Of all the people we’ve interviewed for the Not Just for NIMBY series, Enel Green Power’s Nick Coil has probably spent the most time in rural communities engaged in… well, community engagement. He shared other interviewees’ views on the increasing difficulty of community relations, the dominance of Facebook in rural communities and the criticality of using social media as part of a community relations program. But Nick had some sophisticated observations and tactical recommendations that made this interview particularly useful for other wind IPPs.
Our big takeaways from the conversation with Nick:
- Your goal on digital should not be winning over critics, but rather mobilizing supporters. To do that, though, engaging early on Facebook is critical. It’s one of the few things that can build up a base of supporters before they inevitably face opposition from neighbors. If wind companies wait until opposition to projects gels, it becomes much harder to get supporters to speak out publicly in favor of wind energy development.
- Starting early also allows you to established company sources as trusted within the community, creating a buffer for the attacks on the company’s credibility and intentions.
- IPPs that use digital proactively in community engagement have a clear, definite advantage over those that don’t. That advantage can mean success or failure for entire projects.
Hi, welcome back to another edition of Not Just For NIMBYs. It's our ongoing conversation with people who are on the front lines of building community acceptance for renewable energy projects around the country. Today we're joined by Nick Coil, who is the Senior Development Manager for Enel Green Power, and they've built over five gigawatts of renewable energy projects in 24 states through 100 projects. Nick, thanks for joining us.
Thanks. Happy to be here.
I wanted to ask you, when you went through the analysis, was there anything in there that surprised you or struck you as particularly useful to the industry?
Honestly, nothing really surprised me. In my experience, we've seen that the opposition groups that have been forming across the country have been persistently using these digital strategy solutions as a way to communicate, and it's been a very powerful tool for them, and it's definitely clear that those development shops that are using digital solutions have an advantage over others who don't.
We had one study participant say to us that project opponents organize online, and they show up in the room. Given the vast amount of time you spent in rural communities paying attention to these conversations, has that been your experience?
Yeah, so in my experience we've seen these opposition groups use a wide variety of social media platforms. It's not just Facebook, it's not just web pages, and they're able to engage people who they have historically not been able to engage. They're able to communicate their message to the entire country just with the stroke of a key. Importantly, it's not just the communication efficiency of their strategies, it's what they're communicating. In large part, it's information that's not accurate, and so they're able to propagate this misinformation to the country and to other opposition groups just immediately and very efficiently.
One participant said to us that essentially all the companies are in the same boat, whether they like it or not, because one company's troubled project can create problems for another company's solid project because of the virality of social media. I hear in what you're saying that you find that to be true as well.
That's certainly a challenge that we have been experiencing. If there's any mishap at a project, whether it be during construction or operation or even development, every opposition group will latch onto that and use it a hundred-fold. So, it's not just a matter of the developer that it happened to, or the owner-operator that it happened to, to combat that. It's now every developer that has to combat the same message, and so it makes it challenging for the industry as a whole.
Nick, you quit your job tomorrow, you become a consultant to the CEO's of the top wind developers in the country. They put you in a room and they say, "Well, Nick, we have not used social media before because it's messy, it's noisy, it's emotional, and we have to be the opposite. We have to be factual. We have to do what we say, and we're not from this community. So, we don't want to use it because it's not worth it." What do you say back to them?
I would agree with them on most of those points, except that they shouldn't use it. The reality is that these communities are using tools to communicate with one another, whether it's an opposition group or just the community at large. I think we need to be using the same tools that the community uses to communicate with itself. It only makes sense the opposition is doing the same thing, and it's been very effective for them.
There is an argument to be made that engaging too early can cause problems. In essence, you engage, you show your hand to the opposition and then you lose your leverage. But the ramifications of not engaging early enough are so dire that you'll lose a permit, you'll lose a project over it. So, I think engagement early and often is the best solution, but we need to be less reactionary to the opposition and more proactive.
So I think we need to be engaging in the community early on in the development process. We need to create reliable, reputable sources of information so that the public can educate themselves on the issues before opposition has had a chance to take hold. There's also an interesting point that I think the industry has this feeling, at least some development shops, that you have to win over your opposition. I think ultimately that's probably a pretty unhealthy goal to have as a developer.
I think it's as much about combating your opposition as it is galvanizing your supporters and empowering them to come to public hearings, to speak on behalf of the project, to be an advocate of the project. Because the reality is that without the proper supporters, you're not going to get the permit, you're not going to build the project. So, I think its education, it's education early and often along with that engagement, and engaging in a way that's transparent and honest. If you do that, you set up a foundation for your development strategy that is professional and it has integrity, and I think that is received well in these local communities.
You perhaps have spent more time in local communities than anybody else that we have interviewed for this series, and I'm particularly interested in getting your thoughts on where Facebook is in relation to other digital tools that you've seen being used in communities that you're looking to build projects in. Where do you rank Facebook? What one participant said was it was the new town square. Is Facebook a first among equals, or is it a clear first and other tools come later, or should it be part of a co-equal mix of tools?
I'm not sure if it can be a mix of co-equal tools. I think it rises high above the other social media platforms. We've seen other ... we've seen Twitter, we've seen Instagram, but the way these specifically rural communities are communicating is through Facebook.
Because of Facebook’s sophisticated targeting capabilities it’s able to reach very specific audiences. . So, Facebook has a way of driving people into their own silos, and it creates these deserts, and it's not necessarily a desert of news, it's just a wealth of news surrounding your viewpoint on any particular issue.
So that is a challenge, even to the extent of you have project advocates who have started a truly grassroots campaign on Facebook to get into the Facebook pages of the opposition is difficult at best. And Facebook runs the algorithms for whether or not they're going to see those posts. So, it has a way of keeping people in its silos, and if one of the goals is to propagate reliable information, reliable and truthful information to the opposition, again the goal, I don't think is to win over the opposition, I think it's to educate. But when the misinformation is coming from the opposition, you're trying to educate the opposition so they can make informed decisions.
If you had to coach those CEOs over their reluctance, for understandable reasons, in using social media, do you think it's a viable argument to say to others if you don't play, you run a risk of losing the entire project?
I think that's a fair statement, but every project is different and needs a specific strategy. It kind of hits on a point I made earlier in that I think engagement early and often is important. I think transparency is important, honesty is important. If you're able to get the appropriate information out, not just appropriate but the factual information out to the correct audience so they can make informed decisions, I think that's one of if not the most important thing. And the way these communities are communicating is through social media.
If you get there before the opposition, that will only help. But again, if the goal is to galvanize your supporters and get them to understand the importance of these projects, and come and speak as advocates in public meetings, and also encourage their officials to make informed decisions, their neighbors to make informed decisions, then we need to be gaining their trust early on.
They don't want to speak against their neighbor. They may be in favor of it and their neighbor is fundamentally opposed to it. If they truly appreciate what we are going to be bringing to the community, I think they will get up and speak regardless of how fearful they are of that process. So yeah, I think that communication is key and again, you just have to use the tools that the county or the community is using to communicate, which is social media these days.