Integrated Communication Strategies Shield Renewables From NIMBYism

Most Americans agree that renewable energy boosts the economy, reduces greenhouse gas emissions, and helps protect the environment. So why then, are solar, wind, and battery storage developers increasingly facing an uphill battle in deploying these systems? 

For that, we can thank the “not in my backyard” (NIMBY) phenomenon, wherein local community groups — often bankrolled by special interests — fight the development of projects they deem ‘inappropriate’ or ‘undesirable’ to their area. While small in numbers, these efforts have proven markedly successful, catching large swaths of the renewable energy sector off guard. 

Longstanding development approaches that omit proactive engagement tactics are no longer proving fruitful in today’s polarized environment, necessitating change — and fast. To ensure NIMBYism does not continue to interfere with the much-needed energy transition, companies must transform their development approach, leveraging new, integrated, and persuasive communication campaigns that can move the needle across a range of key stakeholders. 

The Growing Threat of NIMBYism

An overwhelming majority of Americans say they would be comfortable living near utility-scale solar and wind farms, yet half of all clean energy projects get blocked as a result of NIMBYism — an issue that spans both Democratic or Republican-leaning districts. For instance, a number of rural counties in Ohio recently enacted blanket bans on new utility-scale renewables, and activists in deep-blue Vermont have stymied the state’s burgeoning wind sector. Wealthy suburbanites in sunny Nevada effectively blocked what would have been the country’s largest solar plant while offshore wind continues to face a precipitous future throughout New England.

Across the country, permitting is becoming increasingly difficult for renewable developers, with opponents only needing to be loud and aggressive in their efforts to have an impact. The very tactics that have been used for decades to impede oil and gas development, including packing hearing rooms, letter writing, and coalition and campaign building, are now blocking the very projects that can deliver a net zero future. 

Where Renewable Energy Developers Fall Short 

Renewable energy developers don’t have much experience dealing with today’s highly organized NIMBY campaigns, an issue that’s compounded by their limited investments in strategic messaging, communications, and community engagement. Most companies only have a small team of 1-3 individuals handling these issues across a project portfolio, leaving them spread thin, susceptible to misinformation campaigns, and unable to seed positive messaging into local media narratives. Even in the face of increasingly expensive project cancellations and losses, many developers have maintained existing approaches that are slow to implement, reactive by nature, and overly focused on technical facts and data — a losing combination. 

Additionally, developers often fail to reach the diverse audiences needed to build successful coalitions, instead prioritizing private negotiations with landowners. Yet, if no other effort has been made to work with the community, address potential concerns, and engage in open dialogue, a new project can seem imposed. 

Being the first to frame an issue is critical, yet renewable energy companies continuously concede this advantage, unnecessarily putting themselves on the defensive at a huge cost to both their bottom line and the energy transition. 

Early, Proactive Communication Can Change the Game 

Developers should be thinking about their key stakeholders and the strategies that will resonate with them well before the engagement process begins. Different audiences will have unique motivations and concerns, including landowners who would host potential projects, local business owners who would benefit from spillover economic activity, government officials who would gain new tax revenues, and nearby residents concerned over potential environmental or aesthetic impacts. This makes it critical for companies to support their communications with rigorous message testing and background research on community demographics, economic trends, and social and cultural attitudes. 

Companies should also work to bring together a range of community representatives, including academics, environmentalists, and civic leaders, in ways that can proactively tackle the public concerns that so often sink renewable energy projects. At the same time, developers should make sure to highlight any relevant community benefits on offer, including arrangements to donate power to local buildings or investments in public assets like parks or libraries. 

The Block Island Wind Project, built and operated by Deepwater Wind (now Ørsted), offers a textbook example of how forward-thinking and holistic communication can reward developers. Located off the coast of Block Island, Rhode Island, a small but popular beach destination, the community is fiercely protective of local ecology. Recognizing this, Ørsted deployed environmental consultants to gather relevant information two-plus years before the project began. Armed with the evidence that their wind farm would have no adverse impacts on migratory birds or marine mammals and would actually support habitat growth (mussels and barnacles colonize underwater turbine platforms), Ørsted was able to proactively highlight the positive climate benefits of its project while assuaging public conservation concerns — stopping NIMBYism from gaining significant traction. 

Concurrently, regular hearings were held to provide the public with a range of visual impact assessments, showing sensitivity to aesthetic and property value considerations. Additionally, Ørsted consistently highlighted how Block Island residents would save on electricity by displacing dirty, loud, and unreliable diesel generators with wind. A deep understanding of its audience allowed Ørsted to tailor-make a communication and engagement campaign, the result of which was local pride — not opposition — in their project. 

Energix Renewables, which recently saw its 12 MW Fairy Stone Solar project approved in Patrick County, Virginia, offers another example of the benefits of proactivity. A rural county boasting a population of less than 20,000, residents feared damage to local farmland, wetlands, terrestrial habitats, and the character of their community. Energix was able to combat these concerns, however, by preemptively prepping conservation strategies, including vegetative buffers, wetland mapping, sediment and erosion controls, and planting non-invasive grasslands and pollinator habitats underneath panels. A project setback of 50 feet from all public right of ways also helped minimize the potential visual burden. While community pushback was more significant than that experienced by the Block Island Wind Project, Energix’s proactive engagement efforts ultimately paid off. 

Open communication and strategic messaging that legitimizes stakeholder concerns are key to minimizing the impact of NIMBYism and protecting growth in the Age of Adoption. Times have changed — and now renewable energy developers’ communication tactics must as well.

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