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  • Ildiko Almasi Simsic

Social aspects of wind projects

Lately I’ve been working on a few significant wind projects. The key E&S risks are associated with biodiversity and more specifically with birds and the focus of assessments have shifted in this direction. It is important though to assess the social dimension including labor, supply chain, stakeholder engagement, community health and safety, land access and management of project related grievances. Recently I worked on a project where people were very happy to have a wind farm near their villages, however, they have never seen a turbine and could not even imagine how it works. The Sponsor used renderings, maquette type miniature plastic turbines and also showed videos from other projects. This was a great help to locals to understand the real impacts of such a project.

Based on my experience, I gathered some of the typical social dimensions that need to be integrated into project design and implementation:

1. Community expectations from the project

The wind projects I worked on are situated in rural areas where employment opportunities and opportunities for entrepreneurship are limited. People are engaged in agriculture, livestock rearing or other small-scale production. In some lucky cases, there is a large manufacturing facility or industrial site in the region that provides reliable paid employment for residents. It is no wonder that local communities expect employment opportunities from the project. For renewables, the construction phase is relatively short (up to 3 years depending on size). I work on a solar project where construction is 9-11 months only. This is not sufficient to train locals to undertake specialist jobs for erection of turbines, installation of electrical infrastructure for solar etc. The employment opportunities during the operations phase are even more limited.

Other expectations from energy projects include improved access to electricity and upgrade of infrastructure in the region. It is often outside of the scope of the project as developers will connect to the national grid and sell electricity to the government. There were cases where communities asked for household scale solar panels and other equipment to generate electricity for personal consumption. There is usually a community development or CSR component where these requests could be evaluated.

2. Land impacts

The key longer term social impacts relates to land acquisition, restrictions to land use, restricted access to natural resources and potential physical or economic displacement. I must add that I’ve seen examples of wind projects where herding and livestock rearing was almost undisturbed during the operations phase, however, that very much depends on several factors.

Land related restrictions during operations stem from a buffer zone for each turbine depending on the size, type and climatic conditions (some projects have to factor into ice throw). Awareness raising in the community about health and safety considerations help a lot in preventing accidents resulting from being too close to the turbine.

A well designed wind project will allow access to natural resources, the original or alternative pasture land, ecosystem services and productive land during the operations phase. Visual impacts, though, can become an issue once locals realise how tall the turbines actually are. I mentioned before that Sponsors are increasingly using media tools to show what the turbines and the whole area will look like, but locals often develop a tunnel vision focusing on project benefits. It is then a surprise that their beloved landscape then changes a lot once the turbines are erected. Shadow flickering, potential noise impacts do not seem that significant when they are theoretical, however, complaints often come during operations when the impacts are real. At this point not much can be done, especially if the international best practice was followed in terms of stakeholder engagement, impact assessment, ESMS design and implementation.

3. Supply chain

The list could not be complete without mentioning some of the supply chain concerns related to renewables. The most significant issue is for solar since the polysilicon can only come from a few places where there is an alleged risk of forced labour. For wind, the main suppliers are still based in the country with the most significant contextual labour risk. Some of the main players in wind turbine supply have come a long way even if they are from this particular country. They have developed management plans for labour and working conditions, contractor management, supply chain mapping, third party workers, grievance mechanism etc. As well as auditing and monitoring procedures to ensure that their parts suppliers are also compliant with the supplier level requirements for environmental and social (specifically labour).

I recently worked on a project where we provided a TOR for an on-site labour audit in that particular country to be undertaken by a third party/independent consultant. The audit was focusing on their supply chain mapping, management system on the corporate level and the facility that was audited, and labour, health and safety and working conditions on the facility level. To everyone’s surprise, the findings were not bad. No red flags or immediate actions were identified. The supplier even had a supply chain management system in place that was proportionate to the risks of their operations. The recommendations from the audit were centred around improving existing systems, undertaking overdue due diligence and supplier audits and improving the situation of third party workers.


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