Several island and coastal communities in the U.S. have found themselves at the forefront of offshore wind debates due to their proximity to proposed offshore wind sites, as well as economic and cultural connections to adjacent ocean spaces (e.g., reliance on fishing, sense of place reinforced by aesthetic views). As such, New England island residents are likely to be among the first positively and/or negatively impacted by this technology. Community members may influence the future of this industry by obstructing, accommodating, or championing this new use of ocean space.
New England islands engaging in discussions about offshore wind projects include:
- Block Island, Rhode Island – hosts the Block Island Wind Farm, the first installed offshore wind project in the U.S.
- Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket, Massachusetts – are proximate to an active federal leasing area, notably Vineyard Wind, a project currently moving through the federal regulatory process.
- Monhegan, Maine – directly abuts the proposed Maine Aqua Ventus project where developers are focused on refining their floating turbine prototype.
Creating an environment of respect and incorporating various types of knowledge (local, experiential, and scientific) is critical for making learning accessible, facilitating a robust decision-making process, and potentially improving social acceptance of the outcome.
HOW IT WORKS
By bringing together local residents, wind developers, researchers, engineers, and state and federal decision-makers, stakeholders can engage in meaningful discussions, learn from each other, and carefully consider and respond to the trade-offs that come with developing an offshore wind project. This involves creating an environment in which stakeholders’ values as well as local, scientific, and political knowledge can be shared, understood, considered, and used to inform the project development process.
Understand both values and facts. Values can reflect community priorities, place attachments, and reveal the significance that people associate with places. Facts can be derived from relevant science, engineering, and local knowledge. If the values and manner in which proponents provide information offends community stakeholders, learning opportunities may disintegrate and stakeholders may be less likely to accept the project. Similarly, if community members withhold information about place attachments or other threatened values, developers cannot incorporate these into the project design.
Provide readily available and appropriate information. In order to have informed opinions, people in adjacent communities need easy access to information about offshore wind technology, including general information, the specifics of the project, and how this development could impact individuals and their communities. This information should be made readily available through locally-defined channels that might include local newsletters, bulletin boards in high-traffic areas (community-oriented spaces such as libraries or ferries), or made accessible online. Opportunities for different styles of learners, such as interpersonal, reading, experiential, etc. should also be provided. In addition, local knowledge and priorities often need to be translated so developers and other external stakeholders have a strong understanding and can effectively incorporate local expertise and values.
Design deliberative learning opportunities. Deliberative learning is the exchange of knowledge and values in a group setting. Whether through stakeholder meetings or other inter-community exchanges, these opportunities are important for developing trust, mutual respect, and more satisfying outcomes between those engaged in the decision-making process.
Be mindful of the messenger. The individuals or groups who share and/or translate facts and values between stakeholders play an important role in the communication process. Skill is needed to translate technical information into language that helps people learn and doesn’t alienate non-specialists. Also, in many circumstances, local knowledge and values need to be translated so that project proponents and those working at regional or larger scales can better understand the credibility and legitimacy of local perspectives.
Enlist bridging organizations to act as liaisons between communities and developers. Bridging organizations who are accountable to both the local communities and project proponents can help translate facts and values and create opportunities for sharing knowledge that informs decision-making. This objective third party can support community engagement efforts and the public outreach process, but doesn’t push for or benefit from a specific outcome beyond information sharing.
Engage communities early and often. By timing stakeholder engagement before final site selection, people have opportunities to voice their concerns as a part of the decision-making process, and public mistrust, skepticism, and opposition to project proposals can be reduced. Early engagement can dispel community members’ fears of finding out too late to become meaningfully involved in the decision process. In addition, by clearly outlining the steps of the process and the timeline for making the decision, stakeholders can determine the best way to engage in the process.
Uncertainties in early stages. Due to uncertainties in the early stages of project development, it can be challenging to engage communities in discussion before specific project details are confirmed. Wind farm developers can spend years collecting information to determine an optimal site and comply with regulatory requirements. Often, when developers engage in community meetings during this early stage, they share incomplete information which can frustrate local stakeholders who feel as though the project is intentionally withholding information. Uncertainty of the impacts at this stage can also frustrate community members. Upstream research is a way to navigate uncertainties associated with new technology and the impacts it may have. Ocean planning can be used by state, tribal, and federal agencies to facilitate upstream research.
- Block Island hired consultants to help facilitate the mutual learning experience. The consultants listened to the community, translated their concerns, and represented community needs to the developers. The developers reimbursed the town for the cost of the consultants.
- Values clarification – The prioritization of sustainability issues and the search for potential solutions in the Martha’s Vineyard Island Plan provide important framing for both Vineyard residents and external stakeholders. Martha’s Vineyard residents were also able to apply those values when providing input on their preference of the windfarm’s location.
- The Monhegan Energy Task Force and the Monhegan Community Benefits Advisory Committee facilitated information exchange about community priorities, questions, concerns, and project information, between residents and off-island stakeholders.
POTENTIAL COMMUNITY BENEFITS
Community benefits are funds or investments that a project developer often provides to host communities or stakeholder groups near project sites, and can help balance the private and public benefits associated with an infrastructure project, including an offshore wind farm. They are required by law in some contexts and voluntary in others.
Defining appropriate community benefits requires developers, government authorities, and communities to reach a common understanding of: who should the beneficiaries be? What are the impacts? How could the impacts be mitigated? What kind of benefits are suitable? How do communities, benefits, and impacts relate to one another.
Collaboratively-developed community benefits aim to address the mismatch between offshore wind farms’ local costs, likely impacts to views, the local environment, preexisting activities like fishing, anticipated future uses, and regional or global benefits such as decreased carbon emissions and diversified electricity sources. It is recommended that impacts be mitigated as much as possible at the outset of this process.
Community benefit models are most effective when developers, communities, and government authorities work collaboratively to come to a shared understanding of the definitions of community, benefits, and impacts, as well as how these components relate to each other. This process of clarification, facilitated by access to locally-relevant and accessible information, can help determine the appropriate benefits for a specific community.
Early discussions among government authorities, developers, and communities are needed to arrive at acceptable definitions and understandings of communities, benefits, impacts, and how they relate to each other.
Bring stakeholders together early. Establish meetings between government authorities, communities, and developers to establish a shared understanding and clearly identify the scale, role, and purpose of the community benefits.
Identify who will be impacted, and who should benefit. Beneficiary communities can be defined by locations (e.g. a town or an island), interests and practices (e.g. fishermen and sailors), groups adversely impacted (e.g. fishermen), organizations (e.g. non-profits and schools), and other attributes such as demographic characteristics.
Determine why and how to provide benefits. Benefits can be understood as sharing economic gains associated with using a public resource like wind. During this process, it’s important to identify the parties involved, whether it’s a developer seeking to be a good neighbor or communities who receive benefits for hosting infrastructure, and account for and minimize impacts. Benefits may be used to increase local support and provide compensation for agreed upon and specific losses, such as funds to improve habitats for birds at high risk of collision with turbines.
Look at the impacts. When considering the community benefits of an offshore wind project, communities can create a local process to identify the environmental, social, and economic impacts of the project and learn if they are perceived in a positive or negative way. Many formal project decision-makers such as state and federal agencies will use their own process to evaluate impacts, but communities may also find it helpful to define the issues most important to them.
Consider the types of benefits to offer and when to integrate them. Community benefits take different forms in different places. Offshore wind community benefit models in Europe (where the industry has existed for more than two decades) include: community funds, shares, distribution of revenues, direct investment and project funding, jobs, apprenticeships and studentships, educational programs, and electricity discounts. Benefits can be integrated into various stages of a project (planning, permitting, mitigation, operation, and decommissioning).
Land-based wind developers in some areas, including the State of Maine, are required to provide specific financial benefits to host communities. However, requirements for offshore wind projects may be less detailed or only voluntary, depending on the state.
As impacts and local priorities will vary, communities have different needs, so benefits need to be personalized to each host community.
Benefits to Block Island:
- Mainland grid connection
- Reduced electricity rates
- Reduced need for on-island power generation- removes need to annually import one million gallons of diesel and has led to significant noise reduction and air quality improvements around the power company
- On-island power infrastructure improved
- Fiber-optic strands in cable bundle provided to municipality to increase internet speed
- Local jobs- fishermen and mariners hired to provide security during construction.
Benefits to Martha’s Vineyard:
- The project is embedded in the Vineyard Power Cooperative’s mission.
- The Vineyard Power Cooperative members are leading the siting decision.
- The Community Benefit Agreement included a discount on the lease of ocean space for the developer.
Benefits to Monhegan:
- Two benefit options – a submarine cable interconnect to provide power off-take at no cost and access to fiber; payments in lieu of a cable – were evaluated by the Monhegan Community Benefits Committee with the support of technical experts and engagement of island residents.
- At a November 2017 special town meeting, voters supported a recommendation to accept the payment option
- In earlier stages of the project, island fishermen were hired to help with site assessment and environmental monitoring.
Originally Published November 2017