For this New Energy Expert Insights, we sat down with the Australian Energy Infrastructure Commissioner, Andrew Dyer, to discuss his experiences with community engagement during Australia’s renewable energy transition.
What is the role of the Australian Energy Infrastructure Commissioner (AEIC)?
The Commissioner’s primary role is to:
- facilitate the referral and resolution of complaints received from concerned residents about proposed or operating wind farms (onshore and offshore), large-scale solar farms, energy storage facilities, pumped hydro, and new, long-distance high voltage transmission projects;
- provide and promote greater transparency on information related to the development and operation of these projects; and
- identify and promote best practices related to the planning, development, construction and operation of projects, including guidelines, planning standards and compliance, complaint handling procedures, landholder and neighbour relationships, and engagement with landholders and the broader community.
The Commissioner’s role is independent. It is funded by the Australian Government, reporting to the Minister for Climate Change and Energy, and provides an Annual Report each calendar year to the Federal Parliament.
The role has no formal powers or authority. The Commissioner relies entirely on the relationships that have been developed with all of the key stakeholders, the results of our work and our reputation. The absence of any formal authority or powers can be quite an asset. When you have powers, they are often subject to challenge, which can be a major distraction.
How has the AEIC’s role developed over time?
My role initially commenced as the National Wind Farm Commissioner. It was created in 2015, in response to a Senate Select Committee’s inquiry into wind turbines, held during 2014-15. I was appointed in October 2015 and commenced on 1 November 2015.
Towards the end of that initial three-year term, the government reviewed the role and recommended that the role be renewed for a further three-years, with an expanded mandate to include large-scale solar farms and energy storage facilities. The role was expanded further again in March 2021, to include new, large-scale transmission projects, and was extended until late 2025.
In July 2023, I was asked to lead a review of community engagement, in particular with regard to the significant energy transition required across Australia. I completed that review in December 2023.
What are some key challenges developers or operators face when engaging with a community?
Community engagement needs to be tailored to the community. Proponents, often with employees based in a city, may design a well-intentioned community benefit scheme that does not work out so well when implementing the scheme in rural Australia.
For example, a windfarm proponent, as part of its overall community benefit program, offered a choice of either a rooftop solar or a solar hot solar system to the windfarm’s neighbours. The program required the neighbour to obtain three quotes for their chosen solar system. That was a difficult requirement for the neighbours to meet – for those of us that have lived in rural Australia, you are lucky to be able to get one quote from a willing supplier – three quotes may not be practical in the locality of the windfarm.
Further, the program had been budgeted over a three-year period, requiring neighbours to be “wait-listed” for the budget funds to become available. And, when the funds did become available, the quotes had expired and the process had to be restarted again.
The administrative process was too bureaucratic and, while completely understandable from a controls point of view, was impractical for the neighbours. What should have been a popular benefit sharing program for the project’s neighbours became, instead, a nightmare for the recipients to navigate.
A much better approach is to involve some of the community members in the design of the project’s solar benefits sharing program, capturing their perspectives and knowledge as to what would work best (and not work) when rolling out and administrating the program in the locality.
On a related, but different topic, it is extremely important that the developer’s personnel assigned to undertake community engagement and landholder relationship roles are properly trained for those pivotal roles.
These roles require the appropriate interpersonal skills and knowledge to be able to engage effectively with community members so that the discussions are productive and not wasting people’s time. To assist in building the required skills, we recently helped initiate and design an intensive training program for Transmission Network Service Provider personnel, which was conducted by TasNetworks on behalf of the transmission industry. It was a comprehensive program that included role plays and site visits, as well as expert presentations on topics such as the construction process and valuation of properties for securing easements.
Lastly, you cannot be effective at community engagement or landholder relations by sitting at your desk in the city looking at satellite maps. You need to get out there and meet with stakeholders and even “walk the route” with landholders so that you can jointly assess the impacts of the proposed design and assess alternatives at the same time.
In the Commissioner’s 2022 Annual Report, 51% of all complaints were related to large-scale transmission projects (44 complaints). Promisingly, however, over the past two years, there has also been a significant decrease in the number of transmission-related complaints (notably, in 2021, there were 111 transmission-related complaints).
Why do you think the frequency of transmission complaints has decreased?
Prior to our Office taking on transmission, there weren’t many places you could go if you had a complaint. We hadn’t really built major new transmission lines for a long time, so relevant complaint handling processes largely did not exist at the transmission network service providers (TNSPs). Also, TNSPs do not normally receive complaints from members of the public in operating and maintaining the existing grid, so it was not a surprise that this particular cupboard was bare.
So, when we opened up the door to receiving complaints about new transmission developments, there was perhaps a backlog of complaints from individual complaints that had not been addressed properly. We worked with the TSNPs, for the most part, to resolve these complaints through our normal complaint referral process. We also worked with the TNSPs to help them design and implement their own complaint handling procedures, enabling them to receive and process complaints directly.
A combination of these initiatives, together with our evidence-based approach to working through a complaint – particularly systemic issues – saw a reduction in the number of new transmission complaints received by our Office in 2022, the second year of our remit.
You are currently leading the Review of Community Engagement, which the Minister of Climate Change and Energy announced in July 2023. Could you share some insights into the objectives of this review and any preliminary findings or observations you may have?
For the Community Engagement Review (Review), we went out to the community to get their advice. Our public consultation included the opportunity to make written submissions to the Review as well as participate in a survey, which was tailored to the particular perspective that the participant may have. For example, a developer participant received a different survey than a local council participant.
And, finally, we conducted an extensive number of round tables and interviews with the myriad stakeholders around the country. Many of these meetings were held in person.
Overall, we received over 500 submissions, over 250 survey responses and held over 75 roundtable and interview meetings, with over 750 stakeholder participants.
The insights gained from this substantial amount of relevant information have enabled the Review to form a set of findings and observations that, in turn, helped tremendously in forming our final views on pragmatic recommendations and next steps.
Boiling all of this down, to be truly effective at community engagement for renewable energy and related infrastructure projects, it is about quality people, representing well managed, professional developers to develop the projects we need in the right locations – supported by sound and efficient processes.
Which emerging aspects of the renewable energy transition are at the forefront of your agenda over the next five years?
In terms of the next five years, as I said just before, we need to be focussed on supporting qualified developers to successfully progress the right projects in the right places for the energy transition to be successful – in particular with regard to effective engagement of the community and stakeholders throughout the development and construction cycle.
I also expect that we may be quite involved in assisting State, Territory and Federal governments implementing outcomes of the Review where appropriate.
How transferrable are the community engagement learnings from established renewable energy projects (for example, solar and onshore wind) to, say, offshore wind?
We have worked with communities regarding onshore wind projects for a number of years – interestingly, people would often comment that if windfarm projects were located offshore then there would be fewer complaints. However, now that we are embarking on offshore wind projects, there are still plenty of concerns. These concerns often relate to the perceived or real impacts of offshore wind farms on the natural environment, commerce (e.g. commercial fishing, tourism, shipping lanes capacity) and visual amenity.
There will also be a large amount of activity onshore, such as assembling turbine components through to building new transmission to connect the offshore wind farms to the onshore transmission grid, that may raise other concerns in other community groups.
The flip side is that all of these initiatives and projects create substantial new business and employment opportunities in regional Australia, sustained over a long period of time. It would be a great pity to miss out on these benefits and opportunities that have arisen from the energy transition due to ineffective community engagement and consultation.
We recently released a guideline to best practice community engagement for offshore wind projects, which can be found here.
If you could give project developers reading this one piece of advice relating to community engagement, what would it be?
To be effective at community engagement, you need to engage the community. Get the community involved in solving problems and identifying opportunities. The community members are much more likely to support the solutions put forward if they have been properly involved in the process. You may also develop solutions that may never have been considered internally, making it a win-win for all.