Energy projects need to balance environmental and community concerns

Last week, the UK Government’s Department for Communities and Local Government (DCLG) issued new planning guidance, which emphasised the importance of balancing renewable energy projects against other environmental concerns. It noted that “renewable energy does not automatically override environmental protection and the planning concerns of local communities.”

 

While the advantages of developing renewable energy may be relatively clear, others such as shale gas exploration offer less certain benefits to local communities who are increasingly vocal against the perceived growing intrusion of such developments. An approximate population density of over 250 people per sq. km in the UK increases the chances energy projects are going to cause interruption and disruption to communities.  Communities Minister, Baroness Hanham, recently highlighted that there are genuine concerns that planning officers are failing to properly consider the environmental considerations on the landscape and ‘local amenity’ of proposed renewable energy sites. In addition to this, the on-going media frenzy that is accompanying the fracking debate and proposed drilling sites means the stage is set for a protracted period of demonstrations and confrontations if more is not done to include communities at the early stages of planning.

 

Energy companies though are starting to recognise just how significant local communities’ concerns are in this area. For example, they have begun to offer communities who live near shale gas sites £10m each for fracking in their region – under the term ‘community benefits’. The UK Onshore Operators Group confirmed communities will be given a one-off payment of £100,000 when an exploratory well is drilled. If the drill proves successful and starts produced shale gas, the community will receive around one per cent of revenues, up to £10m over 10 to 25 years.

 

However, protests at potential fracking sites near Balcombe in West Sussex is testament to the fact that the local community refuses to back down nor apparently can their concerns be overcome with the prospect of cash injections alone. In addition, 15 Tory and Lib Dem MPs queued up in a lengthy parliamentary debate over concerns of their constituents regarding developing energy projects in their region.

 

While the directions from the DCLG is a step in the right direction, in addition to government licences and planning permission from local authorities, there is a real need to get ‘social licences’ for renewable and other energy related developments from the local communities that they will impact. This will involve obtaining early buy-in from the communities, not just relying solely on governmental regulations. True consultation and the provision of relevant information before sites are chosen may go along way of assuaging community concerns. In the past, energy companies may have considered obtaining local buy-in as important, but it may now become a necessity in the success or otherwise of their projects. Ultimately, without consultation with local communities and stakeholders and at least some form of acceptance, these developers will have a huge fight on their hands – one played out in the full glare of national and international media – when people are lying down in front of earth moving machines, it is often the sign of a PR battle and argument lost!

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