NESC National and Economic Social Council workshop “Wind Energy in Ireland: The Challenge of Community Engagement and Social Acceptance”

NESC National and Economic Social Council workshop “Wind Energy in Ireland: The Challenge of Community Engagement and Social Acceptance”

I am only going to report on the input I had to this workshop on February 28th 2014, as I did not seek agreement from the other attendees to quote them.

During my introduction I agreed with someone who had implied that the word “acceptance” did not sit well. I stated that to “accept” something you must be given it – handed to you. It is something you may have no say in. I agreed that community empowerment would be much better.

The introductions went well over the allocated time which meant the rest of the morning was rushed through. The “workshop” itself was very limiting so shortening the time and keeping to the one group of 40 in the one discussion is not my idea of a workshop – despite it being introduced as informal. If that was informal I hate to see what formal looks like!

There were 4 topics making up 6 questions on the agenda:

Developing Local Value in Wind Energy Projects

1. Which of the options outlined for developing local value could be further progressed? Are there other potential strategies?

2. What policy or regulatory steps can be taken to further community engagement and social acceptance at local, intermediary and national levels?

How Intermediaries Provide Added Value

  1. What existing or potentially new intermediary organisations play or could play a role in strengthening local value, community engagement, social acceptance of wind and other renewable energy projects?

Intermediary – Role of Planning

4. How much variance is there in the degree to which Local Authorities and planners facilitate community engagement and social acceptance?

5. How much impact is the Local Authority Renewal Energy Strategy having? Are there ways in which LARES might be enhanced?

Potential Role of an Energy Transition Plan

6. Will the forthcoming Energy Green Paper and White Paper processes provide the degree of consultation, engagement and consensus building, at national, regional and local levels, seen as central to an effective energy transition plan?

When I eventually got the opportunity I reverted back to the 1st question and what potential strategies may be available. I stated that in this whole process to date we have overlooked our greatest resource – our people. When faced with the facts and challenges of climate change, resource depletion such as peak oil, and a shrinking economy, our communities are well able to come up with solutions. I referred to feedback from workshops in Portarlington and Abbeyleix, as I had them with me, which was similar to most workshops with communities in my 7 years working in this field. I stated how creative and empowered people became when they had the opportunity to design their own transition.

I did stress that while each community plan proves creative and powerful there is little or no support should they wish to put them in place. I referenced the Templederry wind farm which had already been discussed. That took over 10 years.

I also stated that the two examples I had with me, came up with solutions to meeting their energy needs. They had both included wind in the mix – a trend in all transition visions. Unfortunately now, due to the imposition of industrial wind developments in the county, they are hosting anti turbine meetings.

These communities have no other choice given the current situation imposed by industry and government decision makers without engaging the communities or their elected representatives. I told participants that the way this initiative was executed caused massive division and civil unrest. I advised that if they continued their plans there would be escalating opposition.

There was a lot of discussion and observations with a break for refreshments. I was happy to listen for the rest of the morning – as if I had a choice 🙂

At 12.15 or so, noticing that time was running out, I indicated to the chair that I had something to contribute. By now we were on to the last topic. I noted that we were to answer the following question:

“Will the forthcoming Energy Green Paper and White Paper processes provide the degree of consultation, engagement and consensus building, at national, regional and local levels, seen as central to an effective energy transition plan?”

Nobody had actually discussed this which to me is at the heart of the dilemma of community engagement!

So I stated that the forthcoming green paper has been framed without public participation. Who decided the 6 priorities framing it? Why isn’t civil society involved before the green paper goes to consultation to participate in framing it?

Then I went on to read out some points I had written down as this was my last opportunity.

Due to the way the midlands wind proposals had evolved I stated it was my opinion that:

  • There is no trust in local or national government
  • There is no trust for developers
  • Mis information and propaganda are being nurtured and disseminated
  • Climate denial is increasing
  • Support for turf cutting is growing
  • People are dismissing the mechanics of turbines in general deeming wind energy unviable
  • Energy groups are joining forces and resources – turbines and pylons
  • If the government and developers continue in their current trajectory there will be war!

I proposed that government and developers

  • Admit publicly that the process to date falls short of the Aarhus convention from the NREAP right through to the MoU
  • Must acknowledge communities well founded fears, as addressed by other governments and the industry
  • Must extend a welcome to civil society to participate from the top down and bottom up. The new local government reform PPNs Public Participation Networks could be useful in this process
  • In this context I asked about the green paper on energy – again. I wondered why there was no public participation in scoping it
  • Must go back to basics as Eamon Ryan put it earlier that morning. He suggested we make decisions at regional level as our grid is regional, feeding into national policy, mindful of our European commitments. I believe we need to step right back, decide what energy we require, where to get it and then how to fund it. He also reiterated that these decisions be made with comprehensive public participation.
  • Must provide support and resources for comprehensive Public Participation. Some structures exist already such as Transition Ireland and Northern Ireland, the People’s Charter on Energy, existing Powerdown and Transition trainers
  • Consultation should include expert bodies, trusted by the public, to offer information and raise awareness. This could include An Taisce, Friends of the Earth, the Environmental Pillar.

That was my introduction to NESC. A good insight.


When the fog cleared……..

Upon reflection I had more time to consider practicalities. I tried to visualise how the community and public can engage. For a start, we must ensure that there is public participation right down to naming the project – don’t assume “Energy Transition Plan” is the consensus!

Who should shape the consultation process?

So to revisiting the question “Who should shape the consultation process?” To date the consultation process is decided by whoever sets the framework and draft. That is failing too many people. A lot of times the consultation period is too short. It takes time to write a submission and even longer when you put time into an informed input.

What we need is a comprehensive, informed and facilitated participation process. In order to participate you need some insight and information about what it is you are to contribute to. You need to discuss it with others and feel safe asking questions – safe in the knowledge that you will get unbiased information. We need to empower our public to participate confidently.

While policy makers and developers get plenty of time pre-planing, contemplating, discussing proposals and content, communities do not. They are very often planning without true insight into the community their plans will impact most. Local involvement at the pre-planing stage can help flag local issues that may arise. A call for submissions, on a draft which could have been years in the making, is usually put out.

So after plenty of deliberation the public is presented with some plan or framework with which they must get acquainted, informed, discuss, agree or not, consult, discuss again and then comment on – all in a 6 to 12 week window? On national policy? On decisions that shape the world our children inherit? That may be sufficient when it comes to a playground on the green but national and regional energy policy will have a much greater impact on the world around us and future life n earth.

So who do I think should help shape the participation process? I will say it depends upon the plan proposed – playground versus national energy policy for example. I have to say the People’s Charter on Energy should definitely help in scoping. It has evolved through a completely transparent and inclusive manner. Those involved come from a variety of backgrounds and they have been discussing it together for months and individually for longer. The Environmental Pillar should have a role to play and possibly The Access Initiative or Aarhus task force. Individual members of the IEN including An Taisce would be good contributors.

Some suggestions for funding comprehensive public participation:


LEADER programme

Horizon 2020 policy support funding was suggested at the NESC workshop

An anonymous fund – provided by developers, Mainstream, Element, Bord na Mona etc – anonymous so there is no connection or misconceptions.


One ironic observation is the fact that energy is no longer an environmental issue. Suddenly it’s an economic and social issue. Hilarious really – I get pigeon holed as an environmentalist for my interest in all things energy. Had I waited 5 years I could have been an economist!

Theresa O’Donohoe March 2nd 2014

Published by Theresa OD

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

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