In spite of the dire warnings on climate change and the urgency of changing from a fossil-fuel world to a renewable energy one, solar projects still remain prime targets for opponents at town meetings and elsewhere, regardless of size or location. “We’re not against solar,” opponents say time and time again. “This just is not a suitable location for our community.”
Removing emotion from the equation requires a strategic presentation of the facts in a manner that is digestible, accessible and shareable to disarm the opposition. Solar companies do not often launch a campaign for individual projects from the time one is announced because, in many cases, proposals are already specifically designed to meet the specifications of a community’s solar by-law. However, doing so affords companies control of the message and ultimately, transparency, because at the end of the day there is no sneaking a solar project through the entitlement process. Opponents will assemble, and no matter how large or small the protests (whether in person or in online forums) can bring solar projects to a screeching halt, costing companies valuable time and resources.
To protect the brand and avoid delays, solar companies should consider the following when embarking upon a new solar project:
Reveal the Value:
Messaging for solar projects should focus on the true value for members of the community instead of ceding the space to opponents’ fearmongering. In addition to the economic benefits of job creation and tax revenue generation, reveal the value of access to solar without installing it on one’s own home, the eligibility of the community for grants and the safety of panels made from non-toxic, recyclable materials for the community.
Make Details Accessible:
How can companies communicate these value-adds to the community? Create a website dedicated to the project and a social media presence to make the experience interactive. Too often companies shy away from going digital to avoid riling up the opposition. However, the reality is opponents are already operating in the space whether project specific platforms exist or not. Companies should be presenting their side and expanding their reach to everyone in the community instead of focusing on the nay-sayers. Doing so allows companies to answer questions, identify support and even create a portal through which proponents of the project can easily send letters of support to public officials. Moreover, visuals can completely remove the aesthetic arguments against a project by presenting simulations from drone footage to show the screening, tree cover, berms and buffers that will shield a project from multiple angles.
Discovery is Key:
Just because the digital platforms exist does not mean community members will know where to go to find the information upon launch. Social media marketing and digital display ads are cost effective ways to bring the information directly to web users’ screens. Sophisticated targeting of specific demographics or behavioral groups enables companies to serve these platforms to those most likely to support the project within specific zip codes. Promote content to increase engagement on social media and drive traffic to the website, then retarget ads to these users to increase conversions in the form of supporter sign-ups.
Harness the Data:
As supporters comment on social media, sign up on the website and submit letters to public officials they must be coded into a database for follow up. This data mining is key because phone numbers and email addresses can be appended for regular calls-to-action. In so many cases, supporters would be willing to help if asked. Make calls-to-action clear and rank supporters for various actions from petitions and form letters to letters to the editor and in-person meetings with media or public officials.
Innovation in solar energy is making strides, and overall support for renewables is on the rise. However, combatting the ambivalence between support in theory and practice when it comes to individual solar proposals requires a strategic plan and carefully crafted communication of project details. With effective execution of a well-planned campaign, the future has never been brighter.
Amanda Warren is Vice President of Public Strategy Group, Inc., a leading public affairs firm that has worked on projects in over twenty states and three countries helping companies gain approval on controversial projects for over twenty years totaling billions of dollars in investment. She specializes in the development of grassroots and digital strategies to build relationships between clients and their audiences across a broad spectrum of industries, including energy, real estate, tourism, housing, retail, political, non-profit sectors.