29 May 2012

Should there be a conflict between communities and power infrastructure

Why are communities so alienated from energy infrastructure?
How can we better work with communities so they better understand the need for and benefits of energy infrastructure?

Aim is to have some thought provoking discussions in this sessions - to be interactive and engaging.

José Peralta, REN

  • Electricity is widely recognised as valuable, but we tend to value losses - feel them more intensely - more than to benefits/positives.
  • Engaging stakeholders has been an important approach for us. We have to listen. few principles important - to understand their importance, their motivations, to start as early as possible contacts and engagement, you must be consistent and trustworthy (even when you disagree, and always explain your position).
  • We use SEA and during this process we have learnt how to communicate and receive community contribution in our planning and procedures, including implementation stages.
Michel Bérubé, Hydro Quebec
  • Shift in strategies for environmental causes it is not about the truth but about who is listened to and what their priorities are.
  • Proponents thought that doing a scientific EIA they had done their homework in delivering a benefit to society and communities.
  • EIAs have become very detailed and tedious for the general public, they are bored by the technical arguments and discussions.
  • EIAs always had a weak part in impact prediction and opponents have provided "apocalyptic" scenarios of what will happen if it went ahead.
  • Now there is more engagement however while this is good there is a danger that the process becomes a forum for well organised and funded organisations.
  • Dangers but opportunities for better and more sustainable design.
Francisco Parada, CIGRE

  • CIGRE was initially focused on studying electrical equipment but now also also focuses on planning, regulatory systems and environmental issues.
  • Try to understand what are the best practices in relation to EIA and power generation and operation.

Questions from the audience:

  • As massive prices in oil, which affects all fuels, likely to increase conflict, can smart grids empower people by choosing cheaper tariffs, and can it help reduce conflict; any experience of willingness to pay for greener energy sources as in Hong Kong the is a gap between wanting greener energy but not wiling to pay?
  • In power transmission projects the is generally an issue of land take from local people and any experiences of how communities have been engaged in developing a right of way?
  • To what extent does aesthetics play a part, often energy infrastructure is brutally functional and ugly, any experience of a design competition or better designs reducing community concerns?
  • Often populations are excluded in siting processes e.g. the call for offer approach which is a highly speculative approach used in Quebec; what do you think of this way of developing projects?
Responses from panel

  • Two-way energy distribution and integrated energy grid will be important. Will empower people to choose their power and decarbonise their energy use.
  • Land take issues in Portugal are enshrined in law, this is the start point e.g. compensation. We try and avoid the impact. We work with landowners to minimise the impacts by taking great care in identifying and negotiating these issues even before the technical part of the project.
  • Aesthetics - two viable strategies; hiding it or making it a monument in the landscape; but creating sculpturing forms is very expensive; most. Often its the first strategy that is used e.g. using transparent materials, masking, etc. Infrastructure that is aesthetic can increase acceptance. But some people don't even like these solutions. It's a subjective thing. It's a conflict between engineers interested in functional and cheap while architects are interested in beautiful and different and can't be generalised and used elsewhere. Companies are not really geared up to have a good collaboration between engineers and architects.
  • NGOs and citizens not always having the same interests. In Quebec, wind farms were developed in the context of promoting wind farms and whether it should be led by public sector or private sector. Problem of wider benefits but localised negatives e.g. visual impacts can be annoying. Similarly, a recent community protests that used social media e.g. Twitter which companies and government find difficult to to react to quickly.
  • Calls for offer are problematic a good example is Ireland where they are looking strategically at siting locations and to identify which areas were more acceptable to communities that did not have heritage or environmental concerns.

Questions from the audience:
  • In California, EIA can be und taken by the applicant or the State (or local regulatory authority) can take the lead role with applicant being just anoth stakeholder (apart from input into project description), this has tended to reduce the level of community protest/concern. Do you feel that is a better approach?
  • Communities don't feel they have power to make decisions. How could we given power to communities to make decisions and then the role of companies is to deliver the decisions?
  • It's very important to listen to stakeholders but what if they don't want to listen to us, to open the door to us. Do you have any thoughts on resolving these situations?
  • Is there an acceptable international standard on what share of benefits flow to local communities?
  • In Belgium they are connecting offshore wind farm to the grid and the debate about overhead and underground power lines and the concern is about the health impact?


Response from panel

  • If local authorities are not involved from the beginning then the process can be more difficult so agree that public sector playing a leading part is important.
  • Cultural, social and political contexts are different, so stakeholder approaches are different...
  • Environmental standard have developed because they don't trust the government as well as companies. So a lot of environmental groups want to establish international standards but this is difficult given the different country contexts. Public sector leads then it takes a lot longer to develop the project. If a project is standardised then this is feasible but the more unique the more challenging to do the EA.
  • There is ongoing debate and research on EMF and health related to overhead and underground transmission lines.
  • You have to be consistent and trustworthy, in one project things went wrong, instead of having a meting in our HQ we to the Mayor and went to the Town Hall which had a crowd of people mobilised by leaflets and other media. We had the meeting and explained our positions rather than trying to play people and trying and outmanoevor them.

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