Approaching Renewable Projects in 2016 with a Fresh Strategy

The article below was Published January 4, 2016 in Environmental Leader.

In 2015, the United States experienced its third city’s attempt to move to 100 percent renewables. Aspen, Colorado, now joins Burlington, Vermont, and Greensburg, Kansas, as the only cities to achieve 100 percent renewable energy generation in the nation. With the precedent set, one can only assume that new cities will aim to catch up in 2016. As demand for new renewable sources continues to increase, companies must use innovative strategies to make outreach to communities and build the public support needed for local officials’ approval of the new projects.

While Aspen now operates completely on wind, hydro and a touch of solar and landfill gas, too often, the renewable projects in other areas of the country or world that could help achieve a similar goal of 100 percent renewable energy generation never make it to fruition. Instead, they are delayed or even cancelled altogether because measures to build public support are not taken from the first moment a new proposal is announced.

In 2015, hundreds of examples of this dynamic occurred. For instance, in February, a South Dakota solar farm was defeated after 30 residents from properties near the proposal spoke out against the project. In April, a five-turbine wind farm proposal in Scotland was defeated, despite a positive recommendation for approval from planning officials, due to the aesthetic impacts that concerned residents. In August, a biomass-fired CHP plant was rejected in Fife even though it also had the potential to create 20 jobs and an additional 50–100 positions through the sale of heat to other businesses. Finally, in London last September, a six-turbine proposal was rejected after 50 letters of objection were submitted to officials, and calls for a moratorium on wind development resulted.

Public opposition is not uncommon for renewable energy proposals, and in order to see projects through to approval, efforts must be taken to build public support. Too often, a silent but supportive majority exists in communities where a new project is proposed. By incentivizing the issue as “something to lose,” (i.e. tax revenue, jobs, clean energy production) residents will be more apt to speak out in support. There is no magic word to urge people to get involved in support, but through proper education and advocacy techniques, the kinds of defeated proposals of yester-year can have a shot in 2016.

With a few targeted tactics, efforts to gain approval on renewable projects in 2016 could get easier and help lead new cities to increase their renewable portfolios as they desire. To run an effective outreach campaign, companies must remember:

1. The Traditional Press Release Is Fleeting

The press release may always be effective as a supplemental tool, but due to the diversifying sources through which community members consume their news, it may not be enough to reach reporters effectively.

2. Engage on Social Media

Too often companies do not create a separate social media account for an individual project. However, a Facebook page or Twitter account devoted to the proposal enables a company to educate residents both in bite-size and expanded content form. Targeted advertising or “boosting” targeted to those who live in a community help expand the reach of the content rapidly. While this platform must be actively monitored to respond quickly when appropriate, it is essential to the education component of the campaign, and it often gets the attention of the press.

3. Build Mobile-Friendly Sites

A website that serves as the landing page for all web advertising is essential. However, more than 50 percent of information is consumed through mobile devices, so be sure the website is mobile-friendly. Be concise but offer links to fact sheets and extensive research if viewers are interested in learning more in depth. Adding greater functionality to send form letters directly to public officials is a great feature to supplement letter-writing efforts. If this feature is mobile-friendly, residents would be able to fill out their name, email address and zip code and send a letter of support while they are standing in line at the grocery store.

4. Embrace Big Data

As the saying goes, “content is king.” However, to be most effective, companies need the data that tells them where to direct it for the greatest return. Generate a database of all residents, and as meetings and outreach takes place, code residents as supporters, opponents or undecided. Moreover, code this database for political district, party affiliation, voters in previous elections, etc. This information helps narrow the target audience of likely supporters.

5. Create a Call to Action

Many supporters would provide vocal support, but they are never asked. Once efforts have been made to educate the community through news articles, direct mail, websites, social media and other various tactics, create calls to action to get supportive residents involved. Host open houses for all residents and informational meetings for advocates to learn about ways to get involved. Letter writing campaigns and speaker recruitment for public hearings are essential to demonstrate community support to public officials and ultimately, gain project approval for any renewable proposal.

Al Maiorino started Public Strategy Group in 1995. He has developed and managed multiple corporate public affairs campaigns in a variety of industries such as gaming, cable television, retail development, auto racing, power plant/wind farm projects, and housing/residential projects. He received his bachelor’s degree in political science and a master’s degree in American studies from the University of Connecticut.