The article below was Published September 12, 2016 in Renewable Energy Magazine.
Newton’s First Law of Physics states that an object will remain at rest or in uniform motion in a straight line unless acted upon by an external force. In a sense, this foundation can be applied to the inertia of the permitting world for new renewable energy projects.
As a new proposal begins progressing through the entitlement process, it often moves steadily until acted upon by an external force, which could be personified by public comment, regulatory hearings or stakeholder input.
When this external force portrays a proposal in a negative light as a result of environmental, aesthetic or noise concerns for example, the progression of the proposal slows down. A March 2016 study by London Economics International and 3E, a Brussels renewable energy consultancy, conducted an analysis across 6 countries and 4 renewable technologies (onshore wind, solar, hydro and offshore wind) to examine the costs of regulatory delays on renewable energy projects.
While the results of the analysis found the impact of delays can be highly project-specific, observations also include that “regulatory costs and delays with respect to permitting, primarily driven by the environmental impact assessment, result in a greater impact on the cost of projects relative to other forms of delays.” Without proper public support to advance the environmental benefits inherent to the proposal, public officials and regulators lack the political cover that is an essential component to project approval.
All too often, long and expensive permitting and appeals processes threaten the success of renewable energy proposals. However, with the proper approach from the outset, the community can be engaged in a productive way to set the message and build a positive reputation for the project. This positive force will keep the permitting process in motion, saving time and money. To ensure success, companies can approach the approval process with these helpful tips:
- Develop an Online Presence: In a digital world where everyone is free to express their opinions, it is important to develop a website and social media presence for the project at hand. This enables companies to present the facts and offer resources for community members to learn more.A website with resources such as fact sheets and downloadable content can set the record straight against any myths. Additionally, social media pushes “sound-bite” content right into newsfeeds with the other miscellaneous content social media users elect to consume. On both platforms, viewers can express support and ask questions to engage directly with renewable companies.
- Create a Uniform Voice: A project can easily be affected by the image and voice a company projects online. The voice should be uniform across posts and responses so that social media users feel as though the same person is responding on the company or project’s behalf each time. The best way to manage any potential conflict that may arise from nay-sayers is to approach negative feedback as an opportunity to politely correct myths to set the record straight without elevating opponents’ positions.
- Advertise and Measure: Web ads are a cost-effective way to drive website traffic. Local news websites present opportunities to geo-locate your target audience and serve ads only to those living in the area that will vote on it for example. Ads on social media offer even more ways to target ads to the audience that matters most and is most likely to be interested in or support the renewable proposal. Both can link directly to the website and offer measurable results such as “cost-per-click,” cost per video view, reach and other key performance indicators depending on the objective selected.
- Leverage Stakeholder Support: Stakeholder engagement affords renewable proposals independent narrative support from groups or organizations with missions or platforms that align with the project. Identifying these stakeholders can involve making a presentation to membership or simply a one-on-one meeting to discuss the proposal and its benefits. Ultimately, renewable proposals have incredible opportunities to gain third-party support to help increase awareness in the media, online and at public hearings.
- Go with Grassroots: Community outreach can be structured like a political-style campaign, scaled to fit any size project. Calls to action across social media platforms and through other various tactics are an effective way to encourage participation by members of the public. Start with small asks to share the project’s social media pages and posts to help spread the word. As posts further inform the social media audience, and as a base of followers is built, these calls to action can get more complex to encourage letter writing to public officials and newspapers as well as attendance at important regulatory hearings. Additionally, building a database of community members with address, phone, email and demographic information and political district enables organized outreach. Those who express their opinion on social media or sign up as a supporter on the website can then be coded into this database as supporters, undecided and opponents. Then messaging through direct mail, phone banking and other Get Out The Vote (“GOTV”) efforts can use more tailored messaging through this outreach is guided by the database.
- Engage the Media: While grassroots might be considered the “new age” approach to outreach, media relations cannot be overlooked. Sit down with editorial boards to explain the project vision and benefits from the outset to announce plans formally to the community. Offer press releases as needed and be sure to invite the media to any open house events or community information sessions held on behalf of the proposal. Equally important is engaging subject-matter experts online in industry publications to help add brand value to a particular project.
With a regulatory process that can often times lack clarity and transparency, it is important to build positive momentum for renewable projects and maintain that momentum with the backing of public support in any community. All the aforementioned tips offer vehicles through which audiences can be reached and asked to help. Instead of allowing for a silent but supportive majority, calls to action to attend hearings and write letters to officials or newspaper editors will help make any proposal a positive force moving in the right direction towards approval.