Today, we’re continuing our discussion series on the use of digital tools to build community acceptance by wind energy independent power producers (IPPs). We’re pleased to do that with our friend, Paul Copleman, Director of Communications with Avangrid Renewables. Paul’s company is one of the leading renewable energy IPPs with large asset bases both in the U.S. and across the globe.
Paul was one of nine executives from wind companies who served as original contributors to the anchor piece for this series. This was a first-ever analysis of how major wind developers are using digital tools as a supplement to their community relations efforts. You can see that analysis, “Not Just for NIMBYs” by clicking here.
We’ve got several more interviews forthcoming with people working to build acceptance for renewable energy in the communities that host wind and solar energy development projects. Paul impressed upon us several big points from the analysis’s findings:
- Digital tools are “the new town square” in rural communities.
- Using these tools can be messy, loud and difficult – but they are still necessary.
- Everyone in the industry is still finding their way to best use these digital tools.
- The key to effective community relations is the same in person as it is online: Effective story telling by champions of the project to help their communities.
Here are the highlights of our interview with Paul. An edited transcript follows:
Casey – Paul, if we step back from your own company’s perspective and you look at the conclusions of the analysis, which essentially is that our industry is leaving digital tools up to NIMBYs to use as an organization platform so they can then protest and block projects. What’s your sense of the sector’s uptake on these tools?
Copleman – I think we are still learning how best to use them. And obviously every project community is a little bit different in the way the community itself uses these tools. I think any responsible developer has to look carefully at how the community is best going to respond or listen to the important stories that I think wind project developers have to tell. And I think it depends on the tool, but I think ultimately a developer still has to do good, grassroots organizing work, whether that manifests itself in digital tools or more public meetings or in print media, we still have to do the work to identify and engage champions of the project who can speak to the success of projects that they bring to the community and find those voices that resonate within that community, whether those are voices on Facebook or standing up at a public meeting or writing a letter to the editor. So even those tools have changed and will continue to change, I think the onus is still on developers to identify and engage people who can be successful champions of the project.
Casey – Anything surprising in the analysis, either from the standpoint of your own company or the sector in general?
Copleman – I think it was revealing to me that every company is still trying to figure out the best way forward. And I think that’s useful, that there’s no obvious silver bullet, there’s obvious “oh,” company so-and-so is doing it this way and look, all their projects are getting successfully permitted and built.
Casey: One of the things that we heard from several people we interviewed is you get the sense of a rising class of professional anti-wind operatives. Is that something you and your company have experienced as you have looked to build community acceptance for your projects?
Copleman: Absolutely. I think we’ve seen some of these professional anti-wind organizers in communities where we are developing projects. I think there is often a good understanding within the community about who is a quote-unquote outsider, who is a legitimate community voice that should have a say in the process. But certainly as a development within the wind industry, I think we are certainly seeing more of that now than we used to 5-10 years ago. We’re seeing some of those very same people elevate themselves, build a brand for themselves, looking for ways to be involved in fighting projects in a wider and wider geographic region.
Casey: If you had to judge the overall state of the industry’s community acceptance efforts, what thoughts do you have?
Copleman: I think we’re all still learning. If you look at the growth of the industry, I think we have a lot of good stories to tell and a lot of successes to point to. I think the industry growth from quarter to quarter, year to year is a testament to the fact that wind energy in communities is popular, has paths to acceptance. If you look back at projects that have now been up and running in communities for 10-15 years, there are a number of voices who are willing to help us tell that story. I think that while we’re still learning, we all intuitively understand there are good stories and have to figure out how best to tell them. I think we all view media and these types of fora for discussion as something that can be a challenge and an opportunity. Ultimately it boils back down to good organizing tactics that any good political campaign knows how to do, that any local ballot initiative effort has undertaken.
Casey: The early view of digital tools, particularly in the clean energy sector was a form of cheap distribution. But the evangelists for digital tools say very consistently that the way you properly use them is a much more involved engagement. Basically, you‘re not just hitting the send button only, you’re hitting the send button, and hitting the receive button, so to speak.
Copleman: It’s a 24/7 public meeting.
Casey: Well put.
Casey: How do you see that reality being made an asset by our industry in the years ahead?
Copleman: I think there’s a real opportunity to do that. We know it takes a lot of effort. We know it takes a lot of time. We know it’s an ongoing conversation. It’s not, as you put it, just hitting “send.” I think what we experience, and I suspect what other developers are experiencing, mirrors the social media conversation writ large. We know it can be very toxic. We know it has the potential to devolve into mudslinging and name calling. We know there’s a lot of information that’s not grounded in science, or in a basic understanding of how weather works or how energy works or how electricity reaches people’s homes. And so it can certainly be a grind to try to engage on a nonstop basis with a lot of misinformation, with a lot of bad actors. And I think it’s easy to run into those types of challenges and bang your head against a wall and write off the tool as something that is not reaching potential supporters, that’s not reaching people who are legitimately on the fence and curious about projects. And so the challenge remains, even in these new tools, even in these new spaces, how do you identify people who are really curious, who are interested in the information we have to share.
Casey: There’s a definite consensus among everyone we talk to in this industry that digital has to play a supplemental role to the individual retail, person-to-person points of contact. Have we hit the inflection point where social is more impactful and matters more than the local news media, not that we can ever ignore them. Have we hit that inflection point?
Copleman: It’s a great question and the short answer is I don’t know. Every time I think gosh, the community square is Facebook, we are reminded by a Chamber of Commerce or local county commissioner that there’s a letter to the editor in the local paper and that still has a value to it, particularly to grasstops, to local elected officials, to town elders as it were. So I do still think there’s a value to getting your message out in more traditional media, to just chitchatting with folks where they’re getting coffee, where they’re gathering after work. But unquestionably there is so much more conversation on Facebook – and I use Facebook as one example, it’s probably the most prominent example, within a community it is so much of the town square. And like any public meeting, it tends to attract some people who want to be louder, who want to be bullies. And it tends to make people who are normally quieter personalities want to retreat. It mirrors a lot of the social dynamics you see in a public meeting or other public gathering. But at the same time, it’s clearly where so much conversation is happening and where so much information is being gathered.
So it’s a constant PR 101-type lesson. But when we have the science, it’s easy to fall into the trap of talking about numbers. And whether we’re talking about Facebook or public meetings, we have to remember to tell the stories about the people and the communities, and tell our success stories in a way that are memorable, because that’s what’s going to stick with people. And so again, while Facebook and social media present amazing opportunities and interesting challenges as we engage with communities across the country, we still have to remember some of the basics and apply some of those basics to new media where we are communicating.
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