Community energy: why is community engagement crucial?

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In the process of developing a community renewable energy project, generating early community engagement is important first and foremost because it reduces resistance. Aside from that, it also helps to create excitement about the project among the neighbours, and maybe even get access to specific skills embedded in the community that can be very helpful to propel the project forward.

Community engagement

On the topic of community resistance, which is often called NIMBYism (an acronym for the phrase “Not In My Back Yard”), it is important to highlight that although people resisting the implementation of renewable energy projects in their towns may be loud and often get the attention of the press, a majority of people support renewable energy and would like to see more of it.

In contrast to what most people think, resistance within communities is usually not linked to an ‘anti-renewable energy installations’ attitude but to the way some developers approach the project. Some talk to the residents of the area late in the process, after obtaining the rights to the land or at the time of fundraising. Such developers tend to experience a whole lot more challenges than those who engage the community from the start, or even better, are part of the community as is the case of most community energy groups.

What does community engagement mean?

Community engagement is the process through which community energy groups and individuals build an ongoing relationship for the purpose of applying a collective vision for the benefit of a community.

Community engagement ranges from regular consultations with the community, and a reliance on community expertise for completion of the project, to simple solicitations for capital.

What are the common community concerns?

A community renewable energy project developer will find it necessary to address the concerns of the community members. Engaging with them early can mean a smoother planning and implementation process.

Usual concerns among the community tend to be environmental. Some of the most common issues are listed below:

  • Birds (wind projects): A study of the bird use of the area before the construction of a wind farm should be done. Site selection is of key importance in reducing the number of birds killed by wind turbines. If results of the study show that the site is highly transited by birds then the community most likely won’t support the project.
  • Visual impacts (wind and solar projects): The community may show concerns linked to the appearance of the wind or solar farm. Sharing climate change data and discussing the importance of renewable energy is the best way to win people over. Sharing financial data may also help. For instance, you can share the fact that some studies show that property values tend to increase after the installation of renewable energy installations nearby.
  • Fish (hydro projects): A study of the potential impact of the project on fish in the area should be carried out prior to construction. Mitigation factors in the equipment design might be necessary and the community may request the development of a biodiversity management plan.
  • Smells (anaerobic digestion projects): Anaerobic digestion of animal manure is actually a way to treat manure to help prevent foul odour production while generating a usable energy product. Share this information with the members of the community and highlight the many additional benefits of anaerobic digestion and biogas.

The above concerns and others should be addressed in an environmental assessment study and solutions should be shared with the community members during local meetings.

Holding early local meetings: tips

If you haven’t decided which technology you want to use for a specific site yet, it is advisable that prior to holding your first meeting you do some research into what clean energy resources your community has and may want to develop. During the first gathering, it is recommended that you leave possibilities open to allow as many community members as possible to get engaged and to make an informed decision about their commitment.

If you have already decided which technology you want to use then clearly describe the scale and specifics of the project you are proposing in your first meeting. Be ready with information about the technology, the project design, the benefits and expected impacts on neighbours, wildlife, etc.

Before the first consultation, independently of which of the above two scenarios apply to your case, it is a good idea for you to look for support of local community leaders who will attend the meeting and endorse the project. Also make sure you have a list of participants for the meeting and achieve good attendance rate.

It is always a good idea to invite representatives from other community renewable energy groups and give them time on the agenda to talk about their experiences.

At the end of the first meeting announce that you will be holding future events where people will be able to learn more. As the project gets clearer hold regular meetings with the community. Invite the local press to attend and report on the meetings. Throughout the several local meetings you will host you can send out your own press releases to local papers, and post them on the community news board of your website.

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