How to build infrastructure in the NIMBY era

Sherri Fallin
Duffey Communications

Before September 11th, Enron, WorldCom and Martha Stewart, the over-whelming need to upgrade our nation’s energy infrastructure made national headlines. In fact, it was a primary focus of the Bush administration.

Even though national attention is now drawn to other matters, the need for more efficient power generation facilities and upgraded delivery infrastructure is no less crucial to economic growth and national security than thwarting Saddam Hussein.

But in an age where the rumor of a new facility or infrastructure project can mobilize powerful coalitions of homeowner activists, environmentalists, and elected officials, this mission seems virtually impossible.

Opposition groups have immediate access to information, instantaneous communications channels via the Internet, impressive funding and powerful legal support, paralyzing a project before it can even get out of the needs-assessment phase.

However, there are projects underway that are sidestepping community opposition–and yes, surprisingly enough in some cases, even attracting community support. Projects from California to Georgia are succeeding by integrating newer technologies and grassroots coalition building with good old-fashioned neighborliness.

In the loop

Sure, these projects face opposition, but according to Chris Zibart, a partner in the Chicago office of Foley & Lardner and a member of the firm’s Regulatory Department and the Energy Regulation Practice Group, the key to success is in the siting process. “You can’t site a project on engineering factors alone,” said Zibart. “You must take a broader look early in the process.”

Zibart’s firm worked on a transmission line project in a rapidly-growing area of suburban Chicago. The project involved a 138KV line with no existing right-of-way. During the siting process, the project team established a community working group consisting of homeowners, the local homebuilders association, elected officials, neighborhood associations, and representation from the business community to identify the best route for the transmission lines, given current and future plans for the community.

By involving stakeholders early in the siting process, the project was able to obtain timely regulatory approval despite opposition. “The regulators were impressed by the force of the input from the community and those people who were opposed to the project were exposed as being true NIMBYs [‘not in my backyard’],” stated Zibart. “The project was able to move forward on its own merit based upon the overwhelming need for the transmission lines to serve a growing area.”

Don Perkins, manager, land acquisition, with Georgia Power agrees. “Siting a facility is one of the more important parts of the job. You must site a project so it has the least amount of impact on the public and still meet the electrical needs of the community,” Perkins said.

After siting a project, though, Georgia Power goes the extra mile to meet with each land-owner in person to talk about their individual concerns. According to Perkins, public meetings have their place, and on major projects, Georgia Power hosts an open house and workshop meetings to inform all stakeholders about the different aspects of the project. “However, you can’t get a lot accomplished at public meetings,” he said. “If you take the time to talk to each landowner on an individual basis, you can work with them to understand their issues and mitigate some of the impact.”

Experts also agree that you must ensure that local communities and regulatory officials understand the need for the project.

But even with demonstrated need and community support, a project can face uphill challenges in terms of legal opposition and negative votes from elected officials. Persistence and solid belief in the efficacy of a project is the only way to win out in the face of legal opposition.

Take a deep breath

Lisa Poelle, manager of external communications at Calpine Corp., understands this all too well. Even with overwhelming support from the community as well as the local chapters of the American Lung Association, Farm Bureau, NAACP and the Sierra Club, the 600 MW Metcalf Energy Center in San Jose, Calif., faced opposition from local elected officials and corporate neighbors.

“Instead of circling the wagons, we expanded our messaging,” Poelle said. Calpine developed and implemented an extensive program to educate the community about the need for the facility and the benefits it would bring to the community. According to Poelle, Calpine presented the message in a digestible format without using sound bites.

“We responded to questions with clear but comprehensive answers.”

To counter mounting opposition, Calpine borrowed a page from political handbooks, establishing a grassroots coalition to enable supporters of the center to have a voice in the debate. Calpine even sponsored lunchtime van tours of the site to educate community leaders about the facility. The company gathered endorsements and statements of support from 26,000 individuals, organizations, businesses, environmentalists, labor and community leaders. Still, the San Jose city council unanimously voted against the project.

Following the city council vote, a poll conducted by Calpine showed that 79 percent of San Jose voters supported the project, so the company moved forward with the regulatory approval process.

Calpine’s persistence prevailed and after nearly two and one-half years of public review, Calpine obtained unanimous approval from the California Energy Commission. The Metcalf Energy Center broke ground in June of this year.

The need for a reliable energy supply will not fade anytime in the near future. When America flips the switch, the lights must shine. But without upgrades to the infrastructure both availability and reliability will be jeopardized.

Future success will depend upon the energy industry’s ability to help consumers understand how technology has enabled great advances in energy production–and a strong commitment to grassroots communication to establish credibility in local communities.

Fallin is an engagement manager and public affairs strategist at Duffey Communications, a public affairs, public relations and business marketing firm headquartered in Atlanta. Duffey’s award-winning work in the energy industry has included clients such as Alabama Power, AGL Resources, Colonial Pipeline, Morgan Stanley, Plantation Pipeline, Southern Co. and Williams Energy.

Grassroots communications checklist: How to win public approval

  • If possible, gain local buy-in during the siting process.
  • Demonstrate the overwhelming need for a project to regulatory officials and local communities.
  • Communicate. Communicate. Communicate.
  • Educate stakeholders about the safety and efficacy of the technology being used.
  • Work with individual landowners as well as community leaders to mitigate major impacts.
  • Gain support and buy-in from third party environmental and health experts.
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