It’s a common story today. A solar developer identifies a promising parcel of land in a rural community, only to encounter staunch opposition from NIMBY (not in my backyard) activists.
Recognizing the growing prevalence of such concerns, Tim Montague, host of the Clean Power Hour podcast, organized a webinar Dahvi Wilson, Founder of Siting Clean, LLC, and myself. Together, we delved into public acceptance challenges around solar projects and explored ten strategies and best practices for building trust and overcoming opposition to solar project development. The following recommendations are based on our discussion.
Disinformation and misinformation
Social media platforms make it easy to spread misinformation and disinformation in today’s digital age. Let’s define both terms:
- Misinformationis information that is factually wrong, such as people believing that solar projects provide health risks.
- Disinformation is information that is deliberately misleading, false, negative, or malicious.
Both misinformation and disinformation are often conveyed by word-of-mouth, but Facebook and other social platforms act as super spreaders that can quickly shape public opinion and fuel concerns at zoning boards and other community meetings.
When disinformation, misinformation, and the fear of the unknown spread through a community, landowners and their neighbors can easily feel apprehension and resistance to solar project developers.
While there’s no way to stop misinformation and disinformation, here are ten strategies that can be used to reduce their impact.
1) Be a solar ambassador and educate others
Educating the community is the key to counteracting misinformation, disinformation, and fear of the solar unknown. When deciding to develop in a community, your team must quickly spread and separate solar fact from solar fiction. Facts and scientific research can help debunk any misinformation or disinformation that may be infecting the community via social media and word-of-mouth.
Facts should include positive aspects, such as no health and safety risks, carbon mitigation, job creation, tax revenue, and the low-impact nature of solar as a land use. They should also include negative but true information, such as the occasional need for tree cutting. With transparent facts in hand, you can address these concerns and present mitigation strategies and successful case studies.
2) Have a ground game
Your ground game should start well before public hearings. You’ll need to have data, establish local relationships, and engage with the community. By being proactive, your local project proponents will have an opportunity to tell their stories and address concerns before the opposition gains momentum. Waiting until the hearing may result in missed opportunities to build trust, answer questions, and incorporate feedback into the project design.
3) Build community trust
Solar developers are often seen as outsiders, so they must be able to gain community trust, especially in areas where renewable energy is still relatively new. As outsiders, developers must align themselves with the insiders.
As early as possible, take the following steps.
- Have direct interactions with landowners, neighbors, and influential community members.
- Build personal relationships. Strike up conversations. You’ll stand out, so get to know people. Buy people a cup of coffee or a beer.
- Consider avoiding social media advertisements unless it’s to counteract opposition ads.
- Establish trust through face-to-face communication. A handshake and a smile go a long way in overcoming inherent skepticism and misinformation.
With your ground game in play, you should have the tools to become a reliable source of information while understanding that initial trust may not be readily given. Your transparency, accurate information, and acknowledgment of legitimate concerns will gradually foster trust and credibility, paving the way for constructive community conversations and informed decision-making.
4) Keep it simple, listen, and have empathy
While providing accurate information is important for building trust, keep the information simple. If your information is too technical, it may increase fear of the unknown. Instead, solar developers must go beyond technical details and genuinely listen to community concerns. Respond to objections with facts and examples from other projects.
It’s crucial to understand that community values often eclipse financial benefits. Honest conversations about the community’s identity and the importance of preserving their farming “way of life” can help address concerns and build a shared vision for the future.
5) Send FAQ mailers
Informational mailers sent directly to community members can counteract any myths and misinformation that may develop later. Mail them early to establish accurate information and address concerns proactively. Since these concerns are now common in many areas of the U.S., you can create a frequently asked questions template and fill in the local information.
6) Make information about solar or your project publicly available online
Create a website or provide access to an online data room that includes health and safety reports from local universities, affidavits from independent engineers, environmental reports, and other information provided with permit applications. This preemptively addresses misconceptions and allows developers to build trust and credibility. Include a web link to the report in the aforementioned direct mailers.
7) Mobilize local advocates
Identifying and mobilizing local solar champions is a powerful tactic for overcoming opposition. These advocates can be landowners, farmers, or community members invested in fighting climate change, preserving their agricultural heritage, or seeking economic stability. Engage with them and demonstrate how solar can align with their community’s values and aspirations to build local support. Advocates can also include universities, climate science groups, and local constituents. Meeting with mayors, members of the Board of Supervisors, City Council, or planning commissioners and understanding their concerns can form the foundation of community trust.
8) Host community meetings
Hosting community meetings outside of official public hearings allows individuals to express their concerns and feel heard. Actively listen and engage with community members to de-escalate tensions and work toward garnering support for your projects. Trust and support may not be achieved overnight, but these casual informational meetings can be the first building blocks of consistent interaction and genuine dialogue. If possible, co-host the meeting with the property owner who may be leasing or selling their land.
9) Prepare for opposition
To prepare for opposition, organize an internal team with specific roles and responsibilities. One team member can address scientific and environmental concerns, another can address misinformation campaigns, and another can engage with local stakeholders.
For all the common objections:
- Write a specific misinformation FAQ. Under each objection, provide the correct information or the solution to the concern.
- Place this document in a public digital folder.
- Print out the document for community meetings.
- Prepare to answer these questions verbally at meetings as well as on the street and in conversations.
- Prepare local advocates to verbally discuss the objections and responses.
This concerted effort involving permitting managers, project developers, and other relevant team members can help navigate opposition and successfully permit the project.
10) Consider dual-use agricultural applications
Some people perceive that a solar project can change the community’s agricultural identity. To address this opposition, developers may be able to incorporate pollinator plant meadows instead of grass, which can increase the local biodiversity in the surrounding area. The pollinators will not only look more appealing than gravel and grass, but they’ll also show neighboring farmers that you support their crops by providing habitat for bees, butterflies, and other pollinators. Going further, developers can invite beekeepers to establish and maintain bee colonies on-site within the solar array.
Incorporating agrivoltaics, which allows for the cultivation of crops or the grazing of livestock beneath solar arrays, is another way to show your support for farmers. This approach has the potential to not only bring additional revenue streams to those involved with the project, but also preserve the cultural identity of the land and the community.
While these solutions may not always be feasible, they may help diffuse opposition if they can be incorporated. Agrivoltaics come with economic and operational considerations, including regular plantings, harvesting, watering and agricultural maintenance that will change standard solar O&M practices. As a result, agrivoltaics might not work in every market where you’re developing, but it’s surely a consideration and a growing trend within the broader industry.
As solar development grows throughout the U.S., it’s natural to have community questions, skepticism, and outright political opposition. We hope this information has provided you with some useful strategies and tactics for winning public acceptance and counteracting local opposition. With a good ground game, transparency, outreach, and data, we’re confident that solar projects will one day become the norm and be welcomed in communities.
Climate change is a global problem that requires local solutions. It’s my hope that the strategies and tactics identified in this article will help you cultivate a local solution for the communities you’re working in.
Aaron Halimi is the founder and president of Renewable Properties, a developer and investor in small-scale utility and community solar projects,
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own, and do not necessarily reflect those held by pv magazine.
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