Can you see the connection between long drives, errant dogs and a 2020 wind farm planning permit in Victoria? And how did hundreds of cuppas (plus homemade biscuits) contribute to achieving approval without a single objection?
The answers lie in comprehensive planning, honest discussions and two years of persistent effort to communicate and collaborate with those most affected by the plans.
Back in 2018, the tiny Jung community was abuzz. BayWa.r.e. was proposing to turn their two nearby turbines into fifty. Was this progress? Or an unwanted intrusion on yet another rural landscape. Nobody in Jung knew for sure. Some residents were optimistic, others concerned. Everyone had questions.
You’ve probably driven past towns like Jung and never realised they were there. One hall, a church, a tiny playground, quiet streets, homes hidden behind towering gum trees and farmhouses scattered across a vast Australian landscape.
Jung is miles from anywhere, a rural slice of Australia quietly going about its business, feeding the nation. But, its residents wondered, were their concerns about to be sidelined by the greater good?
Renewable energy generation has recently catapulted to the forefront of the Australian consciousness. Federal and State governments have set ambitious targets for net zero carbon emissions by 2050 — and renewable wind and solar developers are an essential ingredient in the process. Yet, even with the unprecedented need for haste, sustainable energy projects cannot happen overnight. It takes years of planning and development to apply for planning approval, let alone begin constructing an energy farm.
But no matter how much planning you do in the office — or even out on site — your application may fall at the first hurdle if the affected community is not onside. However, the results can be extraordinary when you include extensive community consultation in your plans.
That’s why consultation was a core part of my brief when a global renewable energy developer sought wind farm approval from the Victorian government.
People worry when there’s a proposal for a wind or solar farm on their doorstep. Jung residents had all the common concerns around the visual impact and noise pollution in the area, wondering how these would impact their families and businesses, not to mention the effect on native bats and birds.
Worries around construction traffic and damage to roading infrastructure loomed large, too. Would the traffic impact the school bus route or render narrow rural roads unsafe?
But apart from all these legitimate concerns, many residents were interested in the renewable energy community benefits and how the wind farm could enhance rather than detract from life in Jung.
We embarked on a solid community engagement campaign to address all the questions. So, for two years, it became my job to contact, listen, communicate and explain every aspect of the Wimmera Plains wind farm’s planning, construction and operation process to each of the 240+ people in town and the wider rural region of Jung.
As part of this project, BayWa wanted to focus on addressing the traditional inequities around wind farm compensations which often see payments going to the landowners, while their tenants and neighbours cope with much of the disruption.
So we proposed to introduce a Community Benefit Fund and a Neighbour Benefit Scheme to address the problem.
Renewable energy community benefits are voluntary arrangements set up by the developers to benefit the whole community. Wind farm developers pay an agreed amount per megawatt hour of energy produced, and a local community body such as the Country Fire Authority administers the funds. Alternatively, the community may set up a specially elected group to look after and allocate the funds.
This fund proposal proved to be an excellent discussion starter, and in talking through the issues, we would also offer advice on how these entities work best.
Neighbour benefits go to people who would be directly affected by their proximity to the wind farm if it was built. They include various options and usually hinge on how close you live to the farm. Houses within a certain distance often qualify for an annual payment (which lessens the further out you get from the farm.) Other options include providing free solar roof panels or water purifiers or perhaps even landscaping on a property to hide the turbines from view.
Many of these rural houses are rented to farm workers, so we looked for possibilities that would benefit both tenants and landlords.
Rural consultations are a far cry from the formal conferences you may hold in towns and cities. As well as having formal drop-in meetings at the local hall, I visited each household several times during the two-year consultation period.
But while visiting houses in a country village is relatively easy, widely scattered rural properties present more of a challenge.
Your first visit is tricky. Finding the house is the first hurdle; locating people on the property, is the second. Walking up the half-kilometre driveway — you seem less threatening when you arrive on foot — comes third
Locating the right door is also a challenge in the country. Many rural people don’t use their front doors, so it’s best to wander around until you find one with boots beside it. If no one answers, you start towards the sheds. That’s when the dogs come running. With no humans in evidence, you fold all your papers into a bundle and wedge them in the door, hoping the dogs will leave it (and you) alone as you hike back down the drive. Most dogs return to their kennels at that point, but one dog is forever etched on my mind.
On this particular day, I left my partner and our two dogs parked on the roadside and trudged up yet another dusty drive towards a distant farmhouse. Pounding on the back door brought no response at first, then out came the friendliest dog in the world, who decided it would be fun to accompany me back down the drive.
“Go home!” I commanded. “Go home!” He wagged his tail and stayed by my heels. There was nothing to do but carry on and hope that he’d stop at the end of the driveway.
The dog had other ideas. Back at the car, he jumped straight in the door and refused to leave. With my dogs barking in the back and him firmly ensconced in the front, there was only one thing to do. I grabbed a can of dog food, teased the dog out of the open window and fed him on the side of the road. Then I leapt into the car, and we took off. When I looked back, he was strolling back up the driveway, well-satisfied with his adventure.
Planning involves thinking through the issues before they arise, which was one of the key drivers of success in this Victorian wind farm development. Continuity — having one point of contact people could trust — was another.
My Jung visiting kit included large, laminated photo montages of the landscape as it would look with the wind turbines up and running. So, whenever people were concerned about the visual impact, we produced montages from all possible viewpoints.
We’d also given much thought to traffic issues and produced many fact sheets detailing how the company would manage traffic during the construction phase and how they planned to improve the roads. Giving Jung residents comprehensive but easily understood information in advance appeased most people’s traffic concerns.
However, effective discussions require genuine communication. So, although we had plenty of engagement at the drop-in sessions, the real breakthroughs often happened in country kitchens over a cuppa and a homemade biscuit.
As I got to know people over the two years, these chats helped me understand and address everyone’s concerns. Often, I’d start by acknowledging their right to object and explain how to make a formal objection. Then we’d talk through scenarios. “Let’s just suppose the wind farm is a done deal — what that would be like for you and how we can address your concerns?”
Framing these as conversations where people felt seen and heard reduced much of the angst. At the same time, many Jung residents could see great possibilities in the community benefit scheme and that encouraged them to open more dialogue and keep the momentum going.
Finally, in 2020, the wind farm planning permit was approved without a single objection.
Achieving an objection-free wind farm approval in Victoria is a significant achievement. Having one point of contact — or a single team, such as NGH provides — establishes trust with and between communities, local and government agencies and clients.
Three essential ingredients to winning community approval are persistence, thoughtful planning and honest communication, all underpinned by taking enough time to listen, acknowledge and act on concerns. Going in early and continually talking to everyone well before you lodge planning has real value for your client and the community.
Engage an NGH team at the outset for maximum efficiency and a cost-effective impact on your next Victoria wind farm development.