Two very different sides to Planning for Energy Infrastructure

Planning for energy infrastructure - engaging stakeholders and communities - evaluation sheet
Planning for energy infrastructure – engaging stakeholders and communities – evaluation sheet

On October 21st I attended two very different seminars on the same issue in the same room. One in the morning and one in the afternoon. One cost €190 or so to attend and the other was free. One was positive and upbeat while the other was oozing negativity and mistrust.

The earlier of the two “Planning for Energy Infrastructure, Engaging with Stakeholders & Communities” was organised by Eolas Magazine. I’m one of the lucky ones as I was representing the Environmental Pillar, who paid my €190 ticket – at a reduced rate as far as I know. The majority of people attending were industry and state energy interests. Some concerned citizens who could pay also attended.

The glossy conference pack was adorned with “Eolas magazine ……….. informing Ireland’s decision makers”. A brief introduction to Eolas, taken from their website “about us” page: ”eolas magazine reaches Ireland’s key decision-makers and influencers within government and business. Government and business leaders are kept up to date on key policy and relevant business issues.”

So the magazine that is aimed at decision makers such as senior officials, business and politicians was hosting the conference that was all about widening the decision making net and how to reach communities. Discussing best practice, examining what’s going wrong and how to fix it. Unfortunately at €190 a ticket the people needed in this conversation could not afford to attend.

A little about the positive seminar – the event in the morning that was prohibitively expensive.

There was an interesting line up and having spent the last year absorbed in Ireland’s energy arena I knew a few on the panel. The day started with “The Planning Framework for Energy Projects. Role of An Bord Pleanala” ABP. I learned a little more about Strategic Infrastructure planning and development. I was most interested in the stages involved in Strategic Infrastructure Development SID proposals. A pre-application consultation is mandatory. It also requires that plenty of preparation has been done by the applicant on the plans, including the scale.

The speaker also outlined how the EU and European Court of Justice (ECJ) play an influential role on decisions made in Ireland. We also heard about Projects of Common Interest PCI and that ABP is a Competent Authority. There was some information about Public Participation in PCI that I will have to investigate in time.

So this whole presentation just begged questions but I kept it to the basics 🙂 I repeated the presenters message that the pre-application consultation on strategic infrastructure developments is mandatory and must contain substantial information about the project. This he had clearly stated in his presentation. I asked that given this fact is public participation mandatory for the applicant, in the preparation of the preplanning material and plans for that consultation?

The answer was effectively an evasion of the question. I was told how ABP considers public participation very important and all applicants should make sure to incorporate it. I asked for clarity and if public participation was mandatory for the pre-planning consultation. The answer was NO.

So here is someone who just told everyone that ABP conforms with EU law and ECJ rulings influence their decisions yet the most basic right to participate as protected by the Aarhus Convention is flouted at the pre-planning stage. This is when all options should be on the table. ABP effectively encourage that strategic infrastructure is well developed at their pre-planning consultation irrespective of public participation.

Someone else later asked if ABP is compliant with the Aarhus convention. Ironically enough the speaker thinks they are!

Questions to be answered by An Bord Pleanala
Questions to be answered by An Bord Pleanala

It was great to see 3 speakers talk about the importance of communities in planning our energy transition. The speakers from state bodies went on to explain how they found public participation. I found most presentations upbeat and positive, acknowledging past mistakes and everyone eager for answers. Everyone seems to want to know how to do Public Participation properly!

I did find the title of the Electricity Supply Boards presentation “Managing Stakeholders” a little controlling, condescending and very manipulative. In fact my poem “If I had the Money Minister” started going through my brain! I am all for one to one, personal engagement but I hope the “management” of stakeholders is grounded in ensuring inclusive sustainable development instead of corporate project delivery at all costs with a smile, a nod and a wink.

So enough about the mostly positive morning. Let’s get to the afternoon! I felt an air of frustration, mistrust, defensiveness and negativity.

This was the first of a series of seminars hosted by The Department of Communications, Energy and Natural Resources based on the submissions to the Green Paper on Energy and titled  “Planning and Implementing Essential Energy Infrastructure” identified as priority 3 in the Green Paper. It was held in the same room for an hour and a half of the afternoon. Some of the people who had attended in the morning remained – if they had been invited or registered.

We were given a summary of the feedback in the submissions to the Green Paper, It’s available online here. Then we were asked if we had any comments or questions while a great big screen informed us that proceedings were being recorded. I’m not quite sure whether that was to keep a record or to prevent public order offences 🙂

In comparison to the morning’s proceedings this was negative and depressing. Needless to say it was some people’s opportunity to air their grievances. For others it was an opportunity to reiterate points from their submissions, plug an event or offer a solution. For my part I wanted to highlight the difference between the two experiences. I explained that I was fortunate enough to have someone pay for me to attend the earlier seminar and wished that everyone attending the afternoon session could have been at the first to experience, for the most part, the sincere desire to make things work. Instead they got to sit in rows staring up towards the front, building on whatever frustration was niggling at them. For members of the public it may have been frustration at not being included. For members of the industry and state energy agencies it may have been the frustration of not being able to engage communities positively. For the department’s staff it may have been frustration at this delay in getting the white paper finished or the lack of resources to better involve the public. Whatever it was, the frustration was tangible.

One piece of wisdom I did conjure up was the need for us to recognise a false start. For years I have been trying to get communities to plan their own energy transition. It was almost impossible to get people interested never mind engaged. I know it was similar for many of the energy companies too. The interest is usually sparked in reaction to some plan or other. Now, at last, there are plenty of people ready to engage in developing a national plan. I propose we consider events of the past few years, decisions taken, plans proposed as all part of a false start. Now that we have more people in the race lets go back to the starting line and begin again.

Theresa O’Donohoe

Nov 3rd 2014

Published by Theresa OD

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

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