A supportive community is obviously one of the most crucial parts of any community energy project. Community support building is a long and involved process that must run in parallel to all project development activities. Done well, the benefits of an engaged and supportive community will far outweigh the time and effort that it takes to build the support.
Main topics covered in this article include:
Why build support
The level of community support for your project is the single most important factor that will contribute to its success or failure. There are several reasons why, some of which are listed below.
Strong support from your community will have enormous benefits during the approvals process. Any major project will need approval from relevant statutory decision makers, whether that be local council or state government. Because they are elected, these groups are particularly sensitive to public opinion, and as a result a popular project is far more likely to be approved than an unpopular project.
When the Hepburn Wind project applied for development approval from the Hepburn Shire in Victoria, the council received 325 submissions in support of the proposal and 18 objections. Needless to say permission was granted.
Attracting grant money
Community support of a project can also help to attract government grants. To be able to demonstrate in a grant application that the project will result in widespread community benefits and that the community are keen to build the project will mean a lot to government bodies with money to spend.
Further down the line of the project, widespread community support will mean that you have a larger group of people willing to volunteer to undertake project related work. This may mean taking an active role in the project as a board member or community liaison, or it might just mean discussing the project positively with friends and family and thus building even more support.
This supportive community will mean that fund raising for the project will be a far easier job — more people will invest more funds and that will mean the project is in a far better financial position.
It is likely that some members of the community will be in opposition to your project. Building support will not only ensure that your project goes ahead anyway, but it may assist those in opposition to become more informed about the project, and some may even change their minds. The fewer people who are opposed the better it is for the community.
Building community support for your project is about frequent communication that creates wide spread positive attitudes towards your project. Members of the community should feel listened to, and involved with the project. If people are engaged from the beginning and kept up to date with what's happening they are far more likely to be supportive of your project.
Always remember that building support is about:
Target communications to your audience
Community-owned renewable energy projects can have lots of different benefits for the community (see the benefits article here). It's important to emphasize the most applicable benefits for a particular audience.
Some people in your community will be environmentally concerned and these people will be most motivated by discussions of the environmental benefits, such as reduced emissions and the renewable fuel source.
Other members of the community will care more about regional economic development, and will be most motivated by understanding that the project will create jobs and energy security for the region. These people need to understand the way the project will be financed, and how the developer is keeping risks down. A lot of the time, economic arguments can be the most effective way to counter opposition.
Because community energy projects are quite expensive, you may need to attract investors from both within and outside of the local community. In order to maintain a high proportion of local ownership, you may need to come up with specific strategies for attracting local investment. In some communities it may be helpful to differentiate locals from outside investors to ensure increased local access.
The Hepburn Wind project chose to offer local people a lower minimum share purchase threshold to encourage more people to become part of the project. This resulted in more local people able to be a part of the project and they appreciated that extra effort had been made for locals.
When to build support
It is never too early to begin building community support for your project. However, it can be difficult to communicate your project to the community before you have firmed up your ideas.
In the first stages of your project development you'll be concerned with forming the group which will drive the project, defining the project concept and possibly narrowing down a site.
Once this much is done, it's definitely time to begin communicating with the community at large. This communication will run in parallel to every activity throughout the rest of the project development.
It is absolutely critical that community engagement begins before there are any visible signs of your project going ahead, like a wind monitoring mast.
How to begin building support
The beginning of the support-building process can seem daunting. The very earliest stages will involve a lot of talking. Before you have printed your first pamphlet or built your first website, begin seeking out members of the community who will be able to spread the message most effectively.
Engage with community leaders
Identify community leaders and people who are well connected or influential. These people are often involved with the community through their work, such as the local primary school principal or the owners of the shops on the main street. Sometimes these people are just particularly socially connected and perhaps have friends in various community sub-groups.
Begin by making meetings with these people and explaining the project idea to them. Be prepared to discuss the benefits, and to answer some of the most commonly asked questions about your chosen technology. If the person appears supportive, a very effective way to capitalise on that support is to ask what they can offer. This may be as simple as getting their advice on who to speak to next.
At the end of this stage, you should have spoken to champions from various groups in a community. Groups which will represent a good cross section include:
- Kindergarten parents
- School parents
- Elderly citizens
- Rotary club
- Women’s associations
- Church groups
Groups that could eventually be particularly important to the development of your project include:
- Indigenous groups
- Landcare groups
- Local council (more on this in the local council article).
The primary aim of a street stall should be to speak with people, rather than defer them to written information. The people who are in attendance at the street stall should be trusted members of the community. They should have a good understanding of your project, and should have pre-prepared responses to common questions, especially those concerned with health and environmental affects.
Make sure all of your printed material is very brief, clear, and informative. Pamphlets and fliers can be useful for people to take away to read later or to give to friends and family members, but always emphasise personal engagement as your primary support-building tool.
More information on running a street stall can be found in the article Running a successful street stall.
Become a presence in the community
It is a good idea to have a presence at community events. Make a calendar of local festivals, parades, markets, open days and other events and ensure that a representative from your group attends. With or without your street stall, it is important that your project becomes a familiar part of the community.
Visits to similar projects
Many people have never visited a renewable energy generation facility and would be interested in doing so. It is relatively easy to book a bus trip for curious members of your community to visit a working project. Often these visits and the resulting familiarity can be very helpful in combatting feelings of uncertainty and fear.
As you meet people who are supportive of your idea, keep track of their email or home addresses. Sending regular emails to your supporter base will ensure that they stay informed and involved as the project progresses.
Once you have built a groundswell of support, it's important to survey the community for their attitudes towards your project. A survey will measure your progress, and also reassure supporters that their opinions are being heard.
More information on creating a survey can be found in the article Surveying the community.
Town hall meetings
A town hall meeting can be an effective way to engage with lots of people at once. However, holding a town meeting too soon can be dangerous as your message can be drowned out by protest groups. Once you have a critical mass of support then a town hall meeting is an opportunity to promote your project and provide information about getting involved.
More information on holding a town meeting can be found in the article Running effective public meetings.
Post information on noticeboards
It is also beneficial to post all your information on a local community noticeboard so that everyone can see it. If your local community does not have a public noticeboard you could consider installing one for local area.
Collaborating with local groups
Hosting joint events shows that your group is part of the wider community network. You can also immediately access a large group of people who may already be interested in your cause. The Hepburn Wind project frequently worked with local sustainability groups with cross promotion activities that benefited both groups.
Information on local media
A useful way to get people talking about your project is to have your project featured in the local media. Approach the local newspaper and radio station with a phone call and ask them the best way to get your story heard. If you do get a story on local radio, ensure that the person being interviewed is confident with their facts and prepared to answer common questions about the technology and the ownership structure. It's a good idea to ensure that time is spent discussing the benefits.
Surveying the community
Engaging project neighbours
Influencing and working with local government
Running a successful street stall
Running effective public meetings
Dealing with opposition to your project