As part of our series of interviews with people leading community engagement for the U.S. offshore wind industry, we're delighted to have our friend, Kris Ohleth, join us.
Kris and I met 18 months ago as co-panelists at the AWEA offshore wind conference. Back then, she was driving community engagement for Ørsted in New Jersey. Kris has recently taken over the University of Delaware’s Special Initiative On Offshore Wind (SIOW). The Initiative was founded by our former client, Stephanie McClellan, who is rightly regarded as the mother (or at least one of several parents) of the U.S. offshore wind industry.
Kris is coming off of fresh, on-the-ground experience of driving community engagement for the biggest player in the U.S. OSW industry – both pre- and mid-pandemic. Her B3Ps (Big 3 Points):
Community engagement is under-resourced, even though community resistance can kill offshore wind farms
Q: How would you rate the state of community engagement programs in the U.S.?
“If I was to give a scorecard to the industry’s current community engagement [10 = best], we're somewhere 5-7. There's a lot of good intention, but there’s insufficient resources given to work in local communities. From my perspective, developers are most interested in engineering and permitting, because those will materially move an offshore wind project forward. We know how to permit projects, we know how to finance them, we know how to build them. But what you find out in the long run is that community engagement – or lack thereof – is what will end up stopping the project.”
Community engagement programs should be managed from collective lessons learned, but executed by people with deep local connections
Q: What advice do you have for offshore wind companies to upgrade their programs?
“Community engagement is really hard. Invest in a trusted local community representative. When you're trying to win the hearts and minds, having relationships and understanding the fundamental values of the community is much more important than knowing what the rated speed of the turbine is, or how you do horizontal directional drilling.”
“Look at the Block Island wind farm. Brian Wilson is a lifelong resident of Block Island, and he was the community liaison for Deep Water Wind. And he remains the project liaison to the community. One could argue that having Brian engaged has been a key factor in the success of that first offshore wind project in the U.S.”
“I see that local community liaison as a translator, taking information from the community and feeding it back into the project team. The project team is guiding on perhaps the best ways to respond and react, and then delivering that information back to the liaison, who's taking it back to the community.”
Pre-pandemic, digital was supplemental. Now it’s central, and that comes with risks
Q: Pre-pandemic, what was your view of the proper role of digital? How has that role changed with the pandemic?
“The proper role of digital was to be completely supplementary to in-person engagement. Now all the best parts of my job have gone away, because it's all on the screen. So, I think community engagement is much more challenging in these times. There's greater quantity of engagement, but less quality.”
“During my time at Ørsted, we’d have a public meeting with hundreds and hundreds of people on Zoom. But it didn't really replicate the relationship building we were able to have when we had 20 people in a room. So, for me, I'd always pick 20 people in a room over hundreds on Zoom. There's less distraction.”
“I hope that we don't use [digital] too much as a crutch. It can be a great supplement. If you look at theoceanwind.com website, you can see all of the materials from previous virtual meeting rooms up there on the website, and you can click through the material and it kind of lives on. And that's a really helpful resource for communities. I just hope that developers wouldn't kind of take that easier way out and let it completely supplant the in-person interactions.”