The article below was Published in Solar Industry Magazine June 2014.
With 140,000 new solar installations in the U.S., 2013 turned out to be a record-setting year for the industry. Solar became the second largest source of electricity generation after natural gas. Many households are now seeking to invest in solar panels to reduce energy consumption.
However, despite the lower installation costs and growing emphasis of solar power as a viable renewable energy source, solar projects still face challenges in the public approval process. Although residents may not be opposed to solar farms in theory, when a developer attempts to place a new one in their community, objections frequently arise.
Residents fear that a new solar farm near their homes will cause property devaluation, health problems and unsightly vistas. These fears – commonly characterized as “not in my backyard” (NIMBY) syndrome – often fuel the spread of misinformation that can easily cause public officials or regulators to deny a solar proposal from coming to fruition.
For example, a recent proposal for a 65-acre solar farm by OST Energy in Suffolk, U.K., was turned down in February when public opposition groups rallied to voice their disapproval of the farm’s construction. The solar farm, which could have generated enough clean energy to sustain over 3,300 homes, was defeated after a two-and-a-half hour meeting that was attended by up to 30 protesters.
Through aggressive campaigning, the opposition achieved its goal of defeating the solar proposal before it got off the ground.
Grow the grassroots
Project developers are remiss to assume that the local residents will be fully supportive of a solar project, despite the benefits it will bring to a community. As seen in the case of the OST Energy proposal, opposition can grow quickly as people are much more likely to speak up for something they object to rather than something they favor, especially if no effort is made to build support.
To avoid defeat, project managers need to develop a public affairs strategy that employs efficient communication of project messaging and educates the community. It is much more difficult and costly to launch a defensive campaign in response to vocal opposition than it is to be proactive from the outset.
Identify supporters and reach out. Grassroots campaign tactics work well to build support for solar farms. The first step in building such a campaign is to identify supporters. This can be done in a variety of ways.
Telephone calls based on a short, persuasive script can identify hundreds of supporters in a project area in only a few days. Direct mail, which is also essential to the education campaign, is another way to identify supporters. Pieces mailed out with a tear-off postcard component that can be returned with contact information are a great way to reach a wide demographic early in the campaign. Such postcards excite people who want to get involved in solar, particularly when the cards indicate ways supporters can offer to help.
Often, solar projects have many supporters in a community, but these supporters-in-waiting are never asked, “Are you willing to help?” It is much easier to respond to a call for help when a channel of two-way communication has been established from the outset.
Build a supporter database. A supporter database should be developed to organize all campaign out reach. All contact information, outreach notes, legislative district and other details should be entered into the database and coded for efficient outreach as needed.
Supporters may be involved in other community organizations and clubs that are willing to show public support for one’s project. Therefore, as project managers learn of these relationships, grassroots efforts can be tracked in the database throughout the campaign.
Seek community input. Speaking directly to residents can help sway undecideds or those leaning against the project when a project manager makes an effort to listen to a community’s concerns. Hosting an open house prevents opponents from interrupting a presentation-style event, and it affords attendees the opportunity to speak one-on-one with project experts.
Making the effort to connect with community members in order to answer questions, clarify perceptions and correct misinformation shows initiative and demonstrates the company’s goodwill.
Communicate rapidly through technology. Opponents will depend on social media as a communication vehicle to magnify their voices and messaging. Therefore, social media must be a component of a solar company’s outreach plans as well.
Fully utilizing this technology goes beyond just remembering to post on the company Facebook daily. Appeal to the visual learner by posting creative infographics that demonstrate how a solar farm can save communities thousands of dollars. Make sure all supporters are aware of all important dates and meetings through constant updating and sharing. Ask supporters to tell their own stories of why renewable energy sources are important to have in their town.
The creative use of social media can even extend to Twitter town halls or a collection of short Vine videos from community members who want others to know they support the solar project. These communication techniques tell the story of real supporters in the community, rather than top-down communication of project benefits.
Even a solar proposal runs the risk of defeat by opponents if project experts fail to create a comprehensive public affairs strategy for their project. The regulatory process can be a lengthy ordeal if opponents successfully stall development, thereby wasting solar companies’ time and resources. However, with appropriate messaging and outreach techniques, companies can identify and mobilize supporters who can help the project. These efforts will counteract the opposition and enable a more positive depiction of solar to carry the day.