Best practice community consultation guidelines developed for big solar

New research commissioned by the Australian Renewable Energy Agency has outlined a process for large-scale solar farm proponents to gain greater community support for projects and achieve a solid social licence to operate.

Utility-scale solar installations: social license to operate in Australia also reveals that while the majority of Australians support big solar, a substantial proportion have no clear idea what it actually looks like, and some are not even aware there are projects up and running.

Undertaken by IPSOS, the research involved focus groups representing a broad cross-section of the community in both major capital cities and regional areas, including Broken Hill and Geraldton, where projects are currently under construction.

One of the key findings was that there were higher levels of support for solar energy than any other form of electricity generation, including wind, hydropower and coal, with more than three-quarters of respondents in favour of either domestic rooftop or large-scale solar projects.

Participants were also strongly in favour of government support for large-scale projects, with 71 per cent saying the government should assist with funding for large-scale projects and only five per cent not in favour of any public funding. Sixty per cent said funding for solar should take priority over funding for non-renewable energy sources.

Despite a number of large-scale solar projects under construction or recently completed, including the Nyngan solar farm and Canberra’s Royalla Solar Farm, 19 per cent had never heard of large scale solar installations being built in Australia.

In terms of project proponents achieving a social licence to operate, the degree of community awareness of the scope of the project, the potential for job creation and flow-on economic benefits during construction and the operational phase, and information on potential environmental or health effects were identified as critical.

The efficiency, capacity and reliability of large-scale solar is also a concern that needs to be addressed, with general perceptions widespread that solar is not reliable and the technology prone to faults.

Almost half of respondents agreed that large scale solar facilities had a positive impact on the local economy, and over half agreed that they had a positive impact on the environment, with 63 per cent further saying that increasing the number of projects would reduce Australia’s carbon emissions.

Many thought having large-scale solar near or in the community would lead to a reduction in power bills for local residents.

One finding was that people in smaller communities tended to be more positive about the economic impact of projects in terms of job creation and flow-on benefits, such as the provision of food or accommodation for workers.

The researchers identified this as a matter of scale – in a smaller community, where the narratives are often about job losses in mining or declining agricultural returns, a project that employs between 200-300 people (the average construction workforce for current large-scale projects) has a major economic benefit.

“The size of the community living near a large scale solar facility appears to have a direct relationship to the level of community support for its development, with smaller communities being more highly engaged that larger ones. This was evidenced by greater attendance at community meetings in smaller towns,” the researchers said.

“In smaller communities, solar facilities have a greater impact on the economic and social fabric of the town due to the relatively larger impact in terms of both local employment and additional spending in the community.”

The major obstacle to projects identified by the research is the “NIMBY bias”, people who support the idea of a project in principle, but become vocal opponents when it is proposed to be built near them.

“There appears to be willingness to trade-off features of large scale solar energy facilities that are considered undesirable if certain aspects can be proven to be an advantage. This is especially relevant with regards to visual, efficiency and reliability concerns. If efficiency and reliability can be demonstrated, other drawbacks are willing to be overlooked,” the researchers said.

“…addressing messages of productivity, efficiency and reliability underpin much of the precursors for public support of large scale solar energy facilities in Australia.”

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