genuine.
The Australian Renewable Energy Agency (ARENA) commissioned social research consultancy Ipsos Public Affairs to conduct research in the general community to produce best practice community consultation guidelines for proposed utility-scale solar projects.
In an Australian first, Ipsos investigated social perceptions and reception of utility-scale solar facilities – surveying and talking to communities across Australia to gauge knowledge, general opinion and acceptability.
Under the auspices of ARENA, the objective of the work was to both identify the drivers of public support of such projects and understand general attitudes within various communities. The methodology approach was threefold, incorporating a quantitative survey of 1,197 Australians; 15 qualitative group discussions; and specific exploratory discussions with community members currently living near planned or established utility-scale solar facilities. The fieldwork took place in 2013 and 2014.
The research was conducted with a particular focus on pinpointing what constituted a “˜social licence to operate’ for utility-scale solar projects in Australia. The overall objective was to apply this understanding to generate best practice guidelines to community engagement planning around proposed utility-scale solar energy projects.
Best practice guidelines
When considering community consultation – proven to be crucial for such utility-scale energy projects – the research suggested five main themes key to driving acceptance within communities. Turn to page 26 to read about these themes.
These are drawn from the critical issues that emerged in the discussions and survey results, and reflect the key community concerns. These main themes can be used as best practice guidelines to engage communities for future planned projects.
Using these themes, alongside a community engagement approach that is tailored to the specific needs of a community, will create an environment conducive to building a groundswell of public support for these facilities in Australia.
The engagement approach needs to be long term, flexible, initiated early in the planning stages, and demonstrate a genuine commitment to the principles of community engagement from the developer.
Solar proves popular
The research revealed widespread support for solar energy in general – above other renewable sources such as wind farms and hydro energy.
This sentiment seemed to be largely informed by a positive perception of domestic solar panels, with results showing that 22 per cent of respondents had solar panels installed in their homes. In addition, there was recognition that alternatives to non-renewable sources were quickly becoming more of a necessity, with non-renewables being a finite resource.
More specifically, there was strong support for utility-scale solar facilities as an energy source – around 77 per cent of respondents agreed that such facilities could be a significant source of energy to help meet Australia’s energy needs. Only five per cent were opposed – meaning that for every individual that was against, there were more than 15 individuals in favour.
Lack of knowledge around utility-scale solar
However, despite this general support and high level of awareness, digging deeper revealed a lack of knowledge beyond that – only 12 per cent reported to know “˜a fair amount’ about utility-scale solar facilities, and only three per cent knew “˜a great deal’.
A majority – 71 per cent – agreed that the government should provide funding for utility-scale solar development. In addition, 60 per cent felt this should be prioritised over funding for non-renewable energy sources, while 38 per cent felt this should be prioritised over funding for other types of renewable energy.
It was generally agreed that Australia was a prime location for these types of projects – due to the wide space opportunities and high levels of sunlight – as long as research went into determining the most suitable locations. However, as few were familiar with any specific examples of such facilities, many didn’t know what to expect visually.
Overall, the perceived advantages of utility-scale solar facilities included reduced reliance on fossil fuels, positive environmental impacts, investment in local communities, and potentially lower negative health and safety impacts as compared to other forms of energy generation.
Perceived disadvantages included concerns around cost and efficiency – for example, quantity of panels needed to generate a viable amount of energy and how energy would be stored and transmitted – as well as land use, financial costs, visual impacts, environmental impacts and health and safety impacts.
How to build support
According to the research, key ways to embolden support for renewables included the promise of assured efficiency, reducing negative impacts on electricity prices, and increased employment opportunities in the immediate communities.
For community members already living near an actual or planned utility-scale solar facility, opinions didn’t differ much from the broader Australian population. However, they tended to be more optimistic around the economic benefits of having a facility in the area – benefits which were considered to be substantial.
Smaller communities tended to be more engaged than larger ones – with facilities having a greater impact on the economic and social fabric of the town through employment and economic stimulation.
Five main themes key to obtaining the social licence to operate:
Reliability and efficiency
There needs to be simple, regular messages about the efficiency and reliability of utility-scale solar projects. The provision of information regarding land use in comparison to energy output and reassurance of the consistency of solar supply help address areas where the public feel less informed.
There is limited understanding of what utility-scale solar projects look like. Furthermore, as there is variation in the technology that can be employed – e.g. concentrated solar power (CSP) towers, solar dishes, parabolic troughs with concentrating linear fresnel reflectors, and PV panels – plenty of information about what any planned utility-scale solar project would look like is required to drive a social licence.
Although the broader environmental benefits of utility-scale solar projects are understood – including the reduction in carbon emissions – the local environmental impacts are less clear. Clear explanation of any necessary landscape disturbance when establishing utility-scale solar projects is necessary.
Economic and employment impacts
Job creation and the resulting opportunities for local businesses and residents are seen as the key economic benefits of utility-scale solar projects in regional communities. Ensuring that a realistic understanding of employment opportunities is conveyed will help communities know what to expect. Another important aspect is to set clear expectations around the impact, or lack of impact, on local electricity prices.
Although solar is regarded as a relatively safe technology, there is a large cohort who is unsure as to whether utility-scale solar facilities could have a negative health effect. Information to allay any possible health concerns would be valuable, as would information about the broader health benefits of solar compared to non-renewable energy.