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Wind developers seek ways to improve community outreach, support


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Wind developers seek ways to improve community outreach, support

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Wind developers could stand to improve their public outreach to help get projects approved, according to some renewable executives.
Source: Vestas Wind Systems A/S

Local community opposition can stop virtually any prospective wind project in its tracks, so developers came together at the American Wind Energy Association's Windpower conference in Houston on May 21 to discuss how to avoid such setbacks through education and building relationships.

"There are many way opponents can stop a project," said Thomas Brostrom, president of Orsted North America Inc., contrasting the process for approving a wind facility in U.S. with the more streamlined European process. "It is important you have a good rapport and a good dialogue."

"I'm not sure I knew what I was going into, it was a completely different way of working than what we had done in the past in Northwest Europe," said Brostrom about setting up the Danish company's Boston office several years ago.

Similar sentiments have been expressed at recent conferences, as the largely European offshore wind sector begins to grapple with the realities of local and state politics in the U.S. and the need to establish relationships with local communities.

"As a local service provider there is heightened accountability and you need good relationships," said Irene Dimitry, vice president of business planning and development for renewable energy at DTE Energy Co. "We have to think about how what we do during the permitting process, during the operations, after the fact, how we're impacting the lives of the community. I'm not suggesting developers don't, but we touch their lives in so many additional ways."

However, developers who own long-term projects are also in need of "long-term perspective," said Brostrom.

"If you're transparent and say what you're going to do you'll be better off," said Mark Goodwin, President and CEO of Apex Clean Energy Inc., urging the wind sector to be more proactive in relationships with local communities. "We need to step up as an industry. I go to a lot of different conferences and there are a lot of conferences related to wind energy finance. There are no public acceptance conferences."

Assembling a broad coalition of support is key, as is speaking to people one-on-one and in small groups, said Dimitry, adding that companies that ignore local concerns do so at their peril. "You have to build those relationships, you can't just think you're going to skate by. It really does take long-term perspective. Hundreds of cups of coffee in people's kitchens," Dimitry said.

Working alongside local groups has been critical to amass support for DTE's wind projects, according to Dimitry, who listed the Christian Coalition, the Michigan Agri-business Association and the Michigan Township Associations as examples.

For many developers, battling misinformation is key to any campaign to build public support.

"I've heard that wind turbines cause cancer, is that true?" one audience member jokingly asked to laughs from the panelists and attendees.

"I think when the president says that wind turbines cause cancer it actually helps us because people are like 'I've heard a lot of crazy stuff but maybe a lot of that stuff is wrong because I know they don't cause cancer,'" said Goodwin, adding that many pro-wind Republicans had registered their frustration with the president's remarks.

"We have to be on the offensive as an industry, educating and dispelling the myths" associated with wind generation, said Goodwin, who acknowledged the possibility that overzealous opposition to a project can cast the opposition itself in a negative light. "Sometimes opponents overplay their hand," he added.

And there is value to understanding that, ultimately, not everyone can be persuaded.

"In a case where someone has a vacation ranch that they have basically built in the middle of nowhere where you're developing your project, their mind is not going to change," said Goodwin. "They will take down Western civilization to stop your project, damn the torpedoes."