Offshore wind: how to keep friends and not alienate people

The final design for the Rampion offshore wind farm, to be located off the coast of Brighton, was released last week.

The final plans reveal a significant reduction in the size of the array. This is both good and bad news for local stakeholders, and illustrates the reasons why compromise is the key when planning big infrastructure projects.

The consultation process has been part of a new paradigm of energy planning, which seeks to involve local stakeholders from the very start; by getting potential opponents involved, the process has revealed that significant reductions in public opposition can be maintained when participatory planning methods are used.

The latest press release and project documents reveal that the size of the Rampion site has been significantly reduced, meaning that the overall nameplate capacity of the array has dropped from a planned 700MW to the new plan of 400MW. This was apparently due to ‘technical and financial constraints’. It’s always difficult to quite figure out why an energy company makes it decisions, but it appears that placing turbines on certain areas of the site would have led to technological challenges and cost increases which the developers couldn’t sustain.

This is great news for some of the opponents of the scheme, as it reduces the visual impact and reduces the potential impact on wildlife in the proposed area of the array. However, clearly it’s bad news for the overall aim of increasing low-carbon renewable in-feed to the UK electricity system. Offshore wind is supposed to be the UK’s ‘flagship’ technology (at least, ever since the current government decided to stop supporting onshore wind), and this reduction in capacity comes during a bout of project delays and cancellations to other proposed arrays.

However, from my perspective, one of the most interesting features of this development is the way in which the public relations aspect has been handled from the start. As a member of one of the project liaison groups, and after speaking to several members of other project liaison groups, it seems as if the ways ‘energy planning’ is carried out has started to change.

Previously, energy infrastructure projects seemed to involve getting the local politicians on-side from the start, and then keeping the project under wraps until the diggers were basically already rolling in. I have experienced this occurring with projects ranging from gas, renewables, nuclear and even essential network infrastructure, and it seems to occur in spite of research which indicates that if local people feel disenfranchised it could leave your project far more vulnerable to disruption due to local opposition.[i] For a long time, the Hitchhikers Guide analogy (“the planning notice was on display in the bottom of a locked filing cabinet stuck in a disused lavatory with a sign on the door saying ‘Beware of the Leopard’”) has been only too accurate.[ii]

The Rampion project, on the other hand, has involved diverse local stakeholders from the very start. This has included local residents of the areas where work will be taking place, local businesses, community leaders, environmentalists and fishermen, as well as exhibitions and events for the general public. The negotiations revealed that often, the grounds on which people protest are connected to highly specific aspects of a project, and these concerns can be significantly reduced or even removed during the planning process; in the words of one stakeholder, “All this is costing you a huge amount of money, but it buys you an immense amount of good will!”

In fact, even where certain impacts could not be mitigated, the simple act of taking the time to explain in detail the reasoning behind decisions reduces opposition in itself. One stakeholder said “Credit should be given where it’s due for the way that you’ve reacted to the comments which have been raised along the consultation process”.

Full praise should go to Natural PR, the firm in charge of the consultation process. However, in the future, we need a more robust means of assessing the impact of these kinds of negotiations on public acceptance. Empirical evidence would be useful to show the ways in which effective communication and ensuring the participation of local stakeholders can significantly reduce the grounds upon which people voice objections.

With this as a starting point, perhaps disenfranchisement and a lack of local legitimacy in energy projects could become a thing of the past.

[i] Cohen, J.J., Reichl, J. and Schmidthaler, M. (2014) Re-focussing research efforts on the public acceptability of energy infrastructure: a critical review. Energy, Vol. 76: 4-9

[ii] Adams, D. (1979) The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. Pan Books, London


Emily Cox is a PhD researcher with the Sussex Energy Group, researching electricity security in the context of a low-carbon transition. Her main research interests are energy security, UK electricity markets, stakeholder engagement and energy behaviour. She also works as an energy policy advisor for the Royal Academy of Engineering, and as a research intern at the University of Oxford. Emily currently tutors an MSc course in Energy Policy for Sustainability at the University of Sussex.



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3 comments on “Offshore wind: how to keep friends and not alienate people
  1. CrisisMaven says:

    “… why compromise is the key when planning big infrastructure projects …” I rather suspect you fell for a trap that the Battelle Institute developed in the 1970s when they studied popular resistance against things from skyscrapers to nuclear sites. In the end they came to the very same conclusion: hand in planning application for a skyscraper 100 storeys high, then get “local stakeholders involved” and eventually settle for 50. Which was the height you wanted to be granted permission for all along. So does “…significant reduction in the size of the array …” ring a bell?

    • Emily Cox says:

      Thanks for the comment CrisisMaven! You’re absolutely right in suggesting that it’s a common tactic to reduce the impact and then to claim that it’s being done with the interests of local stakeholders at heart (as suggested by all the recent Rampion publicity). My actual feeling is that local stakeholder opinion had nothing to do with the eventual reduction in the size of the array; the reduction was due to a combination of economic and technological issues with parts of the original proposed site. In this, you’re absolutely correct in stating that the publicity has been carefully constructed to hide the economic incentives underlying the changes to the final plans.

      However, you misunderstand me when you state that I’ve ‘fallen for a trap’. My positive comments on the stakeholder process were not based on the eventual reduction of the size of the array; they are based on the way that the finer detail of the project has been conducted using the expertise of local people and groups. Since the consultation began several years ago, numerous smaller issues – for instance, habitat protection, noise reduction, the impact on local transport routes, the tracking of fish populations – have been worked through with the input of stakeholders. Many of these issues were initially unfamiliar to the Rampion project team (who knew that rare acid grassland on the South Downs was a Thing?!), and were included in the impact assessments at the behest of local stakeholders, many of whom are experts in relevant fields.

      Local stakeholders are not just locals, they are also experts and professionals, and therefore perform a dual role: filling in gaps in the information held by the developers, and providing local support and legitimacy. This is the type of stakeholder involvement that I feel developers should aim to conduct every single time a big infrastructure project is carried out.

      On the other hand, as you suggest, I do wish that developers would stop cynically claiming that ‘local opinion’ is the reason behind big decisions such as the eventual size of the project. We all know that the main reason behind these changes is a cost-benefit analysis; claiming that it is otherwise merely undermines the legitimacy which they’ve worked so hard to create.

  2. Thurstan Crockett says:

    Good piece and discussion here – early impression of stakeholder work was they needed a lot of help, which they were open to, and built on; and listened and explained well, as you say.

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