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workingwiththewind2Working with the wind: Two case studies on community engagement and wind energy

Taryn Lane and Leigh Ewbank

 

Taryn Lane, community engagement officer Hepburn Wind, Director of the Victorian Wind Alliance.

Leigh Ewbank, Friends of the Earth Australia’s Yes 2 Renewables community coordinator.

 

 

 

“When the wind of change blows,

some people build walls, others build windmills.”

– Chinese Proverb

 

INTRODUCTION

 

Since 2010, wind energy development in Australia has become a highly politicised ‘issue’, mainly a result of an organised anti-wind-farm campaign seeking to shut down the domestic wind energy sector. Anti-wind-farm activists now engage with local communities with live wind-farm proposals in an attempt to prevent or stall projects as well as shut down operating wind-farms.

 

Despite 19 reviews [i] by reputable public health bodies showing wind turbines to be clean and safe, groups opposed to wind energy are undertaking a scare campaign suggesting they are a public health hazard. Politicians who are opposed to wind energy lend credibility to these claims and amplify uncertainty at a local level. Environmental non-government actors, such as Hepburn Wind and Friends of the Earth, are engaging with communities to de-escalate the tension surrounding wind energy development and - in doing so – work to actively demystify this form of energy generation in Australia.

 

Wind-farms are central to global efforts to address climate change. The renewable energy technology has proven its ability to reduce carbon emissions in the stationary energy sector and is an economically competitive generator. As such, Australia is set for a large rollout of wind energy generation over the decades ahead [ii] and effective community engagement is central to maintain public acceptance of this technology and combat the misinformation causing angst in communities.

 

This paper will present two case studies for community engagement in wind energy development; it compares and contrasts the methods used by the authors—a community engagement officer for Hepburn Wind and a renewable energy advocate for Friends of the Earth. It shows that respectful and persistent community engagement is an effective counter to the anti-wind-farm lobby. The paper outlines key lessons useful for those involved in renewable energy development and climate variability adaptation, in a commercial, community, or advocacy capacity. But first, we turn to the political context in which the debate takes place.

 workingwiththewind1

 

POLITICAL CONTEXT

 

Australia has a small but burgeoning wind energy sector. Since the first utility-scale wind turbines came online in the late 1980s, installed wind energy capacity in the National Electricity Market (NEM) has grown to 2,662 megawatts (MW). Wind energy makes up approximately 5 per cent of generation capacity in the NEM—enough to power around 1.4 million homes and cut 8.3 million tonnes of carbon emissions. The Australian Energy Market Operator forecasts 8,883 MW of new capacity by 2020.[iii] Utility-scale wind energy development was largely uncontentious for some twenty years until the emergence of an organised anti-wind-farm campaign in the period between 2007-2010.

 

Research by Professor of Public Health Simon Chapman and colleagues [iv] documents the emergence of the anti-wind-farm campaign. According to Chapman, the early years of opposition to wind-farms were “ostensibly because of agendas about preserving pristine bush and rural environments.” Borrowing a model from the anti-wind campaign in the United Kingdom, chapters of “Landscape Guardian” groups sprung up in rural Australia rejecting wind-farms for aesthetic reasons. Tellingly, these groups only oppose wind-farms; they have no concerns about other forms of development that affect landscape values such as open-pit coal mines, power plants, transmission lines, etc. Key figures in Landscape Guardian groups have links to the fossil fuel industry [v] and strong connections to the Australian Liberal Party.[vi]

 

Momentum built for the wind/health argument in the late 2000s;[vii] in 2007, American physician Nina Pierpont released a self-published book titled Wind Turbine Syndrome, attributing a number of common health problems in humans to the presence of wind turbines.[viii]  In 2009, Peter Mitchell, a fossil fuel investor and founder of the Western Plains Landscape Guardians, published a full-page advertisement in the Pyrenees Advocate claiming a wind-farm in Waubra, Victoria, would cause serious health problems for residents. Mitchell went on to found the Waubra Disease Foundation which was renamed the Waubra Foundation shortly thereafter.

 

The Waubra Foundation and CEO Sarah Laurie, a non-practicing and unregistered general practitioner, are Australia’s most prominent exponents of claims wind-farms cause ill-health effects. Sarah Laurie engages in the debate through the news media and presentations in towns where wind-farms are planned.

 

As with any controversial debate, politicians have entered the fray; in Federal Parliament, it is conservative politicians who are predominantly opposed to wind energy. Senators John Madigan (Democratic Labor Party) and Nick Xenophon (Independent), for example, drafted amendments to the Renewable Energy (Electricity) Act 2000 to address alleged “excessive noise” produced by wind turbines. The Abbott government was elected in 2013 with a commitment to hold another investigation into wind energy and health and a proposal for real-time monitoring of wind-farms noise. Senior business advisor to Prime Minister Tony Abbott, Maurice Newman, is a staunch opponent of wind-farms with links to activist groups; he has called for the renewable energy target—the principal driver of wind energy in Australia—to be scrapped.

 

Weighing in on the side of wind energy is Senator Richard Di Natale of the Australian Greens Party. The Senator, who is also a doctor and health specialist, has criticised the Waubra Foundation for spreading unsubstantiated claims about adverse health impacts caused by wind-farms. In early 2014, he criticised PM Tony Abbott’s perusal of another health impact study, stating:

 

It is the Prime Minister’s actions, not the wind industry's that will put people's health at risk. His fear mongering is reckless, dangerous and irresponsible. The truth is that there has already been extensive research into this issue and no credible health body or medical journal in the world supports the idea of wind turbine syndrome.[ix]

 

In the state of Victoria, the Baillieu Coalition government enacted the world’s strictest anti-wind-farm laws in 2011: amendments to planning laws ban wind-farms in the windiest parts of the state and give householders within 2 kilometres of proposed turbines the right of veto. These laws have stalled Victoria’s wind energy sector—costing up to 408 MW of generation capacity, thousands of jobs and millions of dollars’ worth of investment. Government restrictions on wind-farms lend credibility to the anti-wind-farm campaign and build the narrative that the 2km set-back must be a measurement of what is a safe operating distance. The Victorian Labour Party has stated they will revoke these laws when elected.[x]

 

Civil sector groups have responded to the emergence of anti-wind-farm activism developments; Friends of the Earth’s Yes 2 Renewables project is engaged in the debate—holding anti-wind-farm groups and politicians to account for misinformation and working in communities where anti-wind campaigners have sparked fear. Hepburn Wind acts in a similar way but more locally specific way. 

 

CASE STUDY 1: HEPBURN WIND

 

The Hepburn Community Wind-farm is Australia’s first community-owned renewable energy project. New Community Quarterly features a case study in 2011[xi], detailing the community development process that built the wind-farm in Leonard’s Hill, Victoria. The wind-farm has now been generating for over two years and is delivering on its promises to the community. However, political instability on a local, state and federal level has affected the ground-level operating environment.

 

Hepburn Wind’s successful journey to build its wind-farm in a challenging socio-political climate received global recognition at the World Wind Energy Association’s June 2012 Conference in Bonn, Germany, being awarded the World Wind Energy Award for best global project. The WWEA recognised the vision and efforts of the local community that worked in the face of considerable odds to introduce the community wind-farm model to Australia, making particular mention of the project’s role in initiating the community energy movement across the country. “Seen from outside of Australia, the project may appear small,” said Stefan Gsänger, Secretary of the WWEA, “however, the Hepburn Community Wind-farm stands for a social movement outside the strong fossil lobby in Australia.”

 

Having mobilised engaged supporters can result in political power for community energy, which is imperative for this emerging sector and for the broader renewables movement, especially under constantly changing policy conditions. In September 2012, 720 Hepburn Wind supporters took the time to make a submission to the Climate Change Authority, a simple action which had a tangible outcome – a loud community voice asked for the national Renewable Energy Target to be increased and advocated that the Target include special consideration for community energy projects.

 

Being the wind-farm closest to Melbourne, Hepburn Wind plays a role in demystifying this clean energy technology through accessibility to wind-farm and community engagement events. Small actions, such as painting the turbines, naming them and giving them ‘personalities’ has warmed the public to the wind-farm; in February 2013, Melbourne-based artist Ghostpatrol donated his time to paint a mural on Gale (the turbine formerly known as T1)[xii]. Ghostpatrol’s work culminated in an event where 320 supporters viewed the live painting as part of the annual Sustainable Living Festival held in cities and towns throughout Victoria.

 

In March 2013, during Hepburn Wind’s local Shire’s public consultation process to develop their strategic plan, non-locals sparked discord as they attempted to hijack the local consultation process with a dramatic demand calling for the turbines to be pulled down. Hepburn Wind responded through the social media, managing to send their idea ‘viral’ and it obtained the most votes of all suggestions – logging 646 votes in total. They suggested Council do more to harness the local renewable energy resources: “Council should work to develop a plan to capture our renewable energy resource. The Hepburn Community Wind-farm is already generating more power on average than the homes of Daylesford use. By 2020 our shire could be a net exporter of energy.”

 

The Hepburn Wind community fund supports a positive narrative of wind energy; three years into the annual grant, 2013 saw a much higher amount of environmental projects. Four applications featured energy, showing that the consciousness around renewables, community energy and energy efficiency is growing within the region.

 

Looking forward, the realities of the present political environment differ from those at the time when the project was conceived and built; indeed, the project was conceived with bipartisan support for the RET, carbon reductions and climate change. The views of the present federal government are sceptical of or in disagreement with all three of these areas and this has financial implications for the co-operative of ‘mum-and-dad’ investors. The community wind-farm suffers risks from this new operating environment; [xiii] however, we will continue to work to strengthen the organisation and empower the local community.

 

CASE STUDY 2: YES 2 RENEWABLES

 

Yes 2 Renewables is an initiative of Friends of the Earth (FOE) Melbourne; it is a campaign for increased renewable energy generation in the State of Victoria based on FOE’s concern about climate change.

 

The campaign aims to put the Coalition government’s anti-wind-farm laws on the agenda and build public support for their repeal. An ancillary objective is to frustrate the anti-wind-farm campaign and build the counter narrative that wind energy is safe and well supported. Between June 2012 and December 2013, the campaign focused on Central Victoria, FOE partnering with a local environment group—BEAM (Broadford Environmental Action Movement) - Mitchell Environment Group—to counter anti-wind-farm activists opposed to the Cherry Tree Range wind-farm proposed for Trawool, Victoria. 

 

Anti-wind-farm groups had dogged the Cherry Tree Range wind-farm proposal from the start, starting with a scare campaign at a town hall meeting organised by the Trawool-Whiteheads Creek Landscape Guardians, stacked with known anti-wind-farm presenters from outside the municipality. The anti-wind-farm lobby exploited the planning process to create an impression of widely-held community opposition to the wind-farm, with the external wind-farm opponents participating throughout, artificially inflating the number of those rejecting the proposal and stacking the planning submissions. In the end, the Mitchell Shire registered 117 objections to the wind-farm planning application. The large number of submissions illustrates a high level of coordination from anti-wind-farm campaigners and the powerful impact of their scare campaign.[xiv]

 

Fearing a political backlash, Mitchell Shire Councillors refused to vote on the Cherry Tree Range planning application, ignoring the Shire planning department’s recommended approval as well as the endorsements of the Mitchell Shire Environment Committee and BEAM-Mitchell Environment Group. Failure to vote on the project allowed the proponents to take the application to the independent planning arbiter, the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT), which required Councillors to vote on the project as a matter of procedure. Mitchell councillors unanimously objected to the Cherry Tree Range planning application. 

 

Legal proceedings at VCAT allowed the Landscape Guardians and Waubra Foundation to join Council as party to proceedings, thus co-opting the hearing, slowing down the decision making process at every turn to inflate the costs to the proponent. Though the Mitchell Council objected to the wind-farm on planning grounds only, the alleged health impacts from wind energy emphasised by the additional parties dominated the hearings.

 

Yes 2 Renewables’ first intervened in the community debate in September 2012, by attending the town hall meeting presented by wind-farm opponents, initially limiting its engagement to media contributions. There were four aspects of the communications strategy: countering misinformation about wind energy; revealing the hidden background of anti-wind activists; emphasizing the benefits of wind energy projects; and reframing the debate from one narrowly focused on the wind-farm—which evokes a divisive ‘for/against’, ‘us/them’ dynamic—to a broader framing about energy choices. This frame explained the wind-farm proposal as the local manifestation of a choice society must make about the future of our energy supply and the implications of our decisions—i.e.: a future of fossil fuels, pollution and climate change compared to renewable energy, a cleaner environment, jobs and income for regional economies.

 

Yes 2 Renewables (Y2R) directly engaged with the community once BEAM-Mitchell Environment Group requested assistance, holding ten ‘listening post’ stalls in the region between October 2012 and November 2013—including two joined Y2R/BEAM stalls, which allowed wind-farm supported to re-engage with locals on this issue through listening. Stallholders would speak with passers-by about their views of wind energy as a starting point for dialogue. Stalls made wind energy fact sheets available to the public as well as other supporting documentation.  

 

Y2R/BEAM also created a ‘myth-busting’ flier refuting the misinformation circulated by anti-wind groups and BEAM raised enough money to print and distribute 20,000 copies of the flier throughout the Mitchell Shire. The success of the myth-busting flier led to identifying other options for BEAM’s participation in the planning process and community debate. BEAM decided early on that they would not join Infigen as a party at VCAT, as the group wanted to maintain its independence from the proponent, Y2R adopting the same position and both attending the VCAT hearings as observers. Representatives attended most of the hearing days throughout 2013, the only formal contribution made to the VCAT hearing by BEAM being a letter to the Chair, pointing to research on wind-farms and health from public health agencies and academics.

 

The crescendo of the joint Y2R/BEAM campaign was a positive Energy Futures Forum event held in Seymour in November 2013, placing the wind energy issue in a larger context. It featured speakers on energy use in the home, the impacts of fossil fuel extraction (unconventional gas) in Victoria, community-owned renewable energy, a wind-farmer and a Councillor with a wind-farm in their Shire.

 

Later, in November 2013, VCAT approved the Cherry Tree Range wind-farm.[xv] The successful Y2R campaign, which demonstrated strong community support and involvement, prevented professional opponents from building enough public pressure to force the proponent to walk away from the project. It also prevented the anti-wind campaign from claiming VCAT and the proponent was acting out of step with the community’s interests. 

 

Looking ahead, assistance will be needed to empower BEAM to deal with the issues that emerge during the construction and operations phases, including the potential for Y2R to assist BEAM with their stated goal of building bridges with wind-farm opponents.

 

LEARNINGS

 

There are several key lessons to be drawn from the Hepburn Wind and Y2R case studies in community engagement, the more important ones follow below.

 

Advocacy from independent or high-credibility groups

 

Developers have limited ability to engage with the community in local politics; though proponents may attempt to combat misinformation, opponents can make the argument that developers are merely acting in self-interest. As well, wind-farm developers are in the business of development—which involves energy market forecasting, project planning, engineering, construction and finance - and not in the business of political activism and campaigning. Wind-farm developers are at a disadvantage when pitted against seasoned anti-wind-farm campaigners who are not accountable in the same way as developers are.

 

Advocates can do the work that developers can’t. There is a clear need for advocates who are independent from the proponent, such as Y2R and BEAM, or who are highly credible. When the proponent is the advocate, as is the case with Hepburn Wind, a high degree of credibility is needed. Hepburn Wind’s small scale and community-ownership model diminished the arguments that the entity is self-interested, reinforcing the benefits of the wind-farm for the community. It is difficult for large commercial entities to attain this credibility. Looking forward to trends – for larger-sized wind-farm developments, to build long term community acceptance it is important to share the benefits more widely with surrounding communities. Community grants, allowing local ownership, or more holistic shares in the equity (via gifted shares or cheaper electricity) from a neighbouring wind-farm would enable communities to perceive these large developments in a more positive light over the lifecycle of the projects.

 

Community ‘translators’ of technical knowledge

 

The wind-farm debate is often laden with technical terms and concepts that test the limits of public comprehension. The anti-wind-farm campaign trumpets pseudo-science and uses an expert discourse to present themselves as trustworthy experts on public health, economics and the technical performance of turbines. This communications strategy creates an air of mysticism around wind energy—confusing the community and obfuscating rational debate.

 

To draw on a term used by Australian Greens leader Christine Milne in her speech at the 2013 Clean Energy Week conference[xvi], Y2R and Hepburn Wind act as ‘translators’—explaining technical information to the local community in a simple yet accurate way, allowing for misinformation to be addressed. Hepburn Wind has held numerous open days and wind-farm tours, as well as face-to-face dialogue in local settings to demystify the technology and engages with any opposition with face-to-face dialogue and compassion. Y2R listening posts and myth-busting fliers stressed the use of plain English to ensure the widest possible audience could grasp reputable information. 

 

Bottom-up campaigning - Strong local voices

 

Y2R collaborated with existing networks who were supportive of renewable energy and the concept of a wind-farm in their region; rather than starting from scratch, they built capacity and offered strategic support/tactical guidance, amplifying BEAM’s impact. This approach had the additional advantage of harnessing authentic local voices with a track record in the community and proven independence from the proponents. Having people engaged in advocacy who are accountable in their community provides a point of differentiation from the anti-wind-farm campaigners from out of town.

 

Hepburn Winds employees are local and any issues are dealt with on a local level – this enables them to be available within their community to handle all issues.

 

Collaboration and leading from behind

 

Y2R approached the relationship with BEAM as a collaboration; while they provided ideas and advice, it was BEAM who decided which initiatives were valuable; they let BEAM take the lead and acted as a resource working with local knowledge and the group’s own capacity. This relationship took time to cultivate: a public forum had been suggested to be of possible help almost 12 months prior to the November 16 Energy Futures Forum. At the time the event was initially canvassed, BEAM did not have the confidence, capacity or interest in it; yet in September 2013, it fully supported a pubic ‘town hall’ meeting.  

 

Direct action: Showing, not telling

 

In the 2010 book Strategy and Soul, Daniel Hunter offers a definition of direct action as ‘showing, not telling.’ For Hunter, direct action contrasts with monologue proselytising as it requires advocates to embody their values. Both Hepburn Wind and Y2R used this approach, which allowed the community to compare and contrast the actions of wind-farm advocates with the monologue proselytising of the anti-wind campaign.

 

Hepburn Wind has a strong local focus and aims to treat discontent with compassion; the organisation takes pride in its transparency, ensuring that all of its compliance reports are publically available and working to always build bridges in the community. Due to this, they choose not to engage in the local media discourse – but the door is always open for respectful conversation.

 

Throughout the Cherry Tree Range campaign, Y2R embodied openness with listening posts and an open ear to people’s views on wind energy; their myth-busting flier including a detailed list of references demonstrated trustworthiness and transparency. Hepburn Wind and Y2R demystified the wind energy technology with wind-farm open days and tours—by showing people the technology, not just talking about it.

 

CONCLUSION

 

Australia must increase its wind energy capacity to address climate change and transition away from polluting fossil fuels. Local champions are needed to combat the anti-wind-farm campaign that obfuscates development and demonstrate support. This paper provided a historical background to the emergence of the anti-wind-farm campaigning in Australia. It presented two case studies—one from a proponent’s point of view and another from that of an advocacy group—detailing community engagement for two diverse wind-farms. They outline the steps taken to respond to misinformation, demystify wind energy technology and build support within communities. Several lessons from these experiences were presented to benefit those involved in community engagement for renewable energy developments. While the anti-wind-farm campaign had the ascendancy from 2008 to 2012, the successes of Hepburn Wind and Y2R mark a turning point in the political battle surrounding wind energy. 



[i] Chapman, S (2013) ‘Summary of main conclusions reached in 19 reviews of the research literature on wind-farms and health’, Tobacco Control Supersite, URL http://tobacco.health.usyd.edu.au/assets/pdfs/publications/WindHealthReviews.pdf, accessed 10/11/13.

[ii] Diesendorf, M (2014) Sustainable Energy Solutions for Climate Change (UNSW Press: Sydney)

[iii] Australian Energy Market Operator (2013) Integrating Renewable Energy: Wind Integration Studies Report, URL http://www.aemo.com.au/Electricity/Planning/Related-Information/Wind-Integration-Investigation, accessed 17/12/13

[iv]Chapman S, St. George A, Waller K, Cakic V (2013) ‘The Pattern of Complaints about Australian Wind-farms Does Not Match the Establishment and Distribution of Turbines: Support for the Psychogenic, ‘Communicated Disease’ Hypothesis’, PLoS ONE 8(10): e76584. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0076584

[v] Chapman, S (2011) ‘The web of vested interests behind the anti-wind-farm lobby’, Crikey, URL http://www.crikey.com.au/2011/10/13/the-web-of-vested-interests-behind-the-anti-wind-farm-lobby/, accessed 4/12/13

[vi] Sercome, M (2012) ‘A Field Guide To The War On Wind Power’, The Global Mail, URL http://www.theglobalmail.org/feature/a-field-guide-to-the-war-on-wind-power/406/, accessed 4/12/13

[vii]Chapman S, St. George A, Waller K, Cakic V (2013) ‘The Pattern of Complaints about Australian Wind-farms Does Not Match the Establishment and Distribution of Turbines: Support for the Psychogenic, ‘Communicated Disease’ Hypothesis’, PLoS ONE 8(10): e76584. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0076584

[viii] Pierpont N (2009) Wind Turbine Syndrome. A report on a natural experiment. Available: http://www.windturbinesyndrome.com/, accessed 4/12/13.

[ix]http://richard-di-natale.greensmps.org.au/content/media-releases/abbott%E2%80%99s-fear-mongering-wind-farms-dangerous-and-reckless-greens

[x]http://www.businessspectator.com.au/news/2013/10/17/policy-politics/vic-labor-would-ease-wind-farm-laws

[xi] New Community Quarterly, Volume 9 Number 4, Issue 36

[xii]thepaintingofgale.com

[xiii]22 November 2013, Hepburn Wind submission, Senate Standing Committees on Environment and Communications Clean Energy Legislation (Carbon Tax Repeal) Bill 2013.

[xiv]Green, M (2013) ‘Into the wind’, The Age, 18/12/13

[xv] Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (2013), Cherry Tree Wind-farm Pty Ltd v Mitchell Shire Council

https://www.vcat.vic.gov.au/resources/document/cherry-tree-wind-farm-pty-ltd-v-mitchell-shire-council

[xvi] http://www.cleanenergyweek.com.au/presentations/cew-day-1.html

The picture title is 'Hepburn Wind 2013, the painting of Gale'.