The article below was Published July 7, 2016 in Renewable Energy Magazine.
Traditionally from the outset, development proposals are not always launched through a formal announcement by the companies that are proposing them. For many renewable companies, informational resources such as an individual project website, social media pages and collateral related specifically to the new project may initially seem excessive.
However, making community outreach, which can easily be tailored to fit any budget, as soon as a new renewable proposal is announced can be beneficial not only in terms of gaining political capital but to help gain speedy approvals during the entitlement process.
The goal of any community outreach made on behalf of a new renewable proposal is to develop and strengthen relationships between a project and the citizens inherently affected by it. The means to achieve this effort is ultimately a grassroots and education drive. Letting the community know a new proposal brings with it many opportunities for economic development, clean energy and/or community improvements is helpful along with transparency throughout the public review process. Companies can take steps to encourage neighbors to speak with one another about the details and benefits of the proposal, and thereby develop an educated base of supporters.
Because the approval process can be a trying effort, especially in small communities, gaining a loyal contingency of supporters to speak on behalf of the proposal is critical. For example, Marshall is a small town located in southwest Minnesota where a controversial solar farm was recently approved to begin construction. The $100 million and 62 megawatt farm in Marshall will be one of the largest in the state, providing thousands of home with electricity.
Initially, some citizens were outraged by the proposed solar farm while others were pleased due to the jobs and economic benefits the project was expected to bring. Even when projects are not met with opposition from surrounding neighbors, it is important for companies to make outreach in some form to be available to answer questions and engage. To do so, here are a few tips that can help companies on any budget:
Don’t lay low…
People are going to talk, so why not give them correct information to talk about when discussing a project from the outset? Announce a renewable energy proposal by meeting with members of the media and issuing a press release. The release should mention the resources available to community members to learn more in depth about the project to encourage utilization of these resources.
Whether a project is part of a larger company with a fully developed website or the first of its kind within an organization, it should have an online presence. Lower budget campaigns may just make a social media site for the project, and social networking is a great start. A project specific Facebook page enables a company to reach targeted audiences in a community either for no cost at all or any cost a company sees fit if the page is boosted. Boosting or advertising on social media platforms will help to increase local awareness and put the project directly into the audience’s newsfeed. Those in support should be encouraged to engage on this platform and follow the page for updates. Social media makes calls to action convenient and effective.
For projects that can build either a landing page off an existing website or an entire site dedicated to the proposal, efforts should be made to develop a grassroots-friendly page. Encourage supporter sign ups, and detail ways to get involved through videos and downloadable fact sheets.
Especially for the projects that may have an immediate need to get supporters writing letters of support and attending hearings, a resident database will be useful to identify individuals in support, opposition and undecided about their position on the project. Coding residents as such through information gained on digital platforms, as well as more intense tactics such as telephone identification, canvassing and direct mail surveys will help companies to find hundreds or thousands of supporters, where previously there may have appeared to be none. Often times a silent majority exists, but it is a matter of identifying these citizens and asking for their help. With demographic information, party affiliation, political district and email addresses appended to this file, targeted campaigns can be employed should the need arise.
Meet and Greet
Open houses and supporter meetings are an effective way to refute myths and introduce a renewable energy proposal to the community in a conversational setting. Rather than hosting presentation-style events, host an open house so residents can ask questions and gather information that interests them most. Doing so establishes a more personal rapport. Asking for help in terms of writing letters to the editor, submitting written comment and speaking at hearings is also more effective in person. Face-to-face interaction whenever possible will reinforce turnout. Regular communication should take place to rally the supportive base to continue to ensure they have the latest information and resources.
Whether companies intend to run a full blown grassroots campaign or not, many would benefit from laying the foundation for communications to community members as soon as plans are submitted and a proposal is announced. Efforts can get as intricate as retargeting mobile ads to those who attended an open house through “geofencing” or as simple as building a free social media presence. The range is broad, but to defer community outreach leaves the door open for a fire drill approach later on as well as delays that cost valuable time and resources.