The article below was Published October 2, 2015 in Renewable Energy Magazine.
Canada is not only filled with vibrant cities but it also houses vast lands of diversified geography. From its running rivers to its windy hilltops, Canada has substantial natural resources that can be harnessed to produce renewable energy. Canada’s energy portfolio is comprised of approximately 16.9 percent renewable sources and of those renewables, solar is one of the fastest growing sustainable sources in Canada.
However, despite the fact that solar power is environmentally friendly, there is still a need for building public support as new projects are announced. In South Frontenac and Rural Kingston, Ontario, public opposition has made it difficult for renewable energy companies, such as Canadian Solar Solutions, to further their proposed solar projects.
The Collins Lake Solar Project is one proposal that aims to answer a call from the province for more solar in certain areas. While solar is barred from the north, Collins Lake Solar is proposed in the east where solar projects are permitted, and the sites have transformer capacity available on rural land. Despite these locational benefits, residents against the solar proposal claim the lands are agricultural and that the projects intrudes upon land that has seen increasing residential development over the past two decades.
At an August meeting, the South Frontenac Council ultimately voted unanimously against the solar project, despite the concessions the solar company proposed to appease community concerns. While the Council’s vote does not defeat the project in its entirety, it moves on to the IESO with a negative recommendation from the local permitting authority and a record of testimony against it. The final decision is anticipated in November.
Even though Canadian Solar Solutions took measures to make community outreach through panels and community open houses, there needed to be a full campaign to identify supporters spoken to throughout these efforts. Opponents reportedly made their presence known through visuals such as signs even at forums in which no vote was scheduled to take place. Therefore, grassroots activism must be a priority from the start to help gain and maintain public support for renewable energy projects, such as Collins Lake Solar, to keep them on track towards development and timely approval.
An Effective Approach
Reach out: It is essential to reach out to the community. Aside from announcing the new project to the press, reaching out to the community is an effective way to begin building tangible support from the start. By sending an informational mailer to residents, companies can encourage residents to learn more by visiting a project website or to get involved in other ways. Recipients of the mailer can also send feedback about a renewable project back to a company on a detachable postcard, allowing companies to obtain phone and email addresses.
Those who return their post cards should be followed up with and invited to a supporter meeting to learn more. Another form of reaching out is through open houses or information sessions about the developmental project. These open houses should not be in a presentation-style format, but small table stations where residents can speak to experts about the project and any questions can easily be answered. At an open house there should be ways for supporters to sign up to get involved and informational resources to help in this endeavor.
Keep in Touch: A database of people who support the project, oppose the project and who are undecided is a priceless tool. This allows for regular updates on the progress of the project, as well as a means for targeting communications to different audiences. It is important to also keep track of any grassroots action that they can take in in terms of written letters or hearings to identify key advocates. Any results obtained through telephone identification, which gauges individual level support by calling specific households, can also be entered and coded into this database for hundreds of supporters identified in only the first few days after announcement.
Ask: It is important to ask the residents if they are in support of your project and if they can help. Too often, residents support a proposal, but the question they are never asked is, “Are you willing to help show support?” Through letter writing, supporters can show local officials that community support exists within their constituency. Letters to the editor, comments to public officials and vocal/written testimony at hearings are all essential to successfully obtain approvals for renewable projects.
Get on Social Media: As supporters organize digitally, they are able to independently share any updates or opinions, reference fact sheets and respond on behalf of the proposal. It is important to have creative content as a digital dialogue facilitator because it will attract more people and make supporters feel more passionate about your project. Opponents will never stop trying to reach out to the public to sway their opinion, so it is important to keep committed supporters engaged to dispel myths and put a face to the supportive voice.
As the solar industry continues to expand the use of renewable energy across the globe, companies must continue to engage communities to achieve project approval. Even as the benefits of solar become more widely understood, the projects proposed in one’s “own backyard” will continue to draw out opponents who cause ripples throughout the approval process. Therefore, well-prepared public affairs campaigns will assist companies in the development of a key advocate base that can take action and win strong approvals, saving companies time and money.