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Pattern Energy’s Adam Renz on Social Media in Community Acceptance

12 min. read

Digital tools can de-risk projects, but, “we have ceded a lot of our thought leadership to folks who oppose us”

Adam Renz is one of a handful of people who have been an institutional communicator at two major wind IPPs – first EDP Renewables, then Pattern Energy. We were excited to tap the perspective of this wind industry veteran, and his thoughtful commentary didn’t disappoint. In fact, it was difficult narrowing our interview with Adam down to three big points.

Adam agreed with others we’ve interviewed on the dominance of Facebook in rural communities, the costs of neglecting social media tools and the ability of negative attention paid to one project affecting the fate of others. However, he had far more to say beyond what we recap below. So we encourage you to read the full transcript of Adams’ comments.

 Our takeaways:

  • By neglecting the use of digital tools in community engagement, the industry “has ceded our thought leadership to people who oppose us.” The industry is now actively catching up, but opposition groups are beginning to close their Facebook groups to reduce the ability of wind companies to monitor their conversations and planning. 

  • The easy wind projects have all been built. Now, projects all face at least some measure of opposition, and some can be completely killed by vocal local minorities. But if used effectively, social media can be used to meet that threat. In short, social media can de-risk projects

  • Social media can be used to debunk falsehoods peddled by the growing class of professional NIMBY organizers. It can also downgrade the credibility of those professional NIMBYs to an appropriately lower level.

Interview:

Mike Casey:     

Welcome back to Not Just for NIMBYs. It’s our ongoing conversation with people who are on the front lines of building community acceptance for wind and solar projects around the country. And with me today is Adam Renz. He's a friend of ours and the Manager of Business Development for Pattern Energy, which has developed and placed into operation over five gigawatts of renewal energy spanning a range of technologies in North America and Japan. Adam, welcome.

Adam Renz:     

Thank you for having me.

Mike Casey:     

In the Not Just for NIMBYs analysis, did you find anything that was surprising in that e-book?

Adam Renz:     

Yes. I think one of the pieces that came out in the research was that in renewable space we have seeded a lot of our communication tactics and our space as a contributor in conversations locally to those who are opposed to what we're doing. So, in closer looking for news, looking for updates, looking for information, they're coming across exactly what we don't want them to have versus the actual God-given truth about these developments that we're working on.

Mike Casey:     

We had one participant in the original study say to us that he thinks that Facebook is the new town square for rural communities. In your work as a previous communicator analysis and developer. Do you find that to be true?

Adam Renz:     

Yeah. I would say by and large, in rural communities Facebook does tend to be the new towns square. I think that it does adapt a little bit versus some communities where it seems to be more of an open town square versus more a back-room meeting hall. I've noticed that over the years, as people have gotten more comfortable and familiar with Facebook, they started adapting their tactics of where they're having their meetings at. They're maybe not always in the public eye. And I think that's actually... By the time we learned that these meetings are happening in the public they started shifting away. Because a lot of our early intel was coming from all this publicly out there and groups have learned to move it off of public channels.

Mike Casey:     

If you had to describe the state of the wind industries' abilities, when it comes to community relations and community engagement, how would you describe it?

Adam Renz:     

I would say that it took us longer that it should have to come to the conclusion that we have ceded a lot of our thought leadership to folks who oppose us. But I think most of us now are coming to the realization that we need to make up for lost time and invest in this. This is not PR. This is not marketing. This is communicating. And I think that is the bread and butter of all us as developers, making sure that we got projects that are derisked and set up for success now that it's tougher. The lower hanging fruit projects are gone. Every space and every product that we're fighting for is a tougher project and have the capabilities of having a very digitally capable opponents on the other end of our projects.

Adam Renz:     

I do think that though the renewable sector has suffered by having a lot of folks in leadership positions, especially legal positions that didn't quite understand -- because that wasn't their job to full understand -- what Facebook and other platforms were capable of doing and just how entrenched they can become in rural communities. So that you got a combination of more senior and older less technologically capable leadership companies. You've got offices in major cities outside of the areas that we're developing projects. And then you've got all the other disconnects that come with just having the political divide. I think the 2016 election gave us all a new appreciation of what social media, if it's an unkept garden, is capable of doing. It's kind of a frightening spot.

Mike Casey:     

If you had to give advice to the industry who at large on how it should raise its game, what are some keys of success that Pattern has found in deploying social media to build community acceptance?

Adam Renz:

I think that budgeting appropriately for this. This is not icing on the cake. This is, to keep the icing comparison, this is the piece that's holding the layers of the cake, the project, together. If you treat this as marketing, if you treat this as PR, you're probably not going to see much success. If you see this as a component of informing your neighbors, your land owners, your local officials, your state and fellow officials I think that is when social media actually works for you. But it's something that can't be done overnight. Just like putting a report together and a study together, it takes time. And it takes a lot of outside work and research.

Adam Renz:     

I think building a program you need to have a reasonable expectations of what year one and beyond look like. And they need to be funded. And management at the companies need to be aware, and at the industry at large that big organizations need to fund from multiyear kind of forays into social.

Mike Casey:     

You quit your job tomorrow and you consult the CEOs who are developing projects, and they say, "Well, Adam, tell me why I should put up with the messiness, the noise, and the expense of social media? What are the top three rationales?"

Adam Renz:     

All right, well, I push back on the idea that social media always has to be noisy and messy. I think that's a component of human communication, but I think when done well, especially when kind of scaled upwardly, social media is a way to help derisk projects. I think that working not for a utility owned power developer our capital has a lot more strings attached to it, in which we need to be extremely careful and making sure that we are derisking our projects at every step of the way. Because that is what those who invest in our projects require.

Adam Renz:     

Also, it's best practices. I think that it's hand in hand with good community work, good development work, understanding your land owners, understanding the stress points and the history and any historical sore spots in the community where you're developing. Understanding those in advance and developing your outreach and your communication strategy. That is the biggest piece. And I think the social media is merely on component in the communications and outreach strategy that any developer or communicator should have in their quiver. That kind of answers a lot and I want to push it back on the CEO and you to say that I disagree with the premise. I think that properly developed projects have proven time and time again to be developed cheaper, and they have a better track record into the operations phase for how you work community acceptance.

Adam Renz:     

At the end of the day I think we can translate that into dollars and cents because a project that was improperly developed, or comes with a lot of baggage, you're going to be dealing with that, or your operations teams are going to be dealing with that into perpetuity. And that may very well set back the industry, both nationally or regionally, the company, or hinder that individual company from developing a second or a third future face of that project.

Mike Casey:     

And another person said that they found social to be very useful in really two things. One was monitoring opposition behavior, activities, and plans. The other was, it was the best way to recruit and energize supporters. They told us that supporters often ask them to be on Facebook as to bolster them. Do you find those two benefits hold true in Pattern's experience?

Adam Renz:     

Yes. In general, yes. There are some areas mentioned earlier some of the conversation they're getting smarter. Groups are pulling their communications, discussions, off of line, and they're merely dictating or sharing high level talking points. So, they are still public. Other groups are doing it all in public view. So, it kind of depends on the group that you have and the level of sophistication that they've got. But they're absolutely messaging, calling quietly, and they're getting it out there, and it's being delivered in a very factual way with a lot of emotion to it. They're telling a story. That is a spot that we need to better is telling that story. Because communication is one facet, but how you get that out there... Like we're communicating now, but how I deliver a story or tell something to you is the next line in that progression. A lot of these opposition groups can do a very good job of telling that story. And we are monitoring every single one of our projects now from a social media perspective on all major platforms, Facebook being the biggest.

Adam Renz:     

And to the land owner piece, we have been working to have closed groups where land owners, where we realized Facebook is their town hall and where they're getting a lot of information, we now know we can't expect them to wait for an email from us. We can't expect them to make the extra step of digging up a project website. Those are all helpful pieces, but that's where the land owners are. And that's not where their neighbors are. So, if we want them to have access to good information, we need to put it in closed groups where they have access and then they can use that to share publicly on their news feeds. So, we are absolutely trying to adapt to it. We have received that same request from projects spanning from coast to coast.

Mike Casey:     

Another person said that, "The cost of one company didn't just come from the trouble that that company had on one of its projects. Company X would experience headaches on one project because company Y, in a different state, a different project, was getting a lot of push back. But the virality of social media allowed the opponents of one company's project in one state to connect and form community with people in another local community." Do you find that to be true?

Adam Renz:     

Absolutely. We had folks from California projects to indicate who are opposed to projects communicating with colleagues up in Ontario, Canada. We've had similar all over the state... It doesn't matter where the projects are located. I think that the social media presence, as well as the digital presence of organizations like Wind Watch and other entities, they are doing, again, a very good job of getting their information out. And it's sharing in a very natural, this is terrifying, I want to show my neighbors.

Adam Renz:     

And once it gets out there it ant be put back in the box. And we're chasing some of the same stories that we started chasing probably together seven years ago. They're still making the rounds today. None of these tales ever go away it seems.

Mike Casey:     

They're good recyclers.

Adam Renz:     

Yeah, they're great. They're far more efficient than we are.

Mike Casey:     

And the other thing we've heard from other study participants is that there's a growing professionalization of a core group of maybe[opposition] organizers that are paid by we don't know who yet, we have our suspicions, but they are coming into communities. And if our developers aren't managing, if you will, if they're not winning the ways to define, they're setting themselves up to have their community’s conversation hijacked by outside organizers. Have you found that to be true?

Adam Renz:     

Yeah. And I would say that especially it's dangerous. That everything you've said is 100% true. I think it's especially dangerous when you get into a county Commissioner meeting or some local government meeting, when you may have a Commissioner or a local leader who is either not a great meeting learner, or potentially could be sympathetic to what is being said, and then gives that mouthpiece more of a milk box to stand on. So, we get a lot of it shift space on where we're at, and it kind of comes down to: Do you have a county Commissioner or one who is supportive? Even if they are, they may not be a great meeting organizer, and they may let someone just run over their two-minute window and just berate a wind developers or developer. Or you may have it be a bit of a planned ambush. I mean, regardless, it happens, the effect is the same.

Adam Renz:     

Again, they're taking over the storytelling piece. Instead of us telling a story around the benefits of these projects, benefits of the land owners, benefits of the communities, that all take a backseat when the more human nature to go to the worst timeline of story and fearful rhetoric takes over. I think all of us watch the evening news. I think as humans we are drawn to bad news. And that is just as true in a small-town county courthouse meeting, as it is in the big cities.

Mike Casey:     

I just came from a community acceptance panel where a CEO of a large IPP and then an official of another developer both asserted pretty clearly that social media could actually be one of the decisive factors in whether a half a billion dollar project gets built. Do you think that's an over statement?

Adam Renz:     

No. We have experienced the down side of having social media kind of run amok in a project that otherwise seemingly was calm, quiet, no major issues, but that narrative got taken and run with and almost overnight the tides changed. So, we have experienced these sorts of setbacks. And those do cost real dollars and cents. So I think that is one of the first things I would use as a case study to push back on a CEO that I'm consulting for. To say, "No, there is a natural... This is not touchy feely soft liberal arts skills. This is resulting in development costs, and the potential of putting a project into jeopardy."

Adam Renz:     

We started having land owners complain that they didn't feel comfortable explaining to their neighbors, like bringing a fact sheet or something over, a piece of collateral. That wasn't enough of them to make a heartfelt kind of news-oriented update on renewables today. Where has the technology grown from those little lattice towers with those spinning fans in the background? How do we refute some of the crazy claims that they know they're hearing, they don't feel like are true, and nor do their neighbors? But they didn't feel comfortable that we gave them enough tools to do that.

Adam Renz:     

So I think that was one of the pieces that tools need to be developed, and distribution tactics need to be implemented so that we are adjusting based off of projects. Because some communities are more technically savvy than others. Some are bigger than others. So, change is when it's 100 land owners and all of their friends and friends and friends versus four land owners and their extended family nearby.

Mike Casey:     

Question. Is the practice of community engagement for solar and wind projects, is it a political campaign, or is it similar to a political campaign?

Adam Renz:     

I would say it's similar to a political campaign. I would by and large say that until the last handful of years I don't think there was politics necessarily as we know them today, in renewable development. I mean, especially as we're doing this interview in Texas. It was then Governor Bush that was the big pioneer in getting renewables. It was then Governor Perry, now Secretary Perry, that was pushing renewables and continuing the growth throughout the state. And all of a sudden now it's become a bipolar subject matter that shifts between Trump Republicans, moderate Republicans, and other sides beyond.

 

Topics: Public Affairs