The wind industry is encountering more opposition than ever. The industry now faces even a more challenging stakeholder environment than they had before. Renewable energy has certainly become hyper-politicized, with legislative skirmishes over the PTC or RPS initiatives dominating the headlines, driven by the excitement over the involvement of ALEC, the Heritage Foundation and the Kochs. However, the local battles are still burning red hot. Million-dollar projects have been deemed dead at the hands of community problems.
Many developers still rely on a strategy that is long past its shelf life. Recently, I spokewith a developer on the phone that said they saw the opposition developing and just said the heck with it. They were hoping it was just a minority of the community and would die down, so he’d decided to just keep on “developing what we needed develop.” That project is now in jepardy and can’t get its permitting passed. If the industry hasn’t gotten the message that community engagement is a part of necessary development, that’s not a good sign.
Community engagement is more than just signing landowners to lucrative deals or doing Indiana Bat studies. More often than not, developers do not go the extra mile in truly engaging the local community. They take a successful outcome for granted based on the additional tax dollars they provide or assume they can quietly escape the wrath of opposition by trying to avoid it. Failure to engage consistenly costs developers several hundreds of thousands of dollars in construction delays, if not millions in sunk costs because the project never gets off the ground.
The greater problem for the industry is that now, fueled by the campaign promisesor “bounties” for taking on the industry, one poorly planned engagement can turn into legislation that could ban the industry from an entire state. Armed with the political tides of local opposition to wind in her or his district, all it takes is one legislator to introduce a bill that provides onerous restrictions on the industry to negate all off its benefits.
None of this has to happen, or at least not without a fair fight. Almost always, the above scenario can be avoided by following these simple best practices to truly engage the local community.
1. Determine your goals and timeline for the outreach plan based on other development timetables. Ideally you will have at least three months to implement your plan, if not longer.
2. Research! Spend time doing a deep-dive into the history of the community you’re about to enter. Identify the most influential families, businesses, churches, organizations, landowners, voting patterns and get a high-level sense for their politics, traditions and anything else you can learn about them.
3. Map out your stakeholders and draft an engagement plan that you can commit to during execution phases. Think of this as the big detective board in a criminal investigation. Keeping everything organized is hugely important. Make certain to include expected supporters, opponents, neutral, persuadable stakeholder groups, state and local elected officials (sometimes federal) and media targets.
4. Develop engagement strategies for the people you already know, as well as the people you don’t know. The latter group will require a different approach and “warm” intros, if you can get them, can go a long way in quickly developing those relationships.
5. Get your entire internal development team, communications department and consultants on the same page and keep them there. This is one of the most challenging parts to effective outreach, but it’s also essential for a successful outcome.
6. Set up an outreach calendar specifically for this purpose, complete with individual responsibilities, and keep everyone accountable.
7. Engage everyone, in person if possible, at least three times to build a trusting line of communication (often times many more). This applies especially to the opposition. They will likely never support the project, but the last thing you ever want them to do in a public hearing is accuse you of avoiding them.
8. Monitor your progress and document your actions with stakeholders. Always check in with the rest of your team and coordinate your efforts. Be willing to adjust strategy and timeline, if or whenever necessary.
9. Be present in the community, especially at times when you don’t need anything from them. Rent a visible office space and maintain regular hours in a visible location to provide walk-in access to information. Attend community events even if you’re not on the agenda. Support local causes that need supporting because it’s natural responsibility.
10. Don’t hide from politics. Seek to understand how it impacts your project and sensibly embrace the local political dynamics of the community. Local county executives are usually quick to support an easy addition to their tax base; however, they also need to know that their community supports the project. Make sure they hear from supporters on a regular basis, because you can be assured that they will already be hearing from the opposition. You need to balance out this dialog as much as possible.
11. Ask for help from your supporters. Make specific, strategic asks of supporters based on why they support you, but respect their time and be careful not to overuse individual supporters.
12. Stack the deck at public hearings and plan for it well ahead of time. Make absolutely certain you have more supporters in the room than the opposition and that they are well-prepared. If you’ve done your job leading up to the hearing, getting all of your supporters there should not be a problem. However, never be presumptuous about success, a poor performance at a hearing can change everything.
When the outcome of a local hearing goes against a developer, best case scenario is that the company will spend hundreds of thousands of dollars spent trying to play catch-up to the opposition and change the mind of an entire community. Unfortunately, at that point, the public commitment has already been made to turn them out of town. And worst case, a multi-million dollar investment is lost because the project never moves beyond a simple conditional use permit hearing.
But it is not just about the dollars and cents. It is about understanding that smart community engagement pays dividends beyond a permit victory and local community acceptance. Your reputation follows you on to the next project and the project after that.
Author’s note: Ben Kelahan is partner and Jan Christian Andersen is vice president, energy strategy at Five Corners Strategies, a consulting and strategic communications advisory. Kelahan can be reached at email@example.com and Andersen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.