Wind energy has a certain cachet – clean, technologically advanced, ingenious, and nearly magical in its ability to pull electricity out of thin air. Mining, on the other hand, seems its very antithesis – dirty, primitive, and reliant on the brute force of explosives and massive, pollution-spewing machines. All the same, the mineral extraction industry has some important lessons for the wind energy sector.
The mining industry has learned the hard way. Firms have scoured the globe in search of rich ore deposits, and have often found these in developing countries. In these nations, their dealings with local communities have often been ham-fisted, insensitive, blundering, and self-defeating. But they are learning the right way and the wrong way to do it.
The first lesson is the role of central government, and its limitations. The power brokers in the national capital grant mineral extraction rights. However, the mine won’t be located in the capital city. It will be off in the backcountry somewhere, in a place the suit-clad bureaucrats and their burly henchmen never visit. The fact that the central government has sanctioned the mining activity won’t carry much weight with the locals. Getting the concession is only half the battle – the other half is winning the hearts and minds of the nearby community.
Regardless of what the central government may think, the local community believes that they are the true and rightful owners of the resource. The extraction equipment must travel along the roads that the local people have traveled for generations. The mine will be placed on land with a long history. Once the mine is played out, the land will be less than it was. The mineral will be gone. The local environment will be changed, dramatically in the case of an open-pit mine. Most spillover economic benefits from the presence of the foreign mine operators will disappear overnight.
Regardless of the voice of law and central government authority, the local community has an ownership claim over the mineral resource. They have the means to enforce this claim. Road blockages, vandalism, and threats of violence against expatriate employees can render continued operations impossible. The company must recognize this claim, and follow it to its logical conclusion – ensuring that meaningful benefits accrue to the local population.
If the community feels that the operation yields them no benefits, any perceived costs will be inflated and magnified. Side effects that would otherwise have been dismissed as inconsequential will take on great significance. The company will be called on the carpet to address even the most minor accident, leak, or other problem. Firefighting will become the order of the day, draining the ability of company leadership to focus on keeping the operation running smoothly.
If, however, the community receives direct and tangible benefits, they will have a much higher tolerance. They will even jump to the defense of the company in the face of external criticism. I’ve seen this in my own hometown when visitors remarked in disgust about the sulfurous smell wafting over from the nearby pulp mill, only to be told pointedly by the locals, “That’s the smell of prosperity.”
All of this is laid out in Getting it Right: Making Corporate-Community Relations Work, by Luc Zandvliet and Mary B. Anderson. The book provides examples the world over of companies – mostly in the mineral extraction business – either making significant mistakes or chalking up major successes in the ways they deal with the local community. The wind energy business would do well to learn some of the lessons this book has to offer.
Let’s look at Ontario, Canada as a case study. With its Green Energy and Green Economy Act (GEGEA) of 2009, the Ontario government set out to make the province a leader in renewable energy. It offered lucrative Feed-In Tariff rates as a means to encourage individuals and organizations to generate their own electricity and sell it to the utility. One of the supported forms of renewable energy was wind.
To jump-start the initiative, the GEGEA streamlined the approval process for new wind energy projects. One of the ways this was accomplished was by largely cutting out the local community, bypassing a patchwork of inconsistent local bylaws and agencies. A couple of public consultations were required, but these tended not to get much attention. Typically, by the time it became common knowledge that a new wind farm was going in, it was too late for people to do much about it.
Unfortunately, the large wind farm developers assumed that whatever consultation process the government specified would be enough to ensure their success. They did their wind resource studies, conducted their mandatory public consultations, and got on with the job. Wind farms began springing up all over the province, and the GEGEA appeared a rousing success.
But seeds of discontent had been sown. The only local beneficiaries of these projects were the landowners that sold or leased the property where the turbines would be located. Little attention was paid to the immediate neighbours or the broader community. People watched the landscape they had known from childhood transformed by tall towers and rotating blades. And they got mad.
Stories began to appear that tarnished the clean, inspiring, and hopeful image of the wind business. Stories of property values dropping in the vicinity of wind farms. Stories of flocks of birds struck from the sky by spinning turbines. Stories of epileptic seizures induced by light flickering through turning vanes. Stories of sleep disruptions and knock-on health impacts from turbine noise. Discontent in the countryside of Ontario grew.
In the October 2011 election, the Liberal party lost its majority, due primarily to rural ridings rejecting the GEGEA and the candidates that espoused it. And earlier this year, the Ontario Federation of Agriculture demanded a moratorium on new wind energy projects until the interests of farmers and rural dwellers were protected. The issue has become such a political hot potato that the future of the Liberal government may well hang in the balance.
It could have been so different. If only the industry had recognized that the local community is a resource every bit as valuable as the wind itself.
In the community of Saint Agatha, a more inspiring story is unfolding. A local co-operative has been formed, with the intent of constructing one wind turbine that will provide electricity equivalent to that consumed by the entire town. Residents are encouraged to buy in to the co-op, and in return they will receive a share of the revenue from the sale of the electricity to the utility.
You can bet that when their dividend cheques start arriving in the mail, they will cast a more skeptical eye on claims that wind turbines cause all manner of harm. Rather than taking such claims at face value, they will rightfully note that they are based on junk science and financed by unions representing workers in the nuclear energy business (which has the most to lose if wind energy really takes off). And you can bet that it won’t be long before someone points out that if one turbine cuts their net electricity bills to zero, two will yield a tidy profit. A community of wind barons is in the making.
If the wind energy sector has a little patience, abandons its habit of doing the bare minimum consultations that the government requires, lets communities take the lead, and shares the benefits with those communities, it will do more than restore its soiled image. It will re-establish itself as one of the best paths toward a clean, sustainable, and profitable energy future.