The rise of solar energy

In recent years, the number of large-scale solar farms has significantly increased in Australia and according to Energy New South Wales solar now accounts for 12 per cent of the State’s energy mix.  

Canstar Blue lists 14 new 50MW+ solar farms under construction in NSW in regional and rural communities. Currently more than 7750 people are directly employed in the renewable energy sector. With the obvious push for renewable energy, there is likely to be a massive boom for jobs and investment in the sector.   

 

Solar panels surrounded by trees

But while there are tremendous benefits from harnessing the sun for energy, there are still impacts that must be considered before projects are approved.  

 In 2019, the NSW Government released a new guideline for large-scale solar energy projects to guide industry and the community through the planning process. The planning framework outlines the criteria for evaluating a solar project.  

 As a general guide:  

    • councils assess projects under $5 million 
    • the Joint Regional Planning Panel assesses projects between $5m and $30m  
    • the Department of Planning, Industry and Environment (DPIE) assesses projects over $30m. Projects that are environmentally sensitive and over $10 million are also considered by DPIE.  

Like other new developments, solar projects must consider a range of issues, particularly social and visual impacts on the surrounding community. Social and visual impact assessments are carried out to help identify and define potential social and visual impacts (positive and negative) of the project and make recommendations to help reduce and manage those impacts.   

Solar farm artist impression

 A key part of the new draft guidelines is the requirement for community engagement. Any proponent looking to develop a solar farm proposal will need to consult with affected landowners surrounding the development, as well as the broader community and local council.  

 Community consultation should not only be done in accordance with the approving authority’s requirements, but also with best practice methods in mind. During the COVID-19 pandemic, online engagement is essential, so it’s important to use a range of tools to gather genuine feedback.  

What are the potential impacts? 

Canstar’s list of large-scale solar farms are all in regional areas and sites that are great for ground-mounted solar panels are often also prime agricultural land. Additionally, as the land is usually cleared, the solar panels are visible from surrounding properties and passers-by. The visual impact and potential loss of agricultural land are two of the most common concerns for large solar projects.  

Effective communications and engagement can  reduce community fears about a project and minimise the potential for conflict between renewable energies and land used for agriculture. We can clearly communicate what the impacts might be by using visual aids such as photomontages, artist impressions, flythroughs, and drone imagery of the site. Importantly, these tools usually help to reduce fears about the project. That’s why drone and aerial photography are part of our suite of services.  

 Meaningful conversations about the project’s impacts can also lead to opportunities to work together, turning a potential negative into community advocacy for the project.  

Solar farm proposal

How can we reduce the impacts? 

Where there is a visual impact, in most locations it can be mitigated through careful planning and using vegetation for screening. During the visual impact assessment, the potential glint and glare effects are measured. This is the reflection caused by the angle of the panels, which can be a safety concern as well as a nuisance factor. Changing the angle or using visual screening can help to alleviate impacts and concerns.  

Tips to get you started

We suggest engaging with your community early. Here are our tips for getting started:  

      1. Be clear about what you do and don’t know and when you will be able to provide more information 
      2. Be frank about what people can and can’t influence. Some clients refer to these as negotiables and non-negotiables  
      3. Understand your stakeholders and what their likely concerns are going to be. If you can think like your stakeholder and anticipate their questions, you’ll be prepared for any conversation 
      4. Above all, put a stakeholder engagement plan together at the beginning of the project to map out your consultation and communication. It will be a requirement for state significant developments and increasingly councils will require consultation as well as a social impact statement/assessment. 

Need help? Think Pink. 

Need help with social impact assessments, visual impact assessments, drone and aerial photography or community consultation, Think Pink and get in touch.  

Contact us. 

Email: mara@marasulting.com.au 

Phone: 02 49654317 

About the writer

Kelly LofbergKelly Lofberg is a communication and engagement specialist. Kel specialises in media and issues management, social impact assessments, consultation, advocacy campaigns and strategic communication.

Get in touch kelly@maraconsulting.com.au or 02 49654317.

Boost to infrastructure

The 2020-21 Federal budget was a bumper crop for regional Australia and for local government across the country. It outlined significant funding for infrastructure projects with a big boost for community infrastructure like shared pathways, tracks and trails.

Great news for regional areas like the Hunter.

Biodiversity Day image

Getting projects shovel ready

Pink piggy bank and budget signEven before the budget, we have seen a rush of local government tenders in the marketplace to get projects “shovel ready” to capitalise on government spending. This is likely to be exacerbated by the Treasurer Josh Frydenberg's comments, stating that the funding would be on a “use it or lose it basis”. There is a potential for councils to rush projects, removing the community’s ability to have a say.

The value of community voices in decisions that impact them is crucial in preparing our public spaces for safe and COVID-friendly use.

Yes, consultation can be a complex process, but I am not convinced consultation and being shovel ready are mutually exclusive.

When the coronavirus pandemic hit, we all changed the way we do business. While our projects included an online presence pre-pandemic, now they are completely focused on effective consultation in a digital space.  The lockdown forced everyone to operate online, meaning there was little pushback from our clients and the community in switching activities to a virtual space.

But is online engagement effective?

There are great benefits to online consultation and engagement. Online platforms are eye-catching and visually appealing to users. This generates greater interest, boosts participation and response rates.  Recently we conducted online consultation on the future of cemetery and after-death services. While a complex and sensitive topic, we received interest from over 800 stakeholders with about 500 people providing feedback. It was simple and quick to set up and provided great insight for strategic planning.

Furthermore, online consultation provides access 24/7 providing flexibility for stakeholders to have their say, wherever and whenever they like. From a research perspective, we can also use technology to accurately capture location-based data where targeted feedback is important.

 

Explore online tools

We regularly use online whiteboards like Miro, collaboration tools like Microsoft Teams, and Asana, as well as Social PinpointSurveyMonkeyConsultation Manager, running webinars and online forums.

Some are free and others subscription-based. Get online to explore different tools and take advantage of the free introductory offers. It’s a great way to work out if they are right for your activity.

While we all want to see the economic stimulus to help our communities, I wonder if removing stakeholder input from those decisions will lead to good community outcomes.

Is a rush to spend more important than how people want it spent? I don’t know... what do you think?

Online engagement methods using a computer

If you’re not exactly sure how to mobilise your strategy for the digital world, Think Pink and contact Mara

About the writer

Kelly LofbergKelly Lofberg is a communication and engagement specialist. Kel loves all things strategy and even gets paid to play with LEGO! 

But seriously, Kel specialises in media and issues management, social impact assessments, advocacy campaigns and strategic communication.

Get in touch kelly@maraconsulting.com.au or 02 49654317.

Need help? Think Pink.

Contact us. 

Email: mara@marasulting.com.au

Phone: 02 49654317

Honeysuckle precinct ideas

Creating great places in Honeysuckle

The urban transformation of the Honeysuckle precinct is continuing, with the invigoration and future development of the remaining parcels of land at the western end of the city.

The Hunter and Central Coast Development Corporation (HCCDC) recently invited community members to join the conversation about the future use and function of the western end of the harbour foreshore precinct.

Share your ideas Honeysuckle

The project

HCCDC engaged Mara Consulting to conduct community engagement on Honeysuckle West. We wanted to know what you would like to see in the future development of Honeysuckle. We were particularly keen to hear about initiatives that encouraged improved environmental, social and economic outcomes for the development sites and surrounds.

This was a great opportunity to provide your input to help shape the final stage of Honeysuckle’s transformation.

Engagement was open between 24 September to 18 October 2020

Feedback was sought from the broad community via a comprehensive advertising and promotion campaign including print and digital advertising alongside editorial and direct email.

Feedback was sought via a survey, digital ideas wall and directly via phone and email. Visit the project page here

The next step is to review all of the feedback and develop draft objectives and test these with focus groups. These will then be included with a summary of all the engagement activities and feedback in an outcomes report.

For more information email honeysuckleideas@maraconsulting.com.au

Thanks for being part of the Honeysuckle ideas conversation!

Need help with your community engagement project? Think pink!

Contact Mara

8 tips for great communication

Anyone working in corporate communications would have heard the phrase – oh, you better flag that with comms...<insert eye-rolling here>

In my experience, the majority of the time this phrase gets muttered way to late in the process and the comms person is left to wrangle a pending disaster.

So, what can you do about it? You need to change the way you approach communications and here are our eight tips for getting your communications in great shape.

8. Remember your staff

I can’t stress enough how important it is to keep your internal stakeholders up to date. Finding out information about the business you work for via an article in the local paper sucks. If this happens on a regular basis your employee engagement will plummet along with the trust and respect of your most valuable asset – your people.

When it comes to internal communication, there is no such thing as oversharing. Find out how people want to get their information then get it to them often.

Need inspiration? Check out the winners of the 2020 Ragan's Employee Communication Awards

7. Get in early

Think of communications as a risk management tool. Early, effective and ongoing communication can pave the way for a hassle-free project. By treating poor communication as a risk, it becomes part of your standard project planning for the life of the project. Here are some samples to get you thinking of risk from a communications perspective.Stakeholder: Employees and contractors

Risk: Sharing incorrect information about campaign to community members
Mitigation: Provide project information including key messages to staff
Action: Brief staff at all staff team meetings

Risk: Missing out on in-house knowledge being captured and considered
Mitigation: Encourage staff to participate in consultation activities
Actions: Send ‘all staff’ email at start of project with links to activities and further project information; provide staff with key information summary

Stakeholder: Elected representatives

Risk: Lack of awareness about project could lead to negative media coverage which damages service provider’s reputation
Mitigation: Ensure elected representatives and their key staff understand non-negotiables for project engagement process as well as key dates and activities
Actions: Provide briefing note prior to campaign going live, include contact details for lead if further information is required; provide regular reminders via email about project deadlines; provide flyers for MP Office to encourage community participation

6. If you aren't sure how people like to get information, just ask them.

There is no need to guess or assume the best communications channels. Just slow down and ask people how they like to get their information. It might be a phone call or email, it might be twitter, if might be a flyer in the mailbox or it might be Tim at the butcher shop. Take the time to get to know your audience, build trust and watch the effectiveness of your communication soar.

5. Proactive is better than reactive

Nothing makes you lose credibility with your audience than admitting that you knew about an issue/problem and decided not to say anything. Crossing your fingers and hoping for the best is a bad strategy, someone ALWAYS finds out.

When you are planning communications think about the things that are most likely to be of interest and address them directly.

4. Coordinate communications activities

It may seem logical, but I have seen it over and over again – right hand not talking to the left. If you are building a new road, you might want to check that there are no plans to replace cabling under the road in the near future.

Your credibility will be out the window if you have a ribbon cutting with all the fanfare one day and the next day, excavators roll in and dig up all your fine work.

Simple conversations can save your budget and your reputation.

3. The boss isn’t always the best spokesperson

People respond to information by passionate people. If you have someone that has come up with a quirky solution to a challenge, let them talk about it. No one will be as passionate as they are, and they will be able to explain and answer questions on the fly. Don’t be afraid to substitute a CEO or Chairperson for a subject matter expert.

2. Keep it simple

Effective communication doesn’t have to be a complex production with a glossy finish. It just needs to be clear, authentic and genuine. Take a page out of the playbook from former NSW Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons.

During the 2019/2020 Australian bushfires, he was providing daily masterclasses in effective communication. He was clear in his delivery, he knew the detail, wasn’t afraid of saying he didn’t know the answer and showed empathy both on and off the camera.

1. Technical problems don’t stop projects, people stop projects

What’s the worst-case scenario for an infrastructure project? Being delayed or shelved, not because you can’t find a cost-effective design solution but because a high-profile person speaks out in opposition.

Complaints, protests, negative media coverage – these are all manageable if you have plan. Sure, you won’t be able to make everyone happy but if you are clear in your message and get the information to people that are interested and have influence over your project then you are on your way.

Effective communication isn’t rocket science, you just need to plan for the worst and hope for the best.

If you don’t know where to start, give Mara a call – this is our jam!

What else can we help with? Maybe some LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® or,  if things have already gone south, some crisis and issues management advice.

Check out our projects list to see what we have been working one.

Welcome to 2020!

It’s a new decade and the team at Mara is back! We’re pumped and ready to take on 2020.  We’re looking forward to creating vibrant communities and projects together.

It’s been a tough start to the year for many affected by horrendous bushfires. The outpouring of community support shows the strength of our humanity at a time when people need help the most. Selfless acts of kindness are seen everywhere. But there is still more to do.

#TeamMara is back!
Our drone operator Tadd

New services – aerial photography and drone photography and video

Adding a bit of flair to our visual impact and design services, Mara now offers a range of aerial photography and video services to support our projects.

Drones are great for giving a different perspective to a project, whether it’s to help communicate a complex message through images or to create a fly-through of what a project will look like.

Our urban design guru, landscape architect and environmental planner can now also boast that he’s a pilot! (We’re not quite sure how that is all going to fit on his business card).

  • Aerial photography, video filming services
  • 2D and 3D aerial photography mapping survey
  • Inspections of construction sites, mines, roofs and hard to reach areas
  • Traffic counts and footage for transport studies
  • Urban tree canopy and aerial tree imagery
  • Images for renders and urban design projects.

To find out more, contact Mara on 02 49654317 or email tadd@maraconsulting.com.au for more information.

Do you have 2020 vision? Maybe a LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® workshop is what you need.

Here at Mara, we’re all about doing things differently. Bold, Different, Playful!

LEGO ticks that box.

The new year is a great time to plan the year ahead and bring some different thinking to your workplace. A  LEGO® SERIOUS PLAY® workshop is great for business strategy, encouraging innovation at work, planning, team communication and engagement.

A facilitated workshop will help you to:

  • Develop strategic goals and objectives
  • Create a corporate mission, vision and values
  • Get input when leaders don't have all the answers
  • Identify ways to lead not follow
  • Build teamwork and collaboration
  • Encourage different, creative and innovative thinking
  • Break bad thinking habits - "We've always done it this way..."
  • Encourage better communication with your team.

The LEGO Serious Play method helps you think more creatively and tackle challenges or situation in a new and fun way.

Book your workshop today – call 02 49654317. Or visit the Mara office for a great coffee and a LEGO sampler!

International Year of Plant Health

Did you know it’s international year of plant health?

Here’s to all the awesome landscape architects, urban designers, arborists and horticulturalists in our team. They are tree-mendous.