Windlab's Coonooer Bridge project innovates a 'social licence' from local communities

...The only other wind farm approved in Victoria in more than two years is at Coonooer Bridge, a small farming community north-west of Bendigo. Its story is very different.

The project is being developed by Windlab, a spin-off company from CSIRO founded in 2003. It has since built turbines in Australia, Canada, the US and South Africa.

Soon after it began, Windlab identified that the hills near Coonooer Bridge were particularly windy: in fact, their steady, strong winds constitute a renewable resource that is among the best in the world.

But, in 2012, when Windlab began to consider building turbines there, Luke Osborne, the project's director, knew that wind energy was becoming controversial in rural areas. He knew from personal experience, because he has turbines on his family farm near Canberra.

"It had become clear that we needed to work on gaining a social licence to operate," he explains. "It wasn't good enough just to get it approved. It needed to have a much better level of local acceptance."

His team began a series of town hall-style meetings with everyone who owned land nearby, as well as one-on-one conversations, in which they devised the ownership model for the project.

"We said, 'We not only want people living nearby to share in the financial benefits, we also want you to help guide how we do this'," Osborne recalls.

In less than a year, the five-turbine project had been approved by the local council. It will produce enough electricity to power 11,000 households.

Thirty landholders are shareholders. The farmers with turbines on their properties agreed to take lower rent, and the company, slightly lower profits; those returns are shared among the neighbours. As with many other wind farms, it will donate money to the community – in this case $25,000 a year. Everyone within five kilometres of the turbines will get a vote on how it's spent.

"We haven't had any outsiders come in opposing the project," Osborne says. "I hope that's because we haven't given anybody a reason to invite them in."

Osborne modelled his approach on the research of Dr Nina Hall, from CSIRO, who is studying the idea of "social licence to operate" for wind farms.

In interviews with rural residents, her team has found "strong community support for the development of wind farms", including from those who don't speak out through the media or political forums.

Hall concluded that attitudes to the local impacts are shaped by the way a project is run.

She noticed that people opposed to wind farms would initially talk about technological worries. "When we dug a little deeper, we often found their opposition was based more on concerns about process," she explains. "Things like how they found out about the development, and whether they felt they had influence over the design, location and the final decision about whether it would go ahead."

Ian Olive is one of those people. He has been farming near Coonooer Bridge all his life, continuing the work of his parents and grandparents. Now the 69-year-old tends his crops and merino sheep with the help of his two sons, whose young families live on the property, too.

Although he supports renewable energy, Olive is not pleased by the prospect of turbines near his farm. His family would prefer "to keep the status quo", he says. He expects the turbines, standing on the low mountain range on the south-western horizon, will be "a stark monstrosity against the natural beauty" of his skyline.

But equally, Olive says, Windlab couldn't have conducted its consultation any better: the scheme has created no resentment between neighbours. He says "the company has done a good job in helping the community" through its annual fund and the shareholdings for surrounding landowners, including his family.

For Osborne, gaining the trust of families such as the Olives represents the project's biggest triumph. "We've tried our best to make sure the benefits for the local area are real and well understood," he says. "It's not a silver bullet – not everyone wants to live near turbines – but for the majority it has made a difference. I'm a big believer in the fairness of this model. I hope what we've done here will help the industry."

Read more: http://www.theage.com.au/national/against-the-wind-20131218-2zlcx.html