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With Modern Farming Operations “Massively Digitally Integrated,” Digital Tools “Should Play a Bigger Role"

10 min. read

Community Acceptance with Will Eberle of E.ON North America

Will Eberle is the Director of Government Relations and External Affairs for E.ON North America. Will was one of our original participants in this analysis, and we're delighted to have him join us to discuss the state of community acceptance for the industry. He shared his surprise about the final results of the analysis that showed few companies in the industry were using social media for community acceptance but that nearly every opposition group was using them.

Our takeaways from the discussion with Will:

  • The traditional view is that rural communities, along the wind belt, are detached and non-digitized. That’s no longer the case. Even looking at the technology that’s guiding many farmers in rural communities, they are massively digitally integrated. However, due to the state of news media, many in these communities are located in “news deserts.” As a result, they’re turning to social media to exchange information and organize.

  • There’s no slowing down. As this industry continues to mature, the need to engage communities will remain an essential component of wind energy project success.

  • The good news is that the model for managing community acceptance already exists. These campaigns are much like local political campaigns but instead of working to elect a candidate or party, it’s projects that need local approval. That model can be emulated and transferred to our work.

Mike Casey:                 

Thanks for joining us for the next installment of Not Just for NIMBYs, which is our ongoing conversation with people in the wind industry who are on the front lines of building acceptance in local communities for wind farms. With me today is Will Eberle. He is the Director of Government Relations and External Affairs for E.ON North America. Will, thanks for joining us.

Will Eberle:                 

Thanks for having me, Mike. Great to be back.

Mike Casey:            

Was there anything in the analysis that you found surprising?

Will Eberle: 

There was. I think the fact that so few companies were using digital tools to go out there and make our case to the public, especially when you looked throughout the findings and saw that almost every opposition group was doing the same. And so I sort of had a sense from our own projects where the problems were that we were encountering, and to see the fact that so much of the landscape where these fights are really happening, we were just ceding the field essentially to these groups. I think it was surprising to me, and alarming for the future of the industry.

Mike Casey:               

One of the participants we talked to said that opponents organize online and then they show up in the room. Do you think, has that been true in your experience?

Will Eberle:   

It is. I haven't put it that eloquently before, but that's the perfect way to describe it. Social media is a number of things to a number of different people, but it is a wonderful tool to get people together to keep a drumbeat, to motivate them and then make sure they actually show up in person, right?

Mike Casey:             

What's your view of the industry's state of their use of digital tools as part of their computer license programs?

Will Eberle:                

I think it could be better. I think we're getting better because we've realized that, you know as I was saying, so much of that field has been ceded to the groups that oppose us. And I think that as the industry matures and I think we're now getting to the point where we are a serious industry in terms of the power generation sector, we're starting to fight more of those fights that I think the more traditional utilities or larger power generators have to fight, which are these community acceptance fights. And so I think that while the state of industry use of social media is not where I think it should be, I think we're getting there and I think we have recognized that it's a problem and a place that we need to work on to really achieve the goals that we want to achieve as an industry.

Mike Casey:             

A lot of companies we talk to had a reluctance to use social media as part of their community acceptance programs. Just speaking broadly throughout the industry, why do you think that is?

Will Eberle:                

Yeah, I don't know. I think a lot of it comes from the sense of not being able to control what happens.

Will Eberle:            

I think part of it is frankly, and no offense to the engineers up there, but it's an industry that's functionally built on engineers, and they understand in ways that I could never hope to comprehend the depths of the technical information and the grid information necessary to run a massive power generation station. But as a result, they maybe don't understand the importance of communication techniques, of proactively getting out in the communities. And so that I think has been growing a little bit more within the industry, but it still I think hasn't taken root yet in a way that we've been able to see a lot of successes after it.

Mike Casey:                

One of the things that we heard reading between the lines of most companies' answers was that the messiness and the chaos that comes with social media was really a deterrent. Do you think that that's a factor in why companies have been slow to adopt these tools on a proactive basis?

Will Eberle:                 

Yeah, I think it is. I think that's a component of it. I think that in addition, I mean there is just the staff time that's required to run a social media page. Having done it myself, I know that it's no small feat, and there is some staff-level burnout questions. When you're being attacked every day in that way from the opposition, and you're literally spending five or six hours a day just digging through trolls and people attacking you and your company and the entire concept of what you're trying to do, I think it can be pretty draining, which might force some people to stay away, or at least help convince some people to stay away.

Mike Casey:                 

One participant told us that he viewed Facebook as the new town square for rural communities. It backed up something we've read, that there is now 200 counties I think in the U.S. that are essentially news deserts. They're not serviced by any local news media, because rural news media outlets have really been hard-hit by the collapse of traditional media over the last 10 years or so. Do you see the same role of Facebook in these rural communities?

Will Eberle:             

I think that's absolutely true. I mean, I think the sort of traditional conception of these rural communities as being sort of detached and non-digitized is just not the case anymore, and I think if you look ... And it probably hasn't been the case for a long time, but if you look at modern farming operations, they are massively digitally integrated, and almost everything is run through GPS. They have computers that can crunch a whole lot of data to make sure that they're getting the most out of their farm.

Will Eberle:                 

And so these are communities that are primed for and actively working in the digital space, and so I think that's absolutely correct. If you think about how you would replace something like those journalistic outlets, something like Facebook which is functionally a free platform that allows you to share as much news as you want while eliminating geographic constraints, I mean it fits the bill perfectly.

Mike Casey:               

What role do you think digital tools should play in the future for wind companies that are looking to build acceptance for wind farms?

 I think they should play a bigger role. There's no question that I think as the industry, we are not doing the job we need to do to get our message out there to meet people where they are, which in this case is on Facebook, on Twitter, on things like Instagram, Snapchat. I think there are really interesting ways we can get out there and start integrating these tools into our normal development efforts, and I think make[ing] those tools then the new normal.

Mike Casey:                 

We've had some people in the wind industry say, the problem with Facebook in particular and social media in general is that it's an emotionally-driven medium. Our side, that is the pro side if you will, has to deal in facts and numbers, and cannot get into emotional food fights online, whereas the opponents have an easier job. They can distort. They can use emotional arguments.. Do you think that that's an overwhelming reason to be cautious about social media

Will Eberle:                  

You know, I think it's not, and I think the answer comes in realizing what those numbers that we talk about actually mean to people. I mean, those numbers are emotional to some people when it comes to extra money for your farm. I mean, if you look at the landscape right now in terms of international commodities, agriculture is getting hit everywhere. I mean, I saw an article just this morning that there were three dairy farms in Wisconsin that were forced to close because milk prices are so bad.

Will Eberle:                 

That's a lifeline that some of these communities are getting. When we talk about tax revenues for schools, I mean that's just a number but what it really means is keeping kids in better classrooms, keeping teachers, buying more books, upgrading technology. Making the emotional connection of what those numbers actually mean to people, I think, and so we can pull ourselves I think out of where the opponents are trying to take us, which I think is down in that sort of nasty, food-fighty area.

Mike Casey:                 

So combining narrative with our facts.

Will Eberle:                 

Yes, exactly.

Mike Casey:                 

What advice do you have for the industry as somebody who's actively involved in community engagement, who's managed social media campaigns? What advice do you have for the industry broadly when it comes to this area?

Will Eberle:            

Yeah, I mean I think if I can give one piece of advice it's to focus on this more. I think the industry has been very successful at fighting fights at different levels, first the federal fight around the PTC, gaining acceptance there, and then state-level fights where we've had to devolve that fight to the state legislatures. And I think this is going to be that next frontier, and I think we're already seeing in a number of places that community opposition has stopped projects, and often that opposition then bubbles up to be problems at the state level too, in a lot of those places.

Will Eberle:                  

But I think really getting your attention to focus on this, and it feels a little soft and hard to measure, and so it doesn't quite fit into a lot of the technological and financial analyses and ways of thinking that the industry has. But I think realizing that as we become a more mature industry, this is going to be the next frontier in the fight.

Mike Casey:                 

Did you find the analysis a useful contribution? Is it playing a role in the industry's advancement in its public affairs practices?

Will Eberle:                  

Yes, absolutely. So I'm the vice-chair of subcommittee for community engagement, which is part of the communications committee, and we've used that report extensively. I mean, we've sent it to companies. We've used it as a tool to do exactly what I just said, which is to try to push it up the chain and get people to pay attention to it, because it is so important. And I think the study is absolutely spot-on in what it uncovers, the analysis that it runs.

Mike Casey:                 

Great. Some industry CEOs might be listening to people like you and say, "Well, that's great but this is a brand new frontier. No one's had to wrestle with these problems before, so it's going to be expensive and time-consuming for us to basically create a success path." What would you say to that?

Will Eberle:                  

Yeah, I would disagree with that. I think while it may seem new and sort of threatening for the industry because they haven't experienced it, I think as they otherwise could have in the past, I mean the reality is that there is an answer to this that's already out there, and it comes from a world that I came from in my previous job, which is politics, right? I mean, this is functionally you're fighting a political campaign at a local level, and so there is a model out there. I mean, political campaign professionals exist for reasons, because they know how to do these things. I think infusing some of that knowledge base into the industry will be very helpful, because that takes some of the fear out of it, knowing that there is a model out there that is well-developed, that works, and that you can transfer over and I think can show some good results.

Mike Casey:                 

And so when a CEO look at this and might say, "Oh, I don't quite know how to deal with this," I would say, "Look, there's a model out there that exists, that we can easily transport in and try to make it work on the ground," and that we're not building everything from the ground up here. There is something out there that we can go use.

 

 

 

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