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Apex’s Dahvi Wilson on Digital Tools for Community Acceptance

9 min. read

“It was almost like companies were embarrassed to admit that they had any opponents. Those days are gone. Everybody has opponents.”

“Companies have not been investing enough in this very important area, because they haven’t been taking the risk as seriously as is appropriate.”

The annual WINDPOWER trade show and conference starts today. We’re kicking the week off with the second in our series of interviews with wind industry leaders who drive their company’s engagement of communities that host wind farms. We started the series with an interesting discussion with Avangrid’s Paul Copleman. This week, we’re featuring our recent conversation with Apex Clean Energy’s Vice President for Public Affairs, Dahvi Wilson. 

We anchored this series with the first-ever analysis of wind companies’ use of digital tools to build community acceptance for projects and the online push-back they get from project opponents. You can download that analysis, “Not Just for NIMBYs,” by clicking here. We found that Apex’s portfolio-wide, project-level digital program was the most proactive and robust of the major independent power producers (IPPs).

In our conversation, Dahvi detailed why and how her company has invested so much in its community acceptance programs, which often include a social media component. You can read a fuller version of her thoughts below. However, our big takeaways were:

  • Like it or not, IPPs are all in the digital boat together, and therefore, it would benefit companies to cooperate more.
  • Opponents of one company’s projects can encourage and strengthen opponents to another company’s projects no matter where in the country they are located.
  • The industry needs more companies to increase their investment in community engagement in general, and it would be wise to include digital in those efforts because a great deal of the community discussion about hosting wind farms is taking place online.
  • In fact, Apex conducted a survey of people in wind country and found that Facebook is a key information source. That echoes Paul Copleman’s view that Facebook is “the new town square” in rural communities.
  • Digital tools have great potential, but they require time, resources, and a coherent plan to utilize effectively.
  • To get the most out of its digital investment, a company should seek out ways to use the tools to both find and engage potential supporters.

 

Communicating Energy Conversation Series Part 2 v3 FINAL Apple ProRes

 

Mike Casey:            
06:28 We conducted the Not Just For NIMBYs analysis several months ago, and it's gotten a fair amount of buzz in the industry. And I wanted to get your thoughts about where Apex is, and where the industry is on the use of digital tools as part of its community acceptance program.

Dahvi Wilson:         
06:54 So I would say that, generally speaking, our industry is evolving and growing in regards to community acceptance. Real investment in community acceptance is not universal, and it's still growing. Apex has made a very large investment in this space, and that has given us more capacity to try new tools. When it comes to digital, digital makes sense as a tool when it is part of a broader community engagement strategy. However, it's definitely a tool that takes time, it takes resources, and it definitely takes an intentional strategy to implement well.

Mike Casey:            
07:46 To the outside observer of what Apex does with community acceptance, what features are out there in the public, but perhaps don't jump out at somebody that you think are hallmarks of a successful program?

Dahvi Wilson:         
08:13 I think the most important thing that we've learned over the last several years working on community acceptance is that we have to proactively go find our supporters. We have to motivate them to engage, and we have to help them engage. And it's not enough to invite them to our events to get educated. It's not enough to expect that the people who really care will show up. It really is up to us to identify folks who may not even realize this issue relates to them and to motivate them to come out and support.

Dahvi Wilson:         
08:54 And that makes our work look much more like a political campaign, or an issue campaign, than a traditional PR effort, and I think digital is a part of that as well. Many of our community members are active on Facebook in particular. They are having conversations there, and in many cases, folks who are supporting our projects actually ask us to get on Facebook, because they know that there's a conversation happening there, and they tell us that if we're not there responding, if we're not there presenting information, if we're not there engaging, we're missing an entire audience and an entire part of the conversation happening in that community.

Mike Casey:            
09:41 How would you describe the role of Facebook as a communications tool relative to local news media?

Dahvi Wilson:         
10:07 We ran a nationwide survey to try to understand who wind supporters are across the country, and in particular, in counties similar to those in which we operate.  And one of the things we asked in that survey was, how do you get information? And Facebook scored very high in where people get their information. It was local news, and Facebook and Fox, and there wasn't a lot else.

Dahvi Wilson:         
13:33 That said, it really does take concerted effort, time, and strategy to figure out how to use social in a way that benefits you. So, I would not start a Facebook page without a real plan about how you're going to handle comments. What's your policy going to be on hiding, or responding, or blocking different people? How are you going to be keeping your content up to date? How much advertising are you going to be doing on your page? What's your budget? Who on your staff is going to have time to do all of this? Who has the right temperament to do it?

Mike Casey:            
16:49 One of the things we heard from people as we were producing the original analysis, was that when the opponents organize online and then they show up in the room, do you see that reflected in the experience of your staff?

Dahvi Wilson:         
17:06 Absolutely, and in fact, most of their pages are public. So we also know when they're organizing to show up in the room, which can be very helpful. It's definitely a source of information that we track very closely. Because opponents of the project do use Facebook as an organizing tool. And what we see is a negative news story from any project around the country will get picked by groups fighting wind elsewhere in the country over and over and over and over again.

Dahvi Wilson:         
17:57 Because these groups become friends with each other and follow each other, a lot of this information gets spread very quickly. So for example, if there's a problem, say there's some kind of lawsuit going on in a wind project, regardless of whether a story is accurately reported or not, it will get spread across the country. And before you know it, Apex will be answering for something that happened to some other company and some other project area without any of the facts on what actually happened.

Dahvi Wilson:         
18:42 Bad news from any one of the industry’s projects hurts every other project, and this anti-wind network is so well connected, that they've learned how to leverage that. It makes it harder for us to recruit supporters and to get people to engage to support a project locally.

Mike Casey:            
21:39 Are there changes in the way the industry is approaching the use of social media and community acceptance?

Dahvi Wilson:         
22:41 I think that in particular, this kind of recruiting element, this ability to go find people and figure out who is sympathetic to what you're talking about, is actually one of the biggest values. It's almost like failing to be on social is sort of giving yourself a disadvantage.

Mike Casey:            
25:45 If you had to guess, what do you think the percentage increase in costs that the resistant project faced over the nonresistant project?

Dahvi Wilson:         
27:07 It's expensive to hire somebody to help protect a project on the public acceptance side. But if we fail to do so and we don't get a permit as a result, you know that those costs will far outweigh any costs of hiring a resource to help.

Dahvi Wilson:         
27:25 And then there's another theme that we've started to see - delay. So even if they're not killing a project, they're often delaying a project significantly, which can add significant cost.

Dahvi Wilson:            
28:51 I think we, as an industry, have a lot of incentive to work together to figure this out. I'd say the industry has not figured it out. We haven’t, and no one else has either. We're starting to do more sharing, where we're helping each other figure out better strategies and sharing ideas for specific types of events that works really well, or specific types of ads that work really well, that kind of thing.

Dahvi Wilson:         
30:12 It was almost like companies were embarrassed to admit that they had any opponents. Those days are gone. Everybody has opponents. You could be the best, most perfect company in the world, and you will still be in fights. So my message to the industry is, let's keep helping each other. We have more to gain from learning from each other than we do to lose. And I'm hoping that there's going to be more and more of that as we move forward.

And I think companies have not, in my opinion, been investing enough in this very important area because I don't think they've been taking the risk as seriously as is appropriate. So, I think that this analysis will help by bringing attention to that, helping companies see how their competitors are engaging, and hopefully encouraging them to invest more in this area.

Mike Casey:            
33:41 Dahvi Wilson of Apex. Thank you so much for joining our ongoing conversation around, not just for Nimbys.

Dahvi Wilson:         
33:58 Thank you very much.