Prestigious fellowship awarded to researcher looking at maximising co-benefits of new energy projects

19 February 2020

Prestigious fellowship awarded to researcher looking at maximising co-benefits of new energy projects

Energy social sciences expert, Dr Kathy Witt (centre), at the Fellowship announcement event held at Parliament House on 19 February 2020. Pictured here being congratulated by UQ Vice-Chancellor, Peter Høj (L), and Kate Jones MP, Minister for Innovation and Tourism Industry Development and the Minister for the Commonwealth Games (R).

A UQ Centre for Natural Gas researcher has been awarded a prestigious fellowship to look at how communities adapt, manage the downside and maximise the benefits when a new large-scale energy project is developed in their backyard.

Building on experience and expertise developed during the recent large scale natural gas developments in Queensland, energy social sciences expert, Dr Kathy Witt, will be working on a game-changing tool to enable communities to better understand and capture long term social and economic benefits from large-scale energy resources development. The Fellowship will explore the opportunities for shared value and regional benefits from new energy projects, including large-scale wind and solar and hydrogen.

The importance of this under-researched area has come to the fore as the drive towards a lower carbon economy is set to herald a raft of new energy projects such as large-scale solar and possibly future hydrogen. Development of any new large-scale energy project brings a range of challenges (land use, water impacts, employment, visual amenity etc.) to be managed and opportunities which can be leveraged across a broad range of stakeholders.

Fellowship receipient, Dr Kathy Witt (centre), pictured with CSIRO's Justine Lacey (L) and Liz Edwards from Arrow (R).  Throughout the Fellowship, Dr Witt will spend time embedded at Arrow, to ensure deep, ongoing industry engagement.

While the majority of research has focussed on the technical and environmental aspects of new energy technologies, there has been less work in the foundational social sciences to understand how energy projects can best co-exist with other land uses and the regional communities which host them.

UQ has taken a leading position in this field, having hosted a long term study of social and economic effects on communities during development of the coal seam gas industry in Queensland. Early research revealed that each community and sub-group within the community was affected and adapted differently, making it clear that there was no one-size fits all approach. A new way of assessing and managing impacts and opportunities was needed.

Taking years of data and feedback from an intensive community engagement program with gasfields communities and key stakeholders, UQ researcher Dr Kathy Witt was a key driver in development of a novel system of indicators to measure and guide the positive and negative impacts of large scale energy resource development. The research was conducted through the UQ Centre for Natural Gas, a centre of research excellence conducting real-world research focussed on optimising Australia’s natural gas industry.

At its core, the indicators system gives researchers, stakeholders and decision makers the tools to assess the cumulative effects of multiple energy projects on local communities, developing a detailed understanding of impacts and opportunities at the town level.

“As other industries heard about the work, we’ve begun to see that the tool could be adapted for any community facing new energy development - to capture the economic opportunities presented, and leverage them to attain sustainable outcomes, rather than falling into the ‘boom-bust’ resource development scenario,” says Dr Witt.

“It also provides a much needed systematic monitoring framework, to build shared understanding of change between the community, industry and government,” she says.

Seeing its broader potential application, in the face of the expected boom of new energy development in Queensland as Australia works towards a lower emissions future, the Queensland Government have awarded Dr Witt a Fellowship through their Advance Queensland program to take this work to the next level.

This new research focusses on enabling a ‘just’ transition to a lower carbon economy by exploring stakeholders' expectations and opportunities for regional co-benefits from new energy projects – with a focus on large-scale solar and possible future hydrogen, drawing on key lessons learned from the development of the coal seam gas industry in Queensland.

Dr Witt is excited to be part of this important project in the long energy transition to a lower emissions future. She explains the complicated energy mix needed to keep the lights on and keep power affordable while keeping emissions down is not well understood. She says funding a better understanding of how best to manage the development of the diverse range of energy technologies, which will be needed for the everyday Queenslander, is an important step forward.  “Sharing benefits from new energy projects, if coordinated well, can create much broader positive outcomes toward social and economic sustainability in often struggling regional communities,” she says.

“The greatest outcome of this research will be for Queensland’s regional communities themselves. Understanding expectations and opportunities for co-benefits is essential for community acceptance required to develop affordable and sustainable energy supplies in Queensland.”

Dr Witt says that the backing by the broad and diverse collaboration that have come together for the first time to support this work, was key to being awarded the Fellowship. "The strength of this project is the level of engagement and collaboration across such a range of organisations, including vital funding from The University of Queensland Centre for Natural Gas and its industry partners (Arrow Energy, APLNG and Santos), as well as the Queensland Farmers' Federation, Southern Queensland Landscapes, Comet Ridge and CSIRO Responsible Innovation Initiative," she says.

The Queensland Government Advance Queensland Fellowship was awarded at a ceremony at Parliament House on 19 February 2020.