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Social acceptance of energy projects

thumb-large-88 RPS’ PJ Rudden shares some lessons learned in its experience of working with communities.

Project development needs public support and input to be successful. That’s the reality of many current infrastructural projects in Ireland.

Over the past 15 years or so RPS have been involved in some of Ireland’s most controversial projects – landfills, incinerators, gas pipelines, wind farms and motorways. Every one of them has been built or are now in the throes of construction. Those which were more controversial took somewhat longer in planning than others due to environmental, political and even commercial objections. They would not have got built only we adopted a proactive stakeholder engagement process from the beginning of each project.

I’m delighted to see the Dublin Waste to Energy Project progressing to construction and also the Corrib Onshore Pipeline nearing construction completion with First Gas expected early in 2015. We were employed in the Corrib Project in 2007 to reroute the onshore pipeline and provide a fresh stakeholder engagement process with the local community.

These are all national strategic infrastructure projects to service a growing economy and assist job creation. Each had varying degrees of social acceptance. Our largest project of all – Gas Pipeline to the West from Meath to Limerick via Galway – 330km in total had virtually universal public acceptance, thanks to a robust planning and the stakeholder engagement process. It was built by Bord Gáis on time and within budget in 2002-2003.

thumb-large-54 What have we learned from these projects in terms of social acceptance? Firstly, there has to be a clear defined ‘project need’ grounded to a national and/or EU policy Directive. Secondly, there needs to be a robust and transparent site selection process. Thirdly, there needs to be early, earnest and respectful engagement with local residents. Consult early and consult often through the planning process and during the construction phase.

An example is the recently approved Poolbeg Waste to Energy Project for Dublin City Council. In the early years, this project was a model of stakeholder engagement through an innovative Community Interest Group process. As a result, the principal delays were not caused by any significant public health concerns but by commercial challenges from the waste industry.

None of these objections were lodged during the planning process but were appealed to the EU in subsequent years. They were rejected by the European Commission in terms of fair competition but it delayed the project and added hugely to the additional costs. Also adding to the costs was the political interference that the project was forced to endure despite conforming to EU and Irish waste policy.

The regulatory processes for Stakeholder Engagement have recently become a great deal more onerous since Ireland ratified the Aarhus Convention on public participation in 2012 and it became effective in Irish law in 2013. This new law gives rights of information, rights of participation and judicial review to citizens on projects before they enter the planning process.

The ‘road to Aarhus’ as we call it is not easy, quick or inexpensive. If implemented properly it will save overall project costs or may save the project entirely from total failure. Gaining credibility and trust is an essential first step. People can strengthen projects and make them a better reality if there is a meaningful engagement from the start.

PJ Rudden is RPS Director responsible for major waste and energy infrastructural projects.

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