The article below was Published June 3, 2016 in Renewable Energy Magazine.
Exploratory geothermal drilling is underway in several Caribbean countries, generating new excitement for the potential advances that development in the industry could bring.
Dominica has already confirmed a capacity of approximately 65 MW, while St. Lucia, Grenada and St. Kitts and Nevis are all in various stages of exploration. Moreover, St. Vincent and the Grenadines recently received a $5.7 million grant through a Memorandum of Understanding signed to help defray the costs of drilling.
As suitability for geothermal plants on various islands in the Caribbean is determined, it is important for companies, governments and public-private partnerships to work together to educate communities about both the process and potential benefits, even in the earliest stages, to ensure public support when it comes time to announce plans for the permanent plant.
Because the upfront costs of geothermal exploration can be exorbitant given the many site-specific uncertainties, a public education drive to lay the foundation for a supportive community may seem premature at a first glance. However, there are many strategies that allow for a transparent process and help shape public opinion from the outset with the bottom line in mind.
The goal is to open lines of communication with the community before the time comes to assess the permanent geothermal plant proposal in terms of social and environmental impact assessments. Waiting until the assessment stage only leaves audiences to be flooded by large volumes of information.
Additionally, an opposition group will have likely formed to speak out against the proposal in hopes of delaying or cancelling it all together. However, by outlining geothermal’s potential to increase efficiency and lower electricity rates, which are often cited as a barrier to economic development throughout the Caribbean, and announcing a variety of resources that community members can consult to learn more, great potential exists for geothermal projects’ success.
Digital resources offer a cost-effective portfolio of tactics with which to make outreach. A website should be launched before exploration even begins to explain the basic benefits of geothermal to the island and offer insights on objectives of exploration and possible timelines if studies yield positive results.
The website can be simple, containing broad industry-related material to begin, but as exploration progresses and viewership expands, add new functions to the website to supplement the facts. For example, linking third-party validation from various stakeholders such as trade associations, experts or public officials in the form of quotes, news articles and analysis will motivate viewers to support the cause. After viewers have explored the website, they should also have a place where they can sign up as a supporter or ask questions.
To drive traffic to the website, work the angles of both paid and earned media. Media relations is important from the start, from the development of press kits to timely editorial content and op-eds. There is also great potential to increase awareness through paid display advertising on local news websites, enabling viewers to click through to the project website. Additionally, with Google’s options for paid search and display advertising, conversions to the project website can be built on any budget while capturing viewers’ attention as they surf the web in their day-to-day online activities.
One of the most overlooked strategies is developing a social media presence from the outset. A project-specific page is free to create on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn and brings the benefit of “social proof” to projects as content is engaged with and shared among peers. Sound-bite content and info-graphics generated as page updates will help improve message saliency and retention. Additionally, social media monitoring should take place to gauge sentiment amongst influencers and community members.
Moreover, through paid advertising to suit any budget on these social network sites, various messages can be tested amongst targeted audiences according to geolocation, demographics, and behaviors, and refined over time. The media landscape has changed drastically over the past decade in large part due to mobile consumption, and thus, attention must be given to these mobile-compatible platforms to reach people with the busiest lifestyles in any downtime they may have.
Once the viability of a geothermal plant is confirmed, hold open house events and community meetings to offer opportunities for community members to learn more in person. Those who have already visited the website or social media pages will be able to delve into the details and gain updates. Those who are less familiar will be able to gain insights through one-on-one conversations with engineers and other various project experts. Since an open house is not a presentation style event, stations should include subject matter for technical aspects as well as benefits to the community, company mission, and ways to get involved to encourage supporter signup.
As the geothermal plant plan progresses, tactics to build public support must expand to mirror those of a political-style campaign in advance of public hearings. The use of grassroots tactics such as direct mail, telephone identification calls and canvassing should be employed to identify all households in support across the island. All supporters, opponents and undecided must then be coded in a unique database that is maintained throughout the entire approval process. Email addresses must be appended as they are obtained for email blast updates.
At this point, once supporters have been identified through signups on the website and at the open house, “likes” and mentions on social media, and canvassing and telephone identification efforts, it is time to create calls to action. A call to action can be as small as posting on social media or as significant as writing a letter to the editor.
With an informed network of supporters, optimization of digital advertising can take place to boost these calls to action, generating a groundswell of tangible support for the geothermal project. Ultimately, the supporter network can be activated for rallies, hearing attendance, public testimony on record. It is this testimony from individual community members that gets the attention of public officials and helps to ensure timely approval to save geothermal projects time and resources in the long run.