US wind developers are losing the online battle against NIMBY groups

Credit: Vestas
V112 3.0 MW Lem 2010 turbine against the light with blue sky and clouds
IPPs have “ceded the digital ground” to Nimbys, and communities are increasingly making decisions on wind farms on Facebook, writes Mike Casey

First published on Recharge News

An analysis earlier this year validates those concerns. We tracked the online pushback faced by major wind developers from communities considering proposed wind farms. The findings showed that every developer is facing increasingly aggressive “Nimby” (not in my back yard) opposition, yet, few wind independent power producers (IPPs) are adopting the proactive digital strategies to meet or pre-empt local critics.

At best, Nimby pushback is raising costs through delays. At worse, half-a-billion-dollar wind farms are dying because 50 people shouted at their county commissioners during a public meeting.

This growing Nimby pushback against proposed wind farms is at odds with the strong support from communities with existing wind farms. A definitive 2018 study by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory of individuals living with five miles of US wind projects found “an overall positive attitude towards the nearby turbines, including for those living even as close as ½ mile.”

What’s behind the Nimby problem?

According to our analysis, five factors are driving Nimby problems for proposed wind farms:

  • Facebook is “the new town square” in rural areas, according to Avangrid Renewables’ director of communications, Paul Copleman, as it’s eclipsed traditional local newspapers, many of which are dying.
  • Most IPPs have restrictive social media policies in place, based on understandable global brand concerns about the messiness, emotion and time commitments that come with social media engagement.
  • Nimby groups organize online, then they show up in the room. The wind IPPs have ceded the digital ground to such an extent that “the opposition is eating our lunch,” according to Matt Wagner, manager of renewable energy development at Detroit-based DTE.
  • Projects are being built in communities that see undeveloped land as something to be conserved, rather than a resource to be used.
  • Nimbys are being helped with outside organizers and money, much of it from incumbent energy sources.

Time to raise our game

The good news? Among the IPP staff on the front lines of community engagement, there is a growing consensus that the industry must up its digital game by more proactively meeting community members where they are — online, not just across the table at the diner.

In a series of interviews with IPP staff, we found widespread agreement on the advantages of increased digital engagement, as well as basic best practices.

They shared nearly a dozen benefits the industry is missing due to digital constraints, including insulating persuadable community members against the predictable arguments of critics; profiling and amplifying supporters’ stories, and creating a credible alternative information source to Nimby Facebook groups.

Interviewees also collectively produced a list of digital best practices for their executive teams to consider, which included starting communicating early, before opposition groups form and gain momentum — it’s a race to define; showing wind farm benefits through supporters’ stories, captured on camera; and showing people the experience of those currently living near existing wind farms.

As Apex Clean Energy vice-president for public affairs, Dahvi Wilson said: “Opponents of one company’s projects can encourage and strengthen opponents to another company’s projects. Like it or not, we’re in the digital boat together. We need more companies to increase their investment in digital community engagement.”

At the staff level, the consensus for upping the industry’s digital game is solid and growing because, as Adam Renz, manager of business development for Pattern Energy, said: “Social media can de-risk projects.”

IPPs now have to first decide how they can de-risk social media from their global brands’ perspective. It’s a balancing act, for sure. But social media avoidance for wind farms is becoming more and more expensive. 

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Mike Casey is the President and founder of Tigercomm, a leading U.S. cleantech PR firm with offices in Arlington, VA and San Francisco, CA. He uses his 28 years of experience in communications to counsel cleantech executives and investors. Tigercomm has helped companies develop and execute community relations plans for clean energy projects; launch products; and generate attention from investors, customers and policy leaders. Mike has trained over 1,700 people on message development, media interviewing and public relations management. He writes frequently at National Geographic, Great Energy Challenge, Greentech Media, Renewable Energy World, and Scaling Green about removing the barriers to clean energy adoption. Before founding Tigercomm, Mike served on two presidential campaigns, and as a spokesman for both a U.S. Senator and a U.S. Congressman. He also built and ran the communications operations of two national environmental groups: the National Environmental Trust, which won 22 straight issue campaigns during his tenure; and the Environmental Working Group, which earned the reputation as "dollar for dollar, demonstrably one of the most effective groups in Washington, according to National Journal magazine.

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