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DTE's Matt Wagner on Wind Industry's Use of Digital Tools in Community Acceptance

9 min. read

Pine River Wind Park. Credit Mark Houston, DTE Energy.

Pine River Wind Park. Credit Mark Houston, DTE Energy.

One of the highlights of our WINDPOWER trade show experience was getting to talk with industry leaders working to secure support in communities with proposed wind farms. As part of our “Not Just for NIMBYs” interview series, we spoke with our first IOU leader, DTE Manager of Renewable Energy Development Matt Wagner. His company has gone from one of the most coal-intensive utilities to one that’s leading the way to a clean energy future. DTE has developed, owns and operates over one gigawatt of wind energy, and it recently committed to an 80% reduction in its corporate carbon footprint.

Matt made these important points:

  • Until recently, wind companies have allowed the messiness of social media to discourage them from using these platforms proactively in community relations. The opposition is “eating our lunch,” and the industry is now having to play catch up.
  • DTE has found success in what it calls a “renewables takeover” of its social media channels. The company will highlight the personal story of a community wind energy supporter, then feature that story across the company’s social channels in a concentrated window of time. Renewables takeover has become a core part of the company’s social media strategy.
  • The messiness and perceived risk of deploying social media are far outweighed by the costs of ignoring the platforms. Anti-wind energy content on one project can too easily go viral in ways that can hurt many projects.

Interview

Mike Casey:

Thanks for joining us for another edition of Not Just for NIMBYs. It's our ongoing conversation with people in the wind industry who are on the front lines of engaging with communities that are hosting wind farms. I'm joined today by Matt Wagner. He's the Manager of Renewable Energy Development for DTE Energy out of Detroit. His company has developed, owns, and operates over one gigawatt of wind energy, and they recently committed to an 80% reduction in their corporate carbon footprint.

Mike Casey:                                         

I wanted to get your thoughts on the analysis that we recently conducted for how wind companies are using social media as part of their community engagement. Did anything in the analysis surprise you?

Matt Wagner:              

It didn't surprise us; we thought it was spot on. The opposition has a very effective strategy.

Mike Casey:                                         

What do you think the industry's state of play  [is] when it comes to community engagement, if you had to identify the center yard line right now of the industry in this part of its business?

Matt Wagner:              

That's a great question. I think the industry has sort of owned that they haven't (Missing word?), in that space, strongly enough, and I think they're on the cusp of transitioning and actually moving in and actually leveraging that space to their benefit. But I think that's just starting.

Mike Casey:                                         

If you had advice to give to the industry as a whole when it comes to community engagement, upping its game, what advice would you have, whether it's digital or not?

Matt Wagner:                                      

That's a question with a lot of answers, all sort of in parallel. From a social media standpoint, don't be afraid. Own it, learn it, use it, and be willing to take some risks, no question about it. But also recognize that the hard work of being in the communities and developing those one-on-one relationships is still core to successful community engagement.

Mike Casey:                                         

We had one survey participant tell us that Facebook is the new public square for rural communities. Has that been DTE's experience developing wind energy in Michigan?

Matt Wagner:                                      

It absolutely has been, and I think that concept was new to me when it was shared with me, but I totally agree with that. I think the frustration for DTE is, we've realized that people who are opposed to these projects have used Facebook  to develop almost instant community.,. We have just started to take advantage of the different social channels available.

Mike Casey:                                         

One of the things that we hear from wind companies is that, "We have facts on our side, but they have an easier job of just making an emotional argument."

Matt Wagner:                                      

Right.

Mike Casey:                                         

So the medium of social media inherently disadvantages us. Do you think that's a reason not to utilize the platform?

Matt Wagner:              

No, I think social media is one of the channels that you have to use to get facts out there. I do agree that the opposition has made it tough to get the facts to stickand social media becomes a tool to reinforce that as long as we can get as good in the game of using social media as the opposition has been up until now.

Mike Casey:                                         

What's been DTEs approach to digital tools overall when it comes to community engagement?

Matt Wagner:                                      

We've been on a learning curve. We use it in a lot of different ways. I'm not the expert, but I've been working with the experts and we've been really pleased with the way it's gone, probably in the last four to six months. We use it for basic stuff like helping to educate and creating awareness about renewable energy in general, so we'll put organic posts out there, a great story on renewable energy – whether it's from in Michigan or a national story or something in another state – we'll post that so people can see that they're not the only ones dealing with it.

Matt Wagner:                                      

We have this one technique called a sort of renewable takeover. So, there's a big decision in Lansing, a big decision related to renewable energy. We'll just sort of dominate our social media space with renewable energy posts to reinforce. The first thing we started doing was just monitoring the opposition's behavior and activities, and are they coming to a meeting. It's a lot easier for us to be ready for a meeting if a real strong opponent is there, and frankly one of their downfalls is they've become a little bit arrogant because of some of their success. And so they get cocky and they tell everybody that they're coming and that works for us. It's a lot easier when you're not surprised in a public meeting about who's going to be there, and we pretty much know what they're going to say. They've got a game plan and they go through their playbook. It's helped us be ready for that kind of thing.

Mike Casey:                                         

We've heard from a number of people in the industry that there is a growing professional class of NIMBY organizers, people who are paid by somebody, we don't really know who, who are going around to local communities and making it more difficult to engage in a host community in an organic and authentic way. Have you found that to be true?

Matt Wagner:                                      

It's absolutely true. Yeah, that's been our biggest challenge in Michigan, although I think we are slowly turning the tide.

Mike Casey:                                         

One of the things we've heard is that there's a phenomenon where troubles with one wind farm in a different state can haunt a wind project in another state because of the virality of social media. Have you experienced that in Michigan?

Matt Wagner:                                      

Absolutely, and virality is a great term; I'd call it portability. What happens in one state or one community is easily moved over to another community. We're trying to turn the tide on that. For example, we have wind parks that are extremely successful, and community leaders and land owners in those communities and other residents, they love that. But you can't get those people to travel, although the opposition does this. You can't get our communities to move around.

Matt Wagner:                                      

So what we've done is we've actually started doing testimonial videos, and those become portable. We've been posting those on YouTube, on Facebook, and it's had a tremendous effect because it's one thing when DTE tries to say, "This is good." It's another thing when a township supervisor or the local bakery owner stands up and says, "This has been huge for our community: economically, community-wise, environmentally beneficial," et cetera. That's a powerful testimony. If you can get that to others in other communities, that thing goes a long way.

Mike Casey:                                         

Good. Is there anything else you want to tell the industry about the need to step up for community engagement?

Matt Wagner:                                      

I think the one additional thing I'd say is there's really no silver bullet. If there was a formula that worked consistently, we'd always do it. You[‘ve] got to know your communities, but you also have to recognize that it's a sort of multi-pronged approach that works for you. But I would reinforce that the core of any good community engagement is having skin in the game, being in the community, and doing the hard work and talking to people one-on-one in small groups and growing relationships.

Mike Casey:                                         

Good. Matt Wagner, thanks so much.

Matt Wagner:              

Yeah, you bet.

 

 

Topics: Digital Media & Advertising