July 21, 2023
The need to increase power capacity and resilience is not up for debate. So why are farmers across Australia up in arms? Is it just a case of NIMBY-ism (not in my back yard), or is there something else going on?
At Groundline Engineering, we believe that projects should be able to balance the ‘holy trinity’ of achieving results which balance cost, speed to complete and that retain a social license with the community. What we see too often however, are projects where cost is the only consideration when planning and implementing new powerlines.
Broadly, a ‘social license' is the acceptance by a community that lets an organisation continue to operate in the way they do. It’s not written down but is implied; the community trusts the organisation to consider wider interests than just those of the organisation. Amongst other things, social license includes considerations around environmental impact, respect for indigenous rights and stakeholder engagement. When an organisation steps over the line, they may lose their social license to operate, either temporarily or permanently. For example, cigarettes are now considered harmful - companies no longer have a social license to sell via advertising in the mainstream media and smokers no longer have the social license to smoke anywhere.
Rather than speeding up project completion, neglecting stakeholder engagement risks delaying, or even derailing whole projects, ultimately impacting the costs that planners were initially focused on. This appears to be what we’re now seeing with the Victoria farmers, as reported in the Australian Financial Review.
STAKEHOLDER ENGAGEMENT IN PRACTISE
Stakeholder engagement is not a new idea, but, as we have seen globally, overlooking this vital process can have serious results, ranging from legal battles and poor PR to ongoing maintenance and operational problems. Our plea to planners is to engage early with landowners and talk about the options while you are at the stage of designing and building the infrastructure, not once the project has been locked in.
Engaging with landowners early in the process is essential. If there are concerns, really listen and talk through the options as a ‘partner’ to help solutions become apparent. For example, shifting the line to the edge of the land, rather than through the centre is simple, cost effective and ensures a farmer doesn’t lose so much productive land.
At Groundline we nominate a dedicated ‘liaison officer’ for these projects, a role I have often fulfilled. I don’t think my approach to stakeholder engagement is rocket science, but finding a compromise that works means taking a ‘human’ approach, as well as thinking about the project objective.
Before you even reach the front door, come prepared. I always leave my hi-vis vest behind and bring biscuits and a paper.
Difficult news is best delivered factually and upfront. The initial reaction of a landowner to a transmission line project through their land can be one of shock and upset. As liaison officers, we must anticipate this reaction and approach it with understanding and empathy.
Walking the proposed route with the owner helps to identify potential showstoppers and explore alternatives. They can provide insights you don’t get from the office – where the swamps are, the native trees, or the erosion-prone land for example.
Listen to the history of interactions with previous projects can provide valuable insights and give clues for better engagement. Sometimes it is not just the business drivers you need to understand, there are often emotions tied up too, especially with land that has been owned by the same family for a long time – it holds history of family events and special moments. We always take the time to understand the landowner’s needs and wants. Understanding the land, the implications of the project on them and their business and what the options are to minimise any negative impact can help establish a long-term relationship built on trust.
VALUE AND COMPENSATION
Another way to build the relationship is through providing compensation for the landowners’ time during negotiations. The negotiation comes with a cost to them of their time and we are visitors on their property. There are other ways to ease the burden and make life a little easier for the landowner which you can discuss, such as helping with access upgrades or building culverts or fencing.
The photo here is of Diane. We worked with her to undertake some major works on her farm when new lines were being built across her property. Her feedback was that I "really listened and heard" her.
By engaging early and demonstrating an understanding of their needs, we can foster a lasting relationship with landowners, helping to ensure not only a successful implementation of the power line project, but also for future interactions, setting the stage for ongoing maintenance operations and a positive community image and ‘social license’.
The Victorian farmers aren’t denying the need to build the infrastructure but are frustrated by the lack of respect and engagement that Ausnet has shown them. It’s not rocket science – but it is about talking with people, understanding their concerns and finding compromises. As our sector continues to need to upgrade and build new lines, it is critical for project owners to balance cost, speed and social license to secure a sustainable and reliable energy future.
Groundline is a global consultancy specializing in transmission and distribution lines engineering services for network operators and service providers.
We bring creative thinking to projects, ensuring solutions are cost-effective, resilient, safe and good for the planet.
With offices in the USA, the UK, Australia and New Zealand, we have experience in all aspects of the power lines industry - from 11kV to 500kV+, new builds to refurbishments, condition assessments to asset management, site support and design verifications, to project management. Our team have worked around the world, from remote, dry deserts, to wild, wet rainforests, urban cities, to cyclone-prone prairies.
Whatever challenges you face, we understand your requirements.
Get in touch to discuss how we can ensure your power network is fit for the future.
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