Offshore Renewable Energy Projects: How fit-for-purpose stakeholder engagement tools improve social acceptance

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Since 2016, the offshore wind sector has nearly tripled in size. According to a 2021 study by Rystad Energy, wind power’s overall capacity could potentially reach 109 GW by 2025, and 251 GW by 2030; an average increase of 22% per year. In the U.S., the Biden administration has increased incentives to stimulate offshore wind development, targeting 30 GW of production by 2030.

Other marine energies, which generate power with waves (wave energy), currents (hydrokinetic energy), tides (tidal energy), heat (ocean thermal energy) and salinity (osmotic energy) are being researched, developed, and implemented on a smaller scale.

Despite its environmental credentials, offshore renewable energy is not gaining the degree of social acceptance that it should. In this area, wind turbines stand out once again; because of their number and visibility as well as some of their impacts (bird migration corridors, light pollution), they tend to draw more attention.

Social acceptance is essential to the development of offshore renewable energy projects. Building trusted, productive relationships with project stakeholders is an effective way to achieve this.

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Track and centralize interactions to improve the results of your offshore wind project. See our stakeholder management software in action.

Why is it important to engage stakeholders?

To ensure that projects reach completion

Stakeholder buy-in can mean the difference between a project that is completed successfully and one that never sees the light of day.

In late 2017, the U.S.-based Cape Wind project had to give up its federal lease after working for 16 years to develop an offshore wind farm in Nantucket Sound (located between Cape Cod and Nantucket Island). Opponents of the project accused it of compromising offshore navigation, marine and bird life, and the local economy.

In January 2015, energy providers Eversource and National Grid terminated their purchase agreements with Cape Wind. Finally, in 2016, the state Energy Facilities Siting Board declined to extend the permits that were originally issued in 2009, effectively killing the project.

To comply with regulations

The government bodies that issue land use permits typically include specific obligations for stakeholder engagement as part of the regulatory compliance process.

In Canada, projects interested in applying for a federal seabed authorization may be required to provide Public Services and Procurement Canada (PSPC) with:

  • details of consultations with First Nations (indigenous) communities and/or accommodations agreed to by the parties involved; and
  • details of consultations with all potentially affected stakeholders, “including adjacent provinces, territories and municipalities, other users of the affected seabed, and those who may have an interest in the seabed.”

In 2019, the U.S. Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM) published a revised guide for developers on the information required for site assessment applications, that is, at the very beginning of offshore renewable energy projects.

The documents that are required include a list of agencies and individuals who have been, or will be, consulted about the potential impacts of the company’s activities. For reference, the guide contains examples of relevant agencies and subjects such as:

  • U.S. Coast Guard local authorities
  • Commercial and recreational fisheries management agencies (including users of the area)
  • U.S. Department of Defense (military use and related concerns, such as lighting)
  • U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (navigation safety)
  • Coastal, state and local port authorities (including concerns from users in the area, port authorities, fishing organizations, and the tourism industry)

Moreover, for these types of projects, BOEM also requires reports on stakeholder engagement every 6 months.

These recommendations and requirements show that project social acceptance is becoming increasingly important and that governments want to promote responsible and inclusive projects.

To reduce delays and costs

Rallying stakeholders around a project improves fluidity at all stages and simultaneously helps to control costs.

Better communication means less opposition, which translates to fewer delays and expenses.

Effective, supportive stakeholder engagement can also provide a project with allies who can lend a hand – and a handshake – to help keep things moving forward. This inevitably results in cost savings.

To inform research and development

By listening to stakeholders’ concerns, offshore renewable energy developers can use these issues to guide their investments in research and development. Here’s an example.

Over the years the American Bird Conservancy (a U.S. partner of BirdLife International) has promoted research to assess the risks wind turbines pose to avian populations. They have supported the development of new technologies using a variety of surveillance techniques to detect collisions (including vibration/bioacoustic detection systems, infrared radar, accelerometers, microphones, and video cameras). Renewable energy developers can work to improve these technologies according to their stakeholders’ needs.

To provide a better understanding of their ecosystem

Stakeholder engagement allows an organization to understand their stakeholders’ concerns, as well as the demands they face from different projects.

Depending on the location in question, stakeholders may find themselves petitioned from all sides, whether the projects in question are similar or quite different in nature. Actively engaging in dialogue with stakeholders reduces potential confusion between different entities seeking their approval, especially if their corporate names share a similar word (like ‘Energy,’ for example).

These exchanges also make it possible to observe and understand the relationships that exist between stakeholders, and to be able to use that information wisely.

Who are the stakeholders for offshore renewable energy projects?

Offshore renewable energy projects can involve a wide variety of stakeholders, including some whose distance from the project might suggest otherwise. Here is a list of potential stakeholders that developers may need to negotiate with.

  • Commercial fishers
  • Recreational fishers
  • Consumer and taxpayer advocates
  • Elected officials
  • Labor and businesses
  • Coastal communities
  • Academic institutions
  • Promoters of offshore wind turbines
  • Non-government organizations (NGOs)
  • Regulatory bodies and authorities
  • Owners of submarine cables and offshore infrastructure
  • Maritime and shipping communities
  • Terrestrial utilities
  • Media and journalists
  • Local supply chains

The priority assigned to different stakeholder groups can vary considerably depending on the location of the project, the other actors present in the area, and the people or entities who will be affected. It may be more important, for example, to engage with vulnerable groups in the United States than in Norway, due to strong concerns about environmental justice and the weight of the agencies responsible for addressing them.

For this reason, the first step in an offshore renewable energy project – as with any infrastructure project – is to compile a comprehensive list of all stakeholders. Next, you will need to conduct an in-depth stakeholder analysis. Developers who understand their stakeholders’ concerns are in a better position to approach them effectively and negotiate with them more successfully.

Often, one of the most difficult parts of this exercise is managing the resulting data. The information that is collected must be stored in a way that is secure, accessible, and easy to update. To address this need, more and more large project managers prefer to use a stakeholder management system to handle this crucial information.

Key engagement strategies to drive social acceptance

Involve stakeholders early in the process

From site assessment to the start of production, offshore renewable energy projects can span over a decade. Involving stakeholders from the initial stages of a project has several advantages.

When you show your stakeholders from the start that you are listening to them, and when you give them a voice in the project rather than simply expecting them to accept the consequences, you significantly increase the likelihood that your project will receive social acceptance.

If you consider the concerns raised by stakeholders throughout the process and plan accordingly, you can prevent difficulties instead of scrambling to do damage control after the fact. In addition to building positive, productive relationships with your stakeholders, this will also help reduce costs.

Early contact with stakeholders also creates opportunities to negotiate compromises and tradeoffs with affected communities. Taking the time to clearly understand their needs and concerns is ultimately beneficial to everyone involved.

Bear in mind that this strategy is only effective if the commitments you make to stakeholders are respected. Unfortunately, promises made at the start of a project are not always kept. In many cases, this is due to the lack of a robust, accessible system for documenting commitments. Clearly, these types of oversights can damage your project’s reputation. For this reason, it is essential to provide community relations teams – and anyone responsible for initial mobilization efforts – with user-friendly tools that allow them to document the issues raised and any promises made during initial meetings. Showing stakeholders that you follow through on your commitments is crucial to building and maintaining social license to operate.

Centralize data and make it accessible

The amount and variety of information that is collected, classified, analyzed, and otherwise used during projects of this magnitude is astronomical. To get the most value out of your data, it is essential to centralize it in a single location where information is easily accessible to those who need it.

The long duration of offshore renewable energy projects also justifies centralizing data. These projects involve several stages, each of which can span several years: site selection and planning; infrastructure design, fabrication and construction; operation and maintenance; then the decommissioning and closure of the site once operations are finished. As the project moves through stages, teams and team members may change, new or different consultants may get involved, and stakeholders may evolve.

The data that has been collected over time serves as a collective institutional memory, which can inform project development teams and site use teams as well as infrastructure construction and operations teams.

A carefully documented project history is a valuable asset. By examining previous interactions with a specific stakeholder, new project representatives can prepare more effectively to interact with stakeholders. This can be particularly useful in cases where there have been aggressive or hostile meetings in the past.

Similarly, by reviewing previous discussions and commitments, teams can be sure to follow up, reducing the risks of frustration and disappointment – or even litigation – from stakeholders.

See how our stakeholder management software can track and centralize interactions to improve the results of an offshore wind project.

Use geographic information systems

The more data a developer collects about a project’s stakeholders, the more likely they will understand their stakeholders’ concerns and be able to respond appropriately.

If they can also link this information to geographic data systems and quickly view their stakeholders on a map, they can work even more efficiently.

Here are a few resources that offer a wealth of relevant, accessible information regarding the preparation and development of offshore renewable energy projects.

Global Offshore Renewable Map: interactive map that lists offshore renewable energy projects and other related projects, with their level of progress.

Oceans 3.0 Data Portal: data from wired observatories, mobile platforms and stand-alone instruments. Portal of Ocean Networks Canada.

Copernicus Marine Service: provides data on the state of the oceans, globally and regionally. Funded by the European Commission (EC).

By using intermediate languages between software, such as APIs, it is possible to automatically link this mapping data to a stakeholder management system and thus eliminate many blind spots in your engagement activities.

Remember

  • The offshore energy sector is growing at breakneck speed to meet ambitious production targets.
  • Stakeholder engagement offers many valuable benefits in terms of social harmony, legal compliance, maximizing investments, minimizing delays and controlling costs.
  • Offshore renewable energy projects should identify and assess stakeholders from the very first stages of a project and begin collecting data to gain a thorough understanding of their issues and concerns.
  • All this data, as well as any data gathered during discussions and negotiations with stakeholders over the course of the project, should be centralized and made accessible to the different teams that will follow one another as the stages are completed.

Social acceptance has become an integral part of any major project that could have potentially disruptive consequences for the environment and the individuals affected. Offshore renewable energy developers cannot ignore it: the success of their business – but also, the entire industry – depends on it.

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Borealis stakeholder engagement software today!