Passing Go – Land Use Approval for Renewable Energy Projects
Perhaps no other issue throughout a community sparks more public interest than an organization’s desire to acquire land for a particular use. Any seasoned residential or commercial real estate developer knows this all too well, but for today’s pioneers in alternative energy the fact that a project’s approval or demise may hinge on a solid public outreach plan can come as a bit of a surprise.
Large-scale wind and solar developers oftentimes find themselves within long, tedious and costly labyrinths of public concerns and community roadblocks. Although public advocacy is likely not a renewable power developer’s area of expertise, there is a pathway for success if one is willing to make the investment to cover these crucial bases:
- Get clear on what benefits resonate with which audiences. Presenting a facade of being all things to all people is a slippery slope. Broadcasting a plethora of betterments about your renewable energy project to the masses simply will not work. One must streamline specific messages to specific, local stakeholders. For example, messages tailored to a cleaner environment may resonate when rallying a network of local college students to send emails to their legislatures, but with a rural farm community going in with the same “save the environment” message will likely get doors slammed in your face (literally). However, talking points of economic impact are far more likely to garner attention of willful landowners.
- Get active on social media. Social media has proven to be one the best mediums to create advocacy and mitigate opposition. Test your messages, measure results, poll your audiences, make good use of visuals, and remember that social media is a two-way platform of give and receive. Be prepared to be responsive—not next week but in 24 hours or less. Being responsive to your audience’s questions, comments or concerns is critical to your credibility. And no matter how ignorant or “crazy” a participant may appear, be prepared to offer a reply. I’ve heard it all, from “This solar farm is going to cause cancer!” to my personal favorite, “Will the wind turbine cause a constant breeze?” Lol. And let’s throw in the satirically serious blamer for good measure, “Thanks a lot, we’re now going to be a target for terrorists because of your project.” While every project will be subject to opposition, many people are sure to self-identify as advocates for your project. These individuals present outstanding opportunities. Move them into action; prompt them to send an email to an elected official or other community leader, get them to show up at the next community town hall, ask them if they would be willing to put up a yard sign, and always, always remember to thank them for their support. Our firm even goes so far as to spotlight and broadcast stellar supporters throughout the project’s digital channels (upon asking their permission first of course).
- Deploy boots on the ground. This is perhaps one of the most important tactics, yet a least favorite amongst many organizations. There are no shortcuts and the process takes time and patience, but no message resonates like one offered via face-to-face interaction. Get out there and knock on doors, talk to the community, host an event, work to get people involved and and be prepared to address any concerns head-on. The responses received from performing such activities will be forthcoming; quickly learning of possible vulnerabilities within your approach as well as shaking hands with new allies who can really help propel your cause and deepen your reach within a community.
- Engage elected officials. People who have been elected to make decisions on behalf of voters will, or at least should, listen and act accordingly. I once heard Roy Blunt, United States Senator from Missouri, talk about how if he hears from a dozen people in one day regarding a single issue he’s listening. A dozen people! It’s a crying shame so few people get active in politically-charged issues. Empower your advocates to call or email their elected officials urging support of your project and, most importantly, make this action simple for them to accomplish. List the targeted officials by name along with their phone numbers and email addresses saving your constituents the energy of having to search for them. Offer a cheat sheet containing a general message or two you would like conveyed. The easier you make this task for your audience, the better and more efficient the result. In this case, power to the people for renewable energy is a double entendre.
- Be transparent. Trust that the fastest way to be kicked in your a** and locked out forever is to play a game of smoke and mirrors or lies and deceit. Leave the dirty work to the coal industry. Do what you say you’re going to do knowing that the success and satisfaction of the community on this project will benefit your next one elsewhere. If your project is going to generate millions of tax dollars for local schools, then make certain your predictions are accurate. If you pledge to add a few new local jobs, then come through on that promise. If you’re going to offer to improve farmer’s roads, let them know when and how often.
- Share the Victory. Say your project gets the proverbial greenlight to proceed. Good job, but hold on a minute. Your company image in the public eye is only beginning. Don’t take that informational website down quite yet, and certainly don’t go dormant on your social channels. Utilize that list of email addresses you worked so hard to accumulate. Start by congratulating your audience – thanking them for their support. Let them know that because of you “we” did it! As the project develops utilize your digital presence to communicate progress every step of the way. Most of us can relate to buying a airline seat and then sitting on the tarmac for a long time without knowing what’s going on. It can be frustrating. The same goes for your development. The people have bought into your project, now help anchor their expectations by keeping them informed. Know that their constituency for your company’s brand will teeter on how you choose to continue to communicate with them.
I’ll leave you with a shining example in the industry, Suncor Energy. (Disclaimer: They are not a client.) Suncor is Canada’s largest Energy Company with 13,000 employees. They are no stranger to challenges or success and their philosophy is a conscious one that we strive to replicate in all of our outreach campaigns. Here’s a quote from their leadership:
“Listen and respond, versus declare and defend. Listen and respond puts you in a mindset of trying to understand not just what people are trying to say — but why. We’re not saying we can be all things to all stakeholders. But there’s usually a creative, solution-oriented space that you can explore that leads to win-win outcomes.”
-A Suncor Sustainability Executive
Win-win outcomes! That’s what we deliver. Man, I love my career.