‘Likely to further dilute trust’: misunderstanding community opposition to transmission lines

Australia will need to “efficiently” install more than 10,000 km of new transmission to meet its 2050 net zero goal, according to the Australian Energy Market Operator. Building out transmission is also the cornerstone of the new Albanese government’s climate policy, Rewiring the Nation. 

So it’s worrying then that at exactly this pivotal time, the community movements against major transmission projects are growing in strength and depth. 

In its recently published report ‘Acquiring Social Licence for Electricity Transmission – A Best Practice Approach to Electricity Transmission Infrastructure Development,’ Victorian advocacy group Energy Grid Alliance argues the energy industry must take care to actually understand why communities oppose these projects, rather than simply dismissing it as “NIMBYism” (Not In My Backyard). 

It proposes reforming transmission planning frameworks alongside industry exploring different benefit models for not only directly impacted landowners but neighbours and the regions more broadly, including community ownership approaches and considering undergrounding high voltage DC lines.

“Now they’re in a situation where if it [transmission planning frameworks] doesn’t reset, the industry’s going to be tripping over regulatory hurdles and community opposition for the next years,” Energy Grid Alliance director, Darren Edwards, told pv magazine Australia.

“The ability to meet climate change obligations and future energy needs hinges on communities trusting that the planning process is fair, just and transparent,” the Energy Grid Alliance says.

Regional communities know the process is flawed and the framework isn’t right, “so there’s no way they’re going to back down,” Edwards adds.

“The current regulatory environment, not community opposition, is delaying the investment in transmission.”

Money isn’t always everything

Opposition, Energy Grid Alliance says, stems from planning practices which focus on finding the lowest cost corridors for transmission lines, failing to take into account environmental and socioeconomic impacts from the outset.

Moreover, the planning is done largely within major cities and “imposed” on the regions, which host the vast majority of the nation’s energy assets and renewable projects. Metropolitan planners fail to comprehend the relationship regional communities have with both the land and one another, and therefore fail to understand why the opposition is occurring.

Having consulted with regional community groups, Energy Grid Alliance’s report forefronts that regional Australian, be they intergenerational farming families or newer ‘tree change’ folk, see themselves as ‘stewards’ of the land.  “They have a real emotional connection to the land,” Edwards says, “it becomes part of them.”

“This deep attachment to place provides credibility to those who oppose a development that might negatively impact their land; it is not ‘just’ a reactionary ‘Not in My Backyard’ (NIMBY) phenomenon… but opposition based on a sense of responsibility to care for the place, a love and intimate understanding of the land and water, and the intertwining of one’s identity with a place through investment in the land,” the report reads.

Inadequate planning processes

Many of these communities are also highly connected and feel a strong sense of social “unity,” as Edwards puts it. On top of this making the communities easy to rally, it has led to a strong awareness in regional communities that transmission planning practices, and more broadly national energy laws and objectives, largely neglect to consider environmental and social impacts in the early stages. 

Australia’s current transmission planning model primarily looks at cost with any transmission projects over $500 million passing through what’s called a Regulatory Investment Test. The test looks at ‘gross benefit’, meaning benefit for the market, as well as the construction and operation costs. To arrive at the final ‘net benefit’ of the project, the construction cost is subtracted from the ‘gross benefit’, Edwards says, noting the model recognised as bereft by the communities themselves.

When one considers why we are transitioning to renewable energy in first place (to protect the environment) the fact that environmental impacts aren’t considered in the Regulatory Investment Test “makes it laughable,” Edwards says.

“Acknowledging that the regulatory environment is not fit for purpose, proceeding with existing projects developed under current framework is akin to building a home without solid foundations,” the report reads.

“No amount of filler or paint (often referred to as an Environmental Effects/Impact Statements) will hide the cracks that have appeared or prevent the long-term consequences of not getting the framework right from the start. And as communities have strongly indicated, no amount of financial incentive will compensate for planning oversights.”

The report points to some of the groups opposing transmission which have gained traction in Australia, including S.O.L.V.E Tasmania (opposing UPC-TasNetworks transmission line), Stop HumeLink Towers (opposing TransGrid’s HumeLink in NSW), Stop AusNet’s Towers (opposing the Western Victoria Transmission Network Project), Merriwa-Cassilis Alliance (opposing Central-West Orana Renewable Energy Zone Transmission project in NSW), Gippsland Farmers (opposing the transmission line connecting Gippslands REZ in Victoria.

Compensation no silver bullet

“Pushing the ‘talk to them early and pay them more’ agenda is very likely to further dilute trust, increase opposition and dissolve any credible opportunity to acquire social licence,” the report says.

“What energy investors and consumers need and what many are calling for is an architect with a set of blueprints, supported by rules and regulations that consider the Triple Bottom Line (TBL), to deliver the best technical, social and environmental solutions and redefine our energy future.

“The transition to renewables and acquisition of social licence could benefit from regulators who can factor in social, economic, emission and environmental impacts – rather than solely focusing on net benefits and least-cost to all those who produce, consume and transport electricity. This will minimise planning risks and create returns to the climate, business, industry, society, environment and the economy.”

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