Community “Acceptance”

Where are the snakes and where are the ladders in wind energy?
Who are the snakes and where are the ladders in the wind energy industry?

I attended the Irish Renewable Energy Summit 2014 on February 20th. I found it to be a lot of corporate back slapping and happy talk. Everyone was delighted with their little patch and the bigger picture but absolutely baffled by the challenge of “community acceptance”. As I explained to a couple of folk from SEAI – Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, when the conference was over, “acceptance” indicates that you are given something, it’s handed to you. Why should any community simply “accept”?

Public participation is about communities shaping the plans and engaging from the start – not accepting with open arms someone else’s ideas for their community – however well meaning they may be. Geraint Ellis from Queens University Belfast touched on this in his presentation directly after lunch. Unfortunately a lot of delegates did not stay long enough to hear him.

This was the agenda for the day

This is the agenda for the Irish Renewable Energy Summit 2014
This was the agenda for the Irish Renewable Energy Summit 2014 

While our Minister for Energy Pat Rabbitte started the day addressing a variety of renewable energies, which included announcing a wave and tidal develop fund, the day tended towards wind. Naturally enough I asked some cutting questions and got some interesting answers. Questions were asked via comment card handed to staff who gave them to the chair. It meant there was no engagement and I had to take whatever they answered at face value.

Marie Donnelly from the European Commission was after the Minister. She presented the 2030 Framework for Climate and Energy, it’s proposed targets and told us about the planned call for “national energy plans”. They intend to focus more on resource boundaries instead of geographical boundaries. There will also be a new Energy Efficiency policy out this year.

I asked her if there was a framework for public participation factored into the directive, any recommendations for collaboration with communities at preplanning and was there public participation involved in shaping the proposal. Effectively her answer was “no” but she cited the Aarhus convention and EIA directive as useful tools to guide the process! I didn’t get a chance to tell her I sit on the national task force for public participation with the Access Initiative. I know Aarhus. I also know of many Irish policy makers way of paying token attention to it. I know the system – that’s why I want a step by step directive from Europe!

Up next was Brian Motherway, CEO of SEAI. He was introduced as going to “tell us how we are going to double our renewable energy by 2020”. At that point I wondered had he consulted the public in his plans!.

He went on to rejoice in the success of renewables in Ireland. He also acknowledged how good the planning is and how “policy can deliver”. However we must be ultra sensitive in our approach as social license cannot be taken for granted. I think that means the wind industry used have free reign but now they must be more manipulative in their approach.

Motherway then mentioned the SEAI work with local authorities in developing local area renewable energy strategies. Again I wondered if the public were invited to participate in this process.

He titled a couple of his slides “seeking a better debate” so I sent up my comment telling him to contact me if he was serious. I haven’t heard back! 🙂

Germanys renewable energy revolution was interesting. One question asked was about resistance to power lines in Germany. Apparently there is a lot of resistance but not because of health concerns. Prof Fischedick did reiterate that public participation drives German policy.

After a brief cup of tea I returned for the speakers “Addressing key issues in renewable energy” with all the proposed major wind development players represented on a discussion panel following the three speakers.

Given that the People’s Charter have identified the Energy Green Paper as an ideal point to start the public participation process I was delighted when Ken Spratt, the main man in energy for Ireland’s civil service, had it on his agenda.

Now prior to this session I made a point of seeking out Mr Spratt so as to request we discuss the People’s Charter when the session had finished or make an appointment for another date. I noted how well all of the energy development representatives could identify him and how mutually acquainted they were. Myself, as a mere citizen, was lost in their world.

He went on to discuss the green paper where 6 priorities are identified. It was at this point I wondered had there been any public participation in identifying these priorities and once the green paper went to consultation would priorities identified by the public be accepted.

In the wider policy context he mentions “public and local acceptance”. Now perhaps I am overly picky, however I cannot help but continuously notice the language used by many of these speakers. It really does come across as completely bypassing the ethos of public participation in decision making, identified as a right under the Aarhus Convention.

The usual drivers – “Jobs and Growth” surfaced as the mecca for all development and the OREDP – Ocean Renewable Energy Development Plan was discussed. I noted that when Mr Spratt named off the “Governance Structure for the OREDP” he did not mention one environmental voice. Similarly when the BioEnergy strategy was discussed I wondered where the not for profit oversight would come from.

Then we had Kevin Moloney from Siemens looking “Beyond the Hype: Delivering the benefits of Wind – Efficiency, Economy and Exports” a joint research project by Trinity College Dublin supported by the Economic and Social Research Institute. Let’s just say if we go for Scenario 3 we’ll certainly help the developers earn a few bob. With good odds on the chance that the island of Ireland might actually take flight, off across Scotland could offer a good bet for the rest of us! Tut Tut – my cynicism may well be interpreted as “hype” 😉

It is also worth noting that this research did not look at community owned wind projects. It was solely focused on private investments.

As all of their negative experiences with communities unfolded I kept wanting to shout out that “social acceptance” would only be addressed when public participation is comprehensively facilitated but I bit my tongue while they agonised over their dilemma.

So to Dermot Rhatigan from the Scottish Government. This was a more technical presentation on the ISLES II project – Irish-Scottish Links on Renewable Energy. More good news stories but I learned from Dermot later on that there is a good balance of community ownership and public participation. Scotland has a community ownership target.

The speakers answered some questions and then vacated for the panel – three of the main wind proposals for the midlands represented on one panel! Someone asked should the proposed projects go direct to the UK grid. Cowhig said yes because the UK could afford to pay for it, including the infrastructure if I understood correctly. Corbett reckons it should be future proof and connect to both but regulations stand in the way of that happening, Cagney agreed to both grids, especially given that our grid has insufficient capacity for what we can produce.

Energy storage was also raised and the new Californian storage targets was cited as a good model to research.

I directed one question to Tim Cowhig, CEO Element power and Joe Corbett, Mainstream asking them that if they were starting again would they do anything differently to address community involvement? Corbett wouldn’t do much different, perhaps publicise their earlier consultations better. Cowhig reckoned it was difficult to answer as it was only a concept two years ago – whatever that has to do with it!? I never got a chance to ask Corbett what consultations he referred to and let him know that I’m still waiting for a reply to my email requesting to meet Eddie O’Connor dated March 3rd 2013. One I forwarded to a TD who also ignored it.

The afternoon was about community. It started with some research from Geraint Ellis, surprisingly titled – “Planning and community acceptance for renewable energy projects”. This was followed by two success stories from Tipperary and Tralee. Both great ventures and community achievements – which also served to highlighted how uneven the event was with the lack of “unsuccessful” stories.

My final question of the day was from the floor. I had to wait while Duncan Stewart had his say and Bob Hanna, the conference chair and chief technical advisor to Pat Rabbitte, told him he would not answer him.

I started by stating the drop off in audience for the afternoon session on community involvement was indicative of the commitment it was afforded. Especially by those who are representing the community when the plans are being shaped – Bob Hanna being the only departmental representative remaining.

I agreed with Tim McSwiney from Tralee County Council that events like these are a great idea to raise awareness and education of renewable energies and the community options available. However I did point out that at €300 a ticket most communities were excluded.
I then asked who was involved in writing the green paper on energy and secondly what supports there are for communities who want to become informed and host events. Who would support them?

He had just told Duncan where to go and my question about participation in the green paper and facilitating public awareness and education threw him over the edge altogether. This was in the afternoon session dedicated to best practice. I was told that the green paper was written by civil servants “in their box” and that the consultation process was when everyone else has their say. I don’t actually think he even heard the second part of the question as he got very annoyed that the panel were not being asked questions about their great projects – back to the success stories.

In all a day of denial. Lets all clap ourselves on the back. Wind is great. We’re on the right path, climbing the ladder. How will we get “community acceptance” while throwing in the token acknowledgment of “their very valid fears”. Anyone who critiqued or questioned their system was shut up. They commented at the end that this was the most interactive conference they had with the most questions ever. I asked 4. I estimate that accounted for about a third or more of them all!

Theresa O’Donohoe Feb 21st 2014

Published by Theresa OD

Change maker and mother of 5 living in the west of Ireland

7 thoughts on “Community “Acceptance”

  1. Hi Theresa –

    Excellent post – thanks a lot for giving us this insight into this event, Depressing, but it was good that you (and Duncan?) at least were able to throw in a little bit of meaningful community perspective.

  2. If communities could model an ‘ideal’ system, what would it look like? What would be the priorities? Lights must come on at the flick of a switch? National security and economic security? Would it address what is going on in the Middle East and Russia/Ukraine/ international relations (which are shaped heavily again by resources globally at present)? Would climate change be a driving force? Would health issues (here please not looking for wind issues as I understand peoples worries about these, but would the highly documented impact that fossil fuels are having on human health factor in- or is this not on the radar)? Apart from climate change would mitigation of the negative impacts fossil fuels have on the environment factor into the ‘ideal community lead energy policy’? Sorry lots of questions but genuinely interested and going to an event on community participation this week. I have lots of ideas of what I see as the way forward (mine are based around climate mitigation, national security, sustainability, lights must come on when people need them, cost, change in consumer behaviour and appreciation of the resources, perhaps not everyone having to plan for their own locality as I know energy is just not sexy for most people – most people are wrecked from putting food on the table and clothes on their kids backs and the last thing that they might want to do is make sure lights will come on for themselves and their neighbours and 5 -10 year planning frameworks which might sound like institutional barriers – but in reality they are not, grids and balancing takes a long time to plan) but I am only one person and one voter, what are the factors that will drive communities and what are the outcomes communities want (not process outcomes as I think I get those from the above but physical outcomes)?

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