The article below was Published February 3rd, 2014 in Environmental Leader.
For millennia, humans have burned biological material as an energy source. Biomass, composed predominately of plants and microorganisms, has made a resurgence in recent decades as a sustainable form of energy. Biomass facilities provide communities with this sustainable form of energy while also providing new jobs and a new source of tax revenue upon a facility’s completion. However, not ever community is welcoming of a biomass facility due to concerns regarding air quality, increased construction traffic, and its sheer aesthetic impact on neighborhoods. NIMBY, or “not in my backyard,” opponents to biomass facilities across the United States and United Kingdom run fierce opposition campaigns, significantly delaying project completion or even causing cancellation. However, certain tactics can be employed to ensure a greater likelihood of gaining public approval for biomass facilities so that companies can avoid drawn-out battles with opponents.
One example of a long, drawn-out battle between biomass facility developers and NIMBY opponents took place in the United Kingdom. As part of a plan to develop four facilities across Scotland, Forth Energy announced a proposed biomass facility in the Leith docks and waterfront area of Edinburgh in 2009. The facility would generate enough energy to power one million homes and provide an important energy source to the long-term Leith docks redevelopment plan. Additionally, the facility would provide forty-five permanent jobs, 450-700 construction jobs, and thirty cargo handling jobs. Despite these benefits, a long battle with opponents ensued. The opposition’s campaign referenced other biomass facilities in the UK that were shut down due to air quality concerns, recruited Scottish Parliament members to speak out against the project at a national level, and wrote over 1,800 letters of opposition to the local government. During this time, almost no supporters came forward. The project became one of the most controversial projects in Scotland and was ultimately cancelled in 2012.
Biomass facilities in the US have faced just as much scrutiny as the Leith project. In Valdosta, Georgia, a biomass facility proposed in 2009 went through a two-year battle with local opponents over its construction. Opponents organized a widespread campaign, enlisting students at Valdosta State University, the Valdosta branch of the NAACP, and environmental groups to speak out against the project. In 2011, opponents organized a sit-in protest outside the company’s offices, garnering widespread attention to the project. Ultimately, the company abandoned the project in 2011 due to the difficulty brought on by the fierce opposition campaign.
Both Leith and Valdosta demonstrate how opponents of biomass projects develop in size and force, eventually overwhelming companies and forcing the abandonment of these projects. Biomass is a renewable, carbon-neutral form of energy, which creates no net gain in atmospheric carbon dioxide from combustion. Opponents overlook these positives to focus on preventing a facility from becoming part of their community. Moving forward, biomass companies can take important steps to ensure greater opportunities for a project to receive public support.
The release of detailed information to the public alongside a project’s announcement is one of the most important steps in the process of gaining approval for a project. Residents should be able to easily obtain specific information on the project through pamphlets, direct mailers, and access to an informational webpage. During this phase, it is important that residents understand the ways the project will benefit in the community in terms of permanent job creation, sustainable harvesting, and revenue. This immediate release of information allows companies to set the message to be proactive in dealing with opposition, as too often companies will wait until opposition organizes and is already releasing negative statements. This important step will also help companies build an early coalition of support for a new biomass facility.
After a biomass project is announced and informational materials are distributed, it is important for companies to conduct a poll in the community to identify who to target for support. If a scientific poll is not in the budget, then telephone banking is a good cost effective alternative. Unlike a random sample poll, phone banking utilizes telephone identification by calling every household in a target area with a short persuasive script to identify supporters and their willingness to assist the campaign. Other effective methods of identification include mailing a detailed postcard with a tear-off component that can be returned to the company with contact information of supporters who are willing to write letters or attend hearings in support of the project. From these methods, residents can be coded into a database for further grassroots outreach. In both Leith and Valdosta, vocal opponents vastly outnumbered supporters, implying that the public was against the project. However, it is important to identify supporters so that when the public hearing process begins, supporters will be easy to mobilize to speak on behalf of what would otherwise be the silent supportive majority.
Companies must take outreach a step further than identification to meet face-to-face with these supporters at an open house. An open house gives residents an opportunity to learn in depth about the biomass project and speak with the experts. This form of coalition building is a more effective exchange of information than presentation-style events. Members of the community will be “impressed” at the company’s comprehensive effort to seek community input regarding the biomass proposal. This opportunity to discuss the future of a project with the company will greatly increase the likelihood that a biomass project will continue to receive public support.
It is important for biomass facility companies to be proactive when dealing with public opposition to new projects that is willing to battle for years to prevent a project’s approval. In both Leith and Valdosta, drawn-out battles ultimately resulted in the cancellation of a project that had great potential to benefit the community. By learning from those failed projects and taking into account important tactics to build and mobilize public support, biomass companies can ensure a smooth approval process for new biomass facilities.