By Brent Alderfer, CEO and co-founder, Community Energy
Over the last year, a surge of American cities and states have passed 100% clean energy pledges into law. Large-scale renewable energy project developers have an integral role to play in the success of these policies. Communities across the country are calling on developers to provide projects that not only help them meet their renewable energy targets, but also create economic and environmental value for stakeholders.
Developing renewables at scale means working closely with community stakeholders and local decision makers. Throughout each stage of development, it is vital that developers work collaboratively with community stakeholders to build trustworthy, long-term partnerships that ensure the current project’s success and yield future business opportunities.
In the early stages of development, when siting a grid-scale project, a developer’s first task is to get to know the local community to identify a location with the proper combination of utility and community resources. The ideal site not only has suitable technical and economic elements — adequate solar exposure, proper interconnectability, good energy pricing — but also the proper sociopolitical elements — local stakeholders’ support for renewable energy, and particularly their recognition of the tax and landowner value generated by solar. Speaking with land and business owners, researching the community’s history with development, and understanding local decision makers’ viewpoints on all of the above can inform a developer decision as to whether these elements will help or hinder the new project.
Once a viable project site has been identified, developers should offer community members transparency and full disclosure into the proposed development plan. Establishing accessible channels for communicating project updates with local stakeholders builds trust and encourages community buy-in, laying the foundation for successful long term partnerships. Outreach strategies could include flier distribution, informational kiosks and meetings, a website with news and photos and social media channels to share regular updates. Other tactics include engaging with community members at preferred public spaces. Posting fliers on a meeting board outside the town supermarket or tabling at a local farmers market, for example, can show a developer’s deeper understanding of the community, offer visibility among stakeholders, and build trust and friendliness with community members.
Having established channels of communication, it’s essential to ensure that in addition to project updates and information, the project’s community and environmental benefits are conveyed accurately and effectively. Focus on sharing local tax benefits and jobs created by the project, and explain the environmental advantages of clean, renewable local energy, pointing to previous project successes and case studies whenever possible. Calling out messages that match a community’s makeup can be most impactful. For example, a project’s positive impact on land preservation and soil fertility will resonate well and allay concerns in agrarian communities.
Throughout construction, developers can engage their project’s host community by providing a space for locals to voice their own ideas, feedback and concerns. A physical forum with a specified time and place, such as a town hall meeting, allows community members to ask questions and show support in a public setting. Consider these spaces an opportunity to identify the community’s values and understand what is most important to local stakeholders. With any multi-megawatt renewable energy project, there is the possibility of community members expressing Not In My Backyard (NIMBY) concerns about noise or visibility of the project. It is important to hear these concerns sympathetically and recognize the opportunity for education, particularly in instances where community members’ concerns are based on a lack of understanding of renewables projects.
Working with communities can extend beyond the project’s development. Engaging community members after a project is live can go a long way toward ensuring the project’s success and building a collaborative long term relationship with the community. Developers can go beyond building projects to lead school tours of the project, give guest lectures in classrooms or host an educational event. Partners can promote jobs in renewable energy by sponsoring a booth at a local career fair or speaking to young community members about clean energy career paths. Leading annual public walkthroughs of a completed project, sponsoring a nearby playground or garden, and other goodwill activities can help show the developer’s commitment to working with the community beyond a single project.
By implementing strategies for engaging with communities, a developer can lay the groundwork for successfully completing a project that meets sustainability goals, creates economic value, and establishes them as a trustworthy long term partner. Successful community partnerships go beyond building reliable, renewable energy infrastructure to creating a sense of pride among local stakeholders in leading the clean energy economy and the global fight against climate change.