By Mike Casey, President and Founder, Tigercomm
Public support for different forms of renewable energy is at record levels nationwide, but these sectors are also facing growing risk and cost from aggressive NIMBY (not in my backyard) opposition at the local level.
The onshore wind industry is now seeing half-billion-dollar power projects killed because 50 people shout at officials in a county commission meeting. Despite its lower viewshed impact, solar isn’t immune from NIMBY attacks either. Last fall, sPower almost lost its permit to build a utility-scale solar farm in Spotsylvania County, Virginia, because of residents citing false health concerns, among other things.
Offshore wind would do well to look for the applicable lessons in the experiences and responses of other clean economy sectors. Rough public affairs waters are just beginning. The country’s first proposed offshore project, Cape Wind, was stopped by attacks from wealthy neighbors. The federal government recently pushed an effective “pause button” on a critical offshore wind project off the coast of Massachusetts, while the sector faces very real community pushback in Maryland, New York and Delaware.
And we shouldn’t forget the seemingly obscure 2016 Coast Guard “study” pushed by lobbying pressure from Maersk, a leading global shipper with significant interests in the oil and gas industry. The study was riddled with outside influence, and it resulted in a call for U.S. offshore wind turbines to be set back from shipping lanes at a distance that’s five-times that required in Europe.
But this moment also represents an opportunity for offshore wind to save itself money and heartache.
Incumbent sectors fuel professional NIMBY efforts
To do that, it’s crucial for the sector to understand what it’s really up against. Often, the local problems that clean economy sectors face are exacerbated and leveraged by incumbent sectors that view renewable developers as long-term market threats. The result is that opposition campaigns are getting more sophisticated, supported by professional organizers, funded by incumbent energy sectors and connected through online resources.
As far back as 2012, fossil fuel-funded operative Jon Droz and the American Tradition Institute were caught coordinating supposedly organic, local NIMBY groups through “dummy businesses” and “counter intelligence.” A watchdog group exposed Anadarko Petroleum Corporation’s scheme to manufacture a perception of a wind turbine fire “crisis” throughout the American West.
The results of professional NIMBY pushback against clean energy mean increased costs for most, project death for some and even failed companies. Luckily, with still only five operating offshore turbines to date in the United States, offshore wind has the opportunity to glean and use the lessons available from other sectors’ collective experience. Offshore wind has the advantage of being driven at this early stage not by a collection of startups, but rather experienced, deep-pocketed players drawn to the growth potential of an industry with a Capex of $70 billion.
Ways the sector should tackle public affairs
Cleantech marketing communications and public affairs firm Tigercomm has spent several months aggregating the public affairs approaches, wins and losses of several clean economy sectors. That list includes solar, onshore wind, residential PACE and micromobility. Compressing that analysis here produces several big takeaways.
First, policy debates, regulatory institutions and the motivations of elected officials are not merit-driven. Politics and policy run on different motivations, and both are full-contact sports. They must be approached on their terms, with robust public affair programs that are built into companies’ business plans from the start.
Second, offshore wind companies are not a new industry, but rather a new sector that’s out to take market share from mature incumbents. The disrupted aren’t going to take that lying down. They’ll use their significant experience with leveraging the government to defend market incumbency. Our public affairs programs have to be designed to win a race to define the offshore wind sector, as well as each new project. We still find that among clean energy developers, the legacy mentality of quietly working regulators is the norm. But offshore wind companies need to treat their projects as the equivalent of a political campaign or issue campaign. The party that frames first creates an advantage that is difficult to overcome. Being quiet when you’re trying to win over a community is a losing strategy in an age of increasingly professionalized online NIMBY opposition.
Third, public affairs programs have to win the race to define on the digital track. The decline of local journalism means 1,300 U.S. towns are now “news deserts,” devoid of local news media outlets. This is particularly true in small communities where clean energy projects must often seek local approval in order to build a project. Online platforms, particularly Facebook, have filled the void. They need to take center place in public affairs programs to solve for the risk that misinformation can spread throughout local communities weighing a regulatory decision.
Fourth, offshore wind projects should be narrated as a product with compelling, simple-language framing anchored to a core community need. And, that definition has to be driven home through visual storytelling regularly by people who are relatable for locals. Narratives from people always trump facts and figures.
U.S. sector’s success at stake
The offshore wind sector can accelerate its growth by standing on the shoulders of other clean economy sectors. Some of its companies are already investing to make their case to local communities. Others lag behind. Given the opponents’ interest and ability to lump all the sectors’ companies together, it’s in everyone’s interest to invest in public affairs programs at scale. The growth rate of each company hinges on the sectors’ collective ability to avoid the “mistake path” that other clean energy sectors have fallen into. If the sector gets ahead of the project opposition that it will increasingly face in the years ahead, it will be better positioned. Rising seas will lift all boats, and rough waters could sink all of them. The time to choose our forecast is now.
Mike Casey is president and founder of Tigercomm. For 30 years, Mike has focused on the design and staffing strategies for winning communications programs. As Tigercomm’s founder, he counsels cleantech executives, investors and philanthropists on strategies for meeting their business objectives. Mike is a top U.S. innovator and strategist on cleantech marketing and communications. He has presented at more than a dozen major conferences, and he writes frequently on clean economy topics.