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

Consultation will make or break bar trial in Newcastle

We are watching with interest to see what happens with the potential changes to liquor laws in Newcastle, NSW. One thing for certain is that community and stakeholder engagement will make or break this trial.  

Get it right and Newcastle’s night-time economy can grow and support a range of venues and experiences. Get it wrong and it will be a decade before any government – local or state – will go anywhere near it.  

Consultation is our thing here at Mara, so we have put together our top tips to help our local businesses keen to get involved in the trial. 

1. Talk to your community  

There is no point sitting on the sidelines assuming the worst, so only way to know what people think is to have a conversation and build a relationship with your community. Your locals might be itching for you to stay open later or serve cocktails until midnight but they just haven’t had the opportunity to tell you.  

2. Listen to feedback  

Ignoring what people have to say is only going to get you into hot water. Once you know what the issues are, you can investigate whether there are measures you can put in place to see if this helps the problems. The key is having a continuing conversation – yes you will be able to resolve some issues and not others but keep people up to date with what’s happening is a winning approach. 

3. Be persistent 

We are all time poor, so make sure you give your stakeholders time to respond. If you aren’t getting responses, adjust your consultation activities. Think like your stakeholder and anticipate the best way to gather feedback. It is okay to change your plan than get to the end of the process and have to do it all again.  

4. Ask for help 

It’s easy to get overwhelmed. If you would rather stick to making great food and serving tasty beverages, that’s ok. There are plenty of people that are experts in this field, and we are one of them. Don’t be shy, get in touch.  

Need help? Think pink.  

We can help you identify relevant stakeholders, come up with a plan, write communication materials that are easy to understand and help facilitate conversations with your community. Once we have all the information, we can help you work through ways to address issues that arise and report back to your community and other interested stakeholders.  

Relevant links

NSW Government – Community Impact Statement

Liquor and Gaming NSW – Community Impact Statement

Contact us

Top 3 engagement ideas

During COVID-19 community engagement changed. Everything moved online and it happened almost overnight. As projects get back underway, the question is – how do you want to participate in decision-making about your community?

As well as that, we're always looking for ways to improve our engagement to make sure it is effective for our clients and projects.

Take the survey below to let us know how you want us to engage with you in the future.  3 questions - 3 sections. Simple! 

What's your top 3 engagement ideas