There are four basic elements necessary for successful wind farm development: sufficient wind resource, access to transmission, someone to purchase the power, and the appropriate land on which to site turbines. The first three parts of the equation either exist or they don’t. It is the fourth element – the social aspect of dealing with landowners and working with communities – that is neither simple nor clear cut, as any developer working today will attest.
While there are many definitions of ‘community engagement’, at its core it is the commitment of one party to develop and implement a process that facilitates productive, two-way communication with a group or community that has a stake in the party’s project. It is arguably the most important aspect of development – and it is no exaggeration to say that the quality of a developer’s Community Engagement program can make or break a project. And it’s not just the landowner who sites a turbine who is a stakeholder; every resident, local business owner, and municipal leader in the area has a stake in new local developments, wind or otherwise.
The founder of the Centre for Risk Communications in New York, Dr. Vincent Covello, coined an oft-quoted line that perfectly sums up the importance of early, open, and ongoing engagement with stakeholders: “In high concern situations, people want to know that you care before they care what you know.” Covello understands all too well how quickly natural human curiosity that goes unanswered can fester into opposition.
Misinformation, distorted facts, and hearsay easily fills the information void when a project developer is not actively engaged in communication with stakeholders.
Wind energy – and in particular, the modern turbine – is relatively new to most Canadians. While the majority of residents of countries like Germany, Denmark and Spain have accepted wind turbines as a part of the modern landscape, the vast majority of Canadians have never set eyes on a wind farm. They have no idea how tall a turbine is, what it sounds like – or doesn’t sound like – how they are connected to the grid, what happens when the wind doesn’t blow, etc.