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Local communities living near proposed wind farms should have the opportunity to invest in the project and thereby afford them the chance to benefit from any financial gains. That’s one of the key messages from a recent report to the Irish government by the National Economic and Social Council (NESC).
The NESC report adds weight to the Fermanagh Trust’s ‘Community Energy: Unleashing the Potential for Communities to Power Change’ document which was launched in February 2014. Both publications demonstrate that placing communities at the heart of renewable energy development is essential and that community energy offers a positive way forward.
The ‘Wind Energy in Ireland: Building Community Engagement and Social Support’ report, in line with the Fermanagh Trust’s report, rightly says that local communities should be able to share the economic benefits of facilitating renewable energy. NESC also point to Denmark, Germany and Canada where schemes have been introduced allowing local communities to invest and share the wealth. In many cases the government arranges or facilitates loans for people to get involved.
As members of the Community Energy Coalition, the Fermanagh Trust recognises that strengthening how communities engage with energy has the potential to create significant social, economic and environmental opportunities.
The NESC report outlines a number of tools for better community engagement and explores the ways local communities can become actively involved in wind energy development. This includes exploring opportunities for communities to avail of shared ownership through equity share, community benefit schemes and a range of options available at community level. Importantly the potential of communities to take a lead in advancing renewable energy projects is recognised in addition to developer led schemes.
The report however recognises that the appropriate policy support and measures would need to be in place in order to support the tools for better engagement which it has outlined, and indeed the report goes on to set out six important recommendations. One of these recommendations includes enabling communities through a Community Energy Strategy.
The issues the NESC identifies in its report and how to address them are important to take on board, particularly given the levels of deployment of renewable energy in Northern Ireland and how the issue of community engagement has become increasingly to the forefront of public debate.
Lauri McCusker, Director of the Fermanagh Trust, who have taken a leadership role in this area said “It is important that we maximise opportunities for communities in Northern Ireland, and ensure that communities are an integral part of energy policy here alongside Government and the private sector. NESC certainly recognises the importance of putting communities first, as too does the Department of Energy and Climate Change who earlier this year published its first ever Community Energy Strategy. Particularly at a time when the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment and other relevant departments in Northern Ireland are in the process of creating a draft action plan on communities and renewable energy, it is important that we seize this opportunity to put communities at the heart of energy policy in Northern Ireland.”