Local stakeholder participation at Cookhouse Wind Farm
The Cookhouse Wind Farm, located between the towns of Cookhouse and Bedford in the Eastern Cape, is a Round 1 REIPPP (Renewable Energy Independent Power Producer Procurement Programme) Project and currently South Africa's largest wind farm with an installed capacity of 138.6MW from 66 Suzlon S88 turbines. It is also the only large renewable energy project currently underway known to have implemented a fully functioning community liaison office for active engagement with local residents and businesses in the area, providing thought and process leadership for other South African renewables projects either under construction, reaching financial close or fully operational. Through thorough community liaison, local stakeholders are kept informed of developments and the project has a far better chance of acceptance and broader appreciation for the benefits that the wind farm may bring to the area.
South Africa's renewable energy program has so far resulted in the implementation of 47 wind, solar and small-hydro projects and preparation for another 17 projects is underway. Some Round 1 wind and solar plants have already completed construction and are connected to the national electricity grid generating power. The remainder of 2014 will see all other Round 1 projects reach commercial operations.
Whilst the achievements of one of the biggest utility-scale renewable energy programmes in the world currently are to be applauded, public awareness about renewables, and the procurement programme in particular, is lacking. Some of the project developers have been more forthcoming in this regard than others however, choosing to contribute to the public debate through regular updates on their project progress.
One such project is the Cookhouse Wind Farm with outstanding efforts being made by the Cookhouse Wind Farm Community Liaison Office. The Liaison Office is currently managed by the developer of the Wind Farm – African Clean Energy Developments (ACED) – essentially providing these services to the Wind Farm Project Company, majority owned by African Infrastructure Investment Fund 2 ("AIIF2") and Apollo Investment Partnership II ("Apollo"), both specialised infrastructure funds managed and advised by African Infrastructure Investment Managers ("AIIM"). Investors in AIIF2 and Apollo include institutions from South Africa and internationally and reflect a commitment by these institutions to the long term establishment of renewable energy solutions in South African and African infrastructure generally. The Cookhouse case has been so successful that the model has been replicated on other projects implemented by Cookhouse shareholders – the Hopefield Wind Farm and the REISA Kathu Solar PV Park.
James Cumming of ACED shared some of their experiences and reflections in an interview with the University of Cape Town's Energy Research Centre.
Where did the idea for a Community Liaison Office come from?
ACED, the Cookhouse Wind Farm Project Company and it's shareholders place great value on participatory and consultative community and stakeholder engagement. With this in mind and the progressive economic development commitments made to the Department of Energy and ultimately the local community, ACED proposed that a Liaison Office be established at Financial Close. ACED has been working on the development of Cookhouse and other wind farms in the area since 2009 and thus was well placed to manage the office, harnessing the relationships made and upholding continuity for the community.
What does the office do?
Essentially it serves as the interface between the Project and the local communities of Cookhouse, Bedford, Somerset East and Adelaide. The office is staffed with two permanent and one part time employee who constantly engage with local government, residents, businesses and other stakeholders. Although it is communication and engagement that is at the heart of the Liaison Office operations initially this was labour focused. The office hosts a database in which local job seekers and service providers can register their skills and availability. This is then provided to the contractor and sub-contractors and used as the primary source of local employment. As the wind farm has progressed closer to commercial operation, readiness for economic development initiative become a key objective. The office team facilitates large- and small-scale community meetings to provide updates and consult on matters such as the Community Trust establishment process as well as labour and local contract opportunities. They also hold regular meetings with a Community Engagement Committee that it established with the local Blue Crane Development Agency. Project progress updates and interesting facts and information are disseminated through a Local Area Circular that is sent to a mailing list, online forums, and local newspapers, as well as posted on municipal and public notice boards and outside the office itself. It includes updates on construction, local labour figures, local wind farm goodwill projects and initiatives and Community Trust development etc.
As mentioned, the project is also sponsoring small goodwill projects during the construction phase and this is project managed by the Liaison Office. Such projects include a sponsored football tournament, a school competition for building a wind turbine model with lectures given by an engineer on renewable energy and wind power and a greening project whereby 66 trees are being planted at different beneficiary locations symbolizing the number of turbines on site.
The office also supports the socio-economic development efforts that the project is investing in. Appointed consultants are assisted and accompanied when discussing opportunities for local economic development with active people and organisations in the area.
What are the main benefits for the project?
The benefits are very clear. The Wind Farm Project Company and the EPC Contractor, Suzlon, understand, with the help of the office, "who is who" in the area and are able to adhere to local norms and processes in developing long term sustainable relationships as the Wind Farm becomes a member of the community. For instance, recruiting local residents as workers and procuring services from local businesses is conducted in an open and transparent way. Any local issues or contention is able to be dealt with quickly and clearly. Furthermore, the office assists the Project in understanding the needs and assests of the local area, highlighting potential for the socio-economic development initiatives when operations commence. Once this is underway the office's role will change, with it becoming a repository for project proposals and serving as a project manager in implementing initiatives and monitoring their effectiveness, all the while harnessing long term relationships developed through the construction process and before. The fact that this happens locally is key to impact and sustainability.