Australia, Projects, Renewables, Wind, Wind Projects

Head in the air, feet on the ground: the highwire skills of a clean energy community relations coordinator

With a portfolio of four operating wind farms and a fifth under construction, Kirsten Lee has a keen appreciation for how Australians feel about turbine technology. The truth is, everyone feels differently. “No two weeks are ever the same in my job,” says Lee, the community relations coordinator for Acciona’s energy projects in Australia.

Overall, communities are “generally very supportive”, she says, but a vocal minority remains in opposition. That’s understandable, when the turbines on a neighbour’s property are as high as a 50-storey building.

“Those in the city probably look at wind farms as that vast, whimsical piece of energy-generating machinery, and those in the country sometimes feel a little like they are paying the price for the rest of us to have electricity,” Lee tells EcoGeneration. “That comes with a bit more of a complicated approach in terms of community engagement.”

Where once the renewables industry may have been guilty of riding into towns to cut a deal about a project no matter what, these days developers understand not everyone accepts towering propellers just because they are “clean and green and a good thing”.

Country communities near clean energy projects have a pretty good grasp of renewables, but it’s Lee’s job to get them up close to turbines, to crane their necks and listen to their strange murmuring. “Some of the fear of the unknown gets taken away once you can stand and experience it for yourself,” she says. Most people are surprised by the sheer scale and expect the technology to be noisier than it is.

Now you don’t see it, now you do

Change can be wrenching. Suburbanites know that city skylines never stay the same, as new skyscrapers prickle into view. That doesn’t happen in the country, where families may have been rooted to their land for generations and a wind project is a very big deal in the surrounds. Those eager for rapid buildout of wind and solar need to accept that rural communities will be apprehensive. “It’s about balancing out that fear of the unknown,” Lee says. “How much is it really going to change my day-to-day life?”

In an effort to bridge the gap between perception and reality, Acciona is working on virtual and augmented reality applications with Deakin University to make turbines as real as possible to residents in the project development phase.

The neighbours

Landowners who are paid to host turbines see the steady income as a welcome buffer to the volatility of agriculture. “It takes away the risk of a lot of their farming, and a few of them have been able to diversify to different cropping.” For farmers with large-volume buyers who suddenly find a better deal, wind income will push them through tough times. Farmers often find better use for parts of their farms made easier to access thanks to tracks laid by plant owners to each turbine. “From their side it’s generally a win,” she says.

As for livestock, they love wind farms. The sheep at Acciona’s Mt Gellibrand plant rest in the shade cast by turbines during summer and congregate near the substation during winter, for example.

A curly part of the development process is balancing the number of turbines among participating landowners, Lee says. It’s also interesting when a project is rebalanced to account for new technology, where greater capacity is yielded from fewer turbines. “It’s definitely a consideration, to keep all of our host landowners happy.”

The hard part is the neighbours, who miss out on revenue but may be more attuned to the visual impact and potential noise. The industry is looking at neighbour benefit programs to bring everyone along for the ride, Lee says. “Trying to get that program right is a tough one, because every community is so different.”

Near Mortlake in Victoria there are more than 10 wind farms in various phases of development, with two under construction. “In [some] small townships there is a possibility they will be surrounded by wind farms,” says Lee. “The cumulative effect is an element we didn’t have 10 years ago.”

Kirsten Lee will be speaking at All-Energy in the community engagement consultation strategies session, on Thursday October 24th from 1-2.20pm.

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