Renewable Energy Developers Ask If Not Here, Where?

While millions of families became lost in the visual effects of the blockbuster movie Avatar, to me it also offers an ironic similarity to the quest for renewable energy here in the United States. In the movie, humanity is seeking to harvest a highly precious mineral on a far-off moon to solve their energy crisis back on earth. They do so despite increasing resistance from the native species of humanoids. The conflict is made worse when the humans grossly underestimate the native’s ability to mobilize and fight, with inferior weapons and resources.

Projects proposed on public land are criticized for exploiting a public resource while projects on private land are criticized for taking private land out of more economically productive use that generates tax revenue.

Projects that are too far from an urban core are criticized for lack of transmission or long commutes of workers. Yet, projects that are too near face parochial opponents that claim to support renewable energy, just not in THAT particular location.

It really does beg the question of if not here, then where?

As a public affairs firm providing strategic communications services to developers pursuing land-use approvals we witness this trend firsthand and our client roster has changed dramatically as a result.

Although we continue to provide services to a variety of residential and commercial developers the uptick in business from renewable energy companies has required us to nearly triple our staff.

But our growth is not only driven by the surge of renewable energy projects nationally.  Our growth is due to this unpredicted opposition. 

This fact is clearly illustrated through a recent client acquisition of ours.  Here, a renewable energy developer pursuing land-use approvals for a new project had already selected a project site after performing extensive environmental and technical evaluations.  They had positive communications with elected officials making them feel good about the local climate.  They believed they had a public affairs effort underway led by a project manager and two engineers all of whom worked in another state. 

Upon the public announcement about the project they became mired in opposition from a small group of residents and advocacy groups.  Reeling from negative press and concerns about the conditions that might be placed on them to satisfy this small group the developer realized that their public affairs effort needed to be more than just another item on the project manager’s To-Do list.  The developer recognized that elements of the community had the capacity to put their massive investment at extraordinary risk, possibly leading to failure!

As was the case here, developers often have a false sense of support because of a narrow engagement with the community.  Or, sometimes, they just completely underestimate the potential for opposition. 

In the modern, politically organized environment of land-use approvals, renewable energy developers must take certain steps to ensure that they themselves don’t get bogged down in a local battle that can put an entire project at risk.

First, while most companies conduct thorough environmental, technical, and financial due diligence, political due diligence is often overlooked. Investing in understanding the political landscape will provide a clearer expectation of the approval timeline and can help avoid costly delays or worse, denials.  The best way to conduct this is with a professional firm who can quickly (and quietly) flush out political challenges that would otherwise be overlooked.

Secondly, many renewable energy developers hope to “fly under the radar,” reluctant to reach out and potentially stir up opposition.  Unfortunately, land use decisions are highly transparent with public notice, heightened media awareness, and expanded public access.  Flying under the radar is impossible for any project of significance and trying to do so is an incredibly risky approach. Expect that potential opponents will find out about your project.  To deal with this, successful developers invest early to shape public opinion rather than be forced to react to it.  By effectively explaining the benefits of a project to the community successful developers can cultivate a favorable local climate.  This also helps would-be opponents understand the project better and avoid confrontation.

Finally, while many firms believe that they can conduct community outreach internally, it is a complex process that demands experienced professionals with suitable resources.

Supporters and opponents have much in common. Both have leaders that compel them to action.  Both present a consistent message to elected officials.  Both participate in public events and rally to have their voices heard.  However, unlike opponents that are animated by opposition, most supporters do not mobilize on their own because the project has redeeming qualities like new jobs and sustainable fuel sources.  Experienced professional make this happen by forming a supporter coalition that leads to a more balanced political climate.

Avatar was a great movie that stimulated the senses, but the way that the story’s humans interacted with the “residents” of Pandora serves as an incredibly poor example of how to build a renewable energy project. Sadly, many project developers follow this model—they disregard and underestimate the potential of the opposition. As a result, many renewable energy projects get drawn into their own battles. In doing so they put at risk more money than James Cameron’s budget for this epic film.

Avatar provides an instructive lesson for those planning to develop a renewable energy project. Do not posture and underestimate like the humans did on the mythical Pandora for doing so could place you in possession of Pandora’s Box.

George Passantino of Passantino Andersen Communications has more than 12 years of experience in strategic communications and project advocacy at the federal, state and local level.  George and his business partner, Andrew Andersen have developed a proven communications strategy design specifically for renewable energy firms pursuing land-use approvals for their utility-scale solar and wind projects in California, Arizona and Nevada.


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