Energising communities in rural Ireland

SSE Airtricity has a proud heritage of delivering clean, green energy to people and businesses across the island of Ireland. Through the construction and operation of our wind farms, we provide renewable energy, invest in local jobs and businesses, and support community projects. It is clear to us that a large part of our success is down to the relationships we have built and grown in the communities close to our projects.

We believe that being commercially successful, and the longevity of this success, must be earned. That’s why we aim to make a positive impact and go beyond our bottom line – as well as promoting green energy generation, we work with communities close to our wind farms to share value and create real, long-term benefits for local people.

The way we engage with communities from the conception of our projects through to construction, and on to operation and eventually decommissioning, is as important to our project teams as ensuring we purchase our turbines and blades from a reliable supplier, or protecting the native habitat and local wildlife over the lifetime of the wind farm. We strongly believe that businesses must play their part by contributing to social, environmental and economic well-being close to their developments.

As Ireland’s largest generator of wind power, we have a unique opportunity to use our power for good. One of the most significant ways we do this is through our Community Fund programme. The community funds aim to support, energise and help invigorate local communities; funding projects from rainwater harvesting to energy-efficient football pitch lighting, and even the provision of ‘meals on wheels’ for elderly people.

The programme has grown in numbers, status and impact over the years. We have now granted over €5m across rural Ireland through the community funds, supporting more than 2,000 important and valuable community-led projects. All communities within a 20km radius of our wind farms are eligible to apply for the funds, with priority given to groups located within a 5km vicinity.

Our community funding model prioritises energy efficiency projects – last year we invested just under half a million euro, around 70% of the total funds granted that year, to help rural communities go green. We believe this is the best way of helping ensure value is created and retained for the communities; it reduces their energy bills now and for the long-term, and consequently empowers them to spend their money in a way that works for them. Then there’s the decreased carbon footprint too, a benefit for us all.

One of our newest projects, still in construction, is Galway Wind Park (GWP) – a joint venture between SSE and commercial forestry company, Coillte – which will become Ireland’s largest wind farm. Once operational later this year, GWP will be responsible for generating what is set to be Ireland’s biggest community fund for an onshore wind project, as well as enough renewable energy to power around 89,000 homes.

The team at GWP aims to set the benchmark for best-in-class large scale project delivery. Of course, that means engagement with the local community long before any community funds are granted.

Inevitably, local communities will be impacted during the construction phase of any large infrastructure project. A community programme has therefore been developed and tailored by the GWP project team to the specific social, economic and cultural fabric of the region. The approach is three pronged – consult early, communicate often, and actively demonstrate the benefits – with an objective of leaving an enduring legacy throughout the lifetime of the wind park and beyond.

SSE and Coillte have a dedicated local community liaison team who provide frequent communication and engagement with the public, community bodies, elected representatives and the media. On the ground, they have met with the project management team on site monthly throughout construction; providing a forum to review, assess and plan community activities. Engagement methods have included community consultation events, meetings and workshops, door-to-door calls, project newsletters in both English and as Gaeilge, and stakeholder site visits.

This has all helped to ensure a number of benefits have been delivered – the creation of local jobs and support for local businesses; education initiatives delivered to local schools; and funds provided to support local clubs and events. Last year, with Coillte, we published our Galway Wind Park Sustainability Impact Report which provides the evidence and numbers to back up this claim.

At SSE Airtricity, it is our commitment to support the people who live near our wind farms for the lifetime of each project and to make sure we enable those communities to maximise the opportunities our wind farms can offer them. This has always been our vision of best practice. As our wind portfolio grows over time and continues to mature, the standards we set ourselves to remain leaders in this area will inevitably evolve too.

About the author

Marian Troy Head of Corporate Affairs, SSE Ireland

Marian Troy is Head of Corporate Affairs with SSE Ireland. This involves keeping up to date with policy developments affecting our retail, generation and renewable business areas and putting forward SSE’s views at industry and government fora and through consultation processes. Marian holds a Bachelor of Laws (Ll.B. (Hons)) degree and Masters degree in Regional and Urban Planning.

Read more articles by Marian Troy