The wind industry is encountering more opposition than ever. Renewable energy has certainly become hyper-politicized, with legislative skirmishes over the production tax credit or renewable portfolio standards dominating the headlines, driven by the excitement over the involvement of ALEC, the Heritage Foundation and the Kochs.
However, local battles are burning red hot as well, and million-dollar projects have been deemed dead at the hands of community problems. It is time for the entire wind industry to realize that community engagement is a necessary part of development.
Community engagement is more than just signing landowners to lucrative deals or doing Indiana Bat studies. More often than not, developers do not go the extra mile to truly engage the local community. They take a successful outcome for granted based on the additional tax dollars they provide or assume they can quietly escape the wrath of opposition by trying to avoid it. Failure to engage consistently costs developers several hundreds of thousands of dollars in construction delays, if not millions in sunk costs because the project never gets off the ground.
The greater problem for the industry is that now is that one poorly planned engagement can turn into legislation that could ban the industry from an entire state. Armed with the political tides of local opposition to wind in his or her district, all it takes is one lawmaker to introduce a bill that provides onerous restrictions on the industry to negate all off its benefits.
None of this has to happen – or at least not without a fair fight. As a wind developer, you can almost always prove successful by establishing the following best practices to engage the local community:
1. Determine your goals and timeline for the outreach plan based on other development timetables. Ideally, you will have at least three months to implement your plan, if not longer.
2. Research! Spend time doing a deep dive into the history of the community you’re about to enter. Identify the most influential families, businesses, churches, organizations and landowners. Get a high-level sense for their politics and voting patterns, traditions and anything else you can learn about them.
3. Map out your stakeholders and draft an engagement plan that you can commit to during execution phases. Think of this as the big detective board in a criminal investigation. Keeping everything organized is hugely important. Make certain to include expected supporters, opponents, neutral people, persuadable stakeholder groups, state and local elected officials (sometimes federal), and media targets.
4. Develop engagement strategies for the people you already know, as well as for the people you don’t know. The latter group will require a different approach, and “warm” intros can go a long way in quickly developing those relationships.
5. Get your entire internal development team, communications department and consultants on the same page and keep them there. This is one of the most challenging parts to effective outreach, but it’s also essential for a successful outcome.
6. Set up an outreach calendar specifically for this purpose, complete with individual responsibilities, and keep everyone accountable.
7. Engage everyone – in person, if possible – at least three times to build a trusting line of communication. This applies especially to the opposition. They will likely never support the project, but the last thing you ever want them to do in a public hearing is accuse you of avoiding them.
8. Monitor your progress and document your actions with stakeholders. Always check in with the rest of your team and coordinate your efforts. Be willing to adjust your strategy and timeline if or whenever necessary.
9. Be present in the community, especially at times when you don’t need anything from its members. Rent an office space in a visible location, and maintain regular hours to provide walk-in access to information. Attend community events even if you’re not on the agenda. Support local causes that need supporting because it’s natural responsibility.
10. Don’t hide from politics. Seek to understand how it impacts your project, and sensibly embrace the local political dynamics of the community. Local county executives are usually quick to support an easy addition to their tax base; however, they also need to know that their community supports the project. Make sure they hear from supporters on a regular basis, because you can be assured that they will already be hearing from the opposition. You need to balance out this dialogue as much as possible.
11. Ask for help from your supporters. Make specific, strategic requests based on why they back you, but respect their time and be careful not to overuse individual supporters.
12. Stack the deck at public hearings, and plan for it well ahead of time. Make absolutely certain you have more supporters in the room than the opposition and that they are well prepared. If you’ve done your job leading up to the hearing, getting all of your supporters there should not be a problem. However, never be presumptuous about success – a poor performance at a hearing can change everything.
When the outcome of a local hearing goes against a developer, the best-case scenario is that the company will spend hundreds of thousands of dollars trying to play catch-up to the opposition and eventually succeed in changing the mind of an entire community. The worst-case scenario is that the developer loses a multimillion-dollar investment because the project never moves beyond a simple conditional use permit hearing.
But it is not just about the dollars and cents. It is about understanding that smart community engagement pays dividends beyond a permit victory and local community acceptance. Your reputation follows you on to the next project – and the project after that.
Ben Kelahan is partner and Jan Christian Andersen is vice president of energy strategy at Five Corners Strategies, a consulting and strategic communications advisory.
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