ACCIONA’s Mount Gellibrand Wind Farm highlights the importance of community engagement when developing a renewable energy project.
Clean Energy Council member ACCIONA is currently constructing the Mt Gellibrand Wind Farm 25 km east of Colac and 17 km west of Winchelsea on Victoria’s Western Plains. The $258 million project will deliver up to 132 MW of new capacity and is due to be completed in mid-2018. More than 100 construction jobs and approximately 10 ongoing full-time equivalent positions demonstrate the positive economic impact of the project.
All of this is made possible through the cooperation and support of the local community, with whom the company has built productive relationships.
“We have spent many years getting to know the local people and making sure they understand our aims and challenges throughout the process,” said Kirsten Lee, Community Relations Coordinator for ACCIONA Energy Australia.
“It’s crucial to get to know people from day one, not only because we need their support, but also because we can learn from them and take on board useful advice on how to go about our business. We are here for the long term, so we seek to build long-term relationships.”
Since its entry into the Australian market over a decade ago, ACCIONA has learnt many important lessons, particularly when it comes to its social licence to operate.
“We have learned to be as transparent as possible from the start,” Ms Lee explains. “Community engagement is certainly not a one-size-fits-all approach, but you always need to be open and honest. You also need to understand the specifics of each community, the people that live where you want to work and the local conditions that may be very different to another project somewhere else.”
A key task is investing the right resources into community relations from the outset. It cannot be an afterthought, but must be properly planned and funded, with sufficient resources to ensure that relationships with local people are frequent and not intermittent.
There is also the expectation to back up any words with consistent actions and actually demonstrate community support beyond mere statements. To that end, ACCIONA has been providing financial support to local groups in the Mt Gellibrand area since 2009. This can mean sponsoring everything from local community organisations to sporting clubs and one-off events.
“You have to be prepared to get fully involved in community activities in order to strengthen relationships,” Ms Lee explains. “For example, as well as the sponsorships and an upcoming community benefit fund, we also invest in payments to landowners hosting our wind turbines and education opportunities once the wind farm becomes operational. Once everything is up and running, the local council benefits from an increase in the base rate too.
“In addition to this, we work hard at communicating with the community. We use the usual tools such as newsletters, a 1800 hotline number and a project email address to make it as easy as possible for people to get in touch. We also work with the local media to make sure people know what is happening and attend local events and festivals so we can keep talking to the community at various times and places. Most importantly though, we make sure that our operations team is equipped and empowered to represent and communicate on behalf of the company once the project is up and running. In the end, they are the ones that are living in the community and we encourage them to take an active role in it.”
The Mt Gellibrand Wind Farm will inject approximately $10 million into the local economy during construction and will continue to benefit the community for many years to come.
About the company
ACCIONA has been operating in Australia since 2002, with its main activities in the infrastructure, renewable energy and water sectors. ACCIONA has directly invested more than $1 billion in Australia and employs more than 1000 people locally.
For a global company such as ACCIONA, focusing on specific local factors in every project is key to positive community relations and a successful business model. Whether it’s building a railway tunnel in Norway, a desalination plant in the UAE or a solar farm in the USA, the way the company relates to local communities is a crucial aspect of its work.