As 2023 rolled to a close the Illawarra watched as a groundswell of opposition to proposed offshore wind farms grew into a national, and increasingly politicised, debate over the roll out of renewable energy in regional communities. On Tuesday busloads of concerned citizens from throughout NSW travelled to Canberra to call for a suspension of all renewable energy projects until a Senate inquiry is conducted into the sector. On the other side of the coin, a series of pro-renewable events were held across the country on Sunday to express support for the transition.
Here in the Illawarra, the debate around offshore wind has been distressing and divisive. There have been heated public meetings and an explosion of Facebook groups. Grassroots community groups have been formed both in support and opposition. Each side has accused the other of spreading misinformation and of being funded by vested interests, and both claim to be the voice of the majority of Illawarra residents.
However, amidst the turmoil, a common thread of shared values emerges. Whilst the debate tends to centre on competing interpretations of the facts and available science, in many ways the response we have seen across the Illawarra is one often rooted in deep emotional connections to our oceans and coastlines. Both camps express concern over climate change and a support for decarbonisation - however opponents argue for different types of renewables in different locations. Both sides also agree with the need to protect and conserve local environments and marine creatures. Opponents argue that this is best done through avoiding infrastructure development in these local (and loved) environments, while supporters argue that the best way to save these environments is to act on climate change and mitigate localised impacts.
Research has shown that environmental conflict, if appropriately moderated, can in fact be a positive force for change.
While the division between the two sides of the argument may seem intractable, recognising shared values, and the hopes, fears, anger, grief and love that are held across the divide can provide a potential pathway through the conflict. Research has shown that environmental conflict, if appropriately moderated, can in fact be a positive force for change. For example, conflict can create greater accountability and scrutiny of projects, which can lead to improved outcomes for the environment and communities. Protest and debate can also force a greater consideration of justice and equity outcomes, and lead to more collaborative approaches.
Navigating highly complex and polarised debates like offshore wind and other renewable energy projects will not be easy. But one potential positive pathway forward might involve giving communities a greater role in shaping the design and implementation of renewable energy projects. Collaborative approaches can elevate standards above and beyond regulatory approvals, with local communities actively contributing to the development of their own set of principles or 'terms and conditions' for renewable projects.
We began to explore this idea on Sunday at the Yes2Renewables family fun fair. Here, we conducted a short survey which asked participants to prioritise certain environmental design principles and community benefit options, based on approaches used in other parts of the world and Australia. In structuring the survey in this way, we looked to move away from the binary of support versus opposition. We focused on the 'what if' instead of simply 'yes' or 'no', in order to start to identify the aspirations and priorities of the community in relation to new renewable energy developments.
The survey results show a strong level of support for a large suite of environmental design principles, with greatest support for reducing the carbon footprint of manufacturing, maximising the use of recyclable and reusable materials, and employing best practice design principles to minimise impacts on wildlife.
Similarly, respondents wanted to see community benefit sharing arrangements which returned a wide range of benefits to local communities, especially through household electrification (including solar installation), support for First Nations Communities, and education and training. While this survey cannot be considered to be representative, it hints at opportunities to build community ownership and co-design of an industry that resonates with local values.
While more research is needed to understand diverse community perspectives, we feel there is enormous potential for regional communities like ours to shape the future of renewables. By taking a proactive stance and engaging in pragmatic conflict resolution, communities can 'take the power back' and actively influence the ways in which renewable energy projects proceed, including offshore wind. This unique opportunity allows us to build a more sustainable, community-driven future that prioritises justice, fairness and environmental stewardship.
- Associate Professor Michelle Voyer is the Keira Chair for Energy Futures with the Australian National Centre for Ocean Resources and Security (University of Wollongong). Thanks to Dr Freya Croft and Teaniel Mifsud for their contributions to this piece.