US renewable energy developers have a growing multi-billion-dollar problem. Local opponents, often bankrolled by the oil and gas industries, are using political campaign tactics to stop new generation projects. And they’re winning.

An eye-popping 15% of America’s 3,143 counties have effectively banned new wind and solar projects, say investigative reporters. Developers typically don’t have experience with the campaign tactics they are facing because until quite recently, they haven’t had to.

In the first six months of 2023 alone, permits for 70 large-scale projects had been rejected.

Why so many costly defeats? Simply put, developers are using an outdated permitting strategy: propose a project to local officials, negotiate with landowners, get permits, and build. But in this new era of political hardball, that playbook is delivering expensive losses.

These troubles began with the fake Solyndra “scandal” of 2011. Under President Obama, renewable energy innovators could receive federally guaranteed loans. Solyndra, a thin-film solar company, got a $535m loan and filed for bankruptcy two years later.

Eying a 2012 presidential victory, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives piled three congressional investigations on top of an FBI raid on Solyndra’s headquarters. This was followed by hours of Fox News reports – 84 in nine months – and nearly $800m in attack ads funded by fossil fuel interests.

As a result, support for renewable energy among white men cratered from 94% approval in 2010 to 47% by 2013. Today, Solyndra’s public opinion aftermath lives on in rural communities, while Biden’s opponents hunt for the next cleantech “scandal” they can fabricate.

Now, we’re not developers. But we’ve spent decades running political campaigns, so we know them when we see them.

'Disinformation proliferates'

Last year, we interviewed 26 developers at 18 companies to try to understand what they’re facing. We heard the same themes across the industry.

Permitting has gotten harder over the last 10 years as disinformation has proliferated online. Opponents don’t have to be numerous, they only have to be loud and aggressive.

Developers’ default is often public education responses that treat all local neighbours of a proposed project as basically the same. However, there are four distinct categories of residents with whom developers must effectively communicate:

  • Landowners who benefit directly from leasing their land
  • Business owners who benefit directly from more sales and rentals
  • Employees of local government departments that will benefit from projects’ tax revenue
  • People who have to look at a project – but who perceive no benefit

Developers have been losing projects because they begin negotiating with the landowners, only to have their private dealings be outed within tight-knit local communities. This outing raises concerns among the “don’t mess up my view” advocates. If the latter’s concerns aren’t quickly addressed, county commissioners soon hold a hearing at which these advocates loudly outnumber the landowners, on whom developers rely too much for vocal community support. Groups 2 and 3 are typically under-utilised.

We heard reluctance across the industry to do it any other way, lest word gets out about a good interconnection site. However, unwillingness to engage early with Groups 2 and 3 ensures developers are positioned as outsiders against whom locals must defend their way of life.

'Everyone loses'

The results are growing project casualties. And when one developer loses, all developers lose because people typically don’t distinguish one company from another.

Timing is a problem. So much about winning in campaigns is being the first to frame an issue – or, in this case, a solar or wind farm. Developers aren’t reaching key stakeholders first, enabling opponents to set the frame with emotions expressed through Facebook posts that draw from unsubstantiated claims produced by fossil fuel-funded operatives.

In response to the opposition’s emotive framing, developers often react slowly, with dispassionate fact sheets. People are moved by safety, health, freedom, private property rights, fairness and underdogs, not electrons, kW/h, and 0.9% of peak demand.

Being non-partisan is wise, but being apolitical is now crippling.

Fossil fuel companies have used the last 70 years to learn and deploy the same political tactics that advocates have used against them – petitions, letter-writing campaigns, and packed hearing rooms – to protect their market share against renewables.

Whether or not developers know they’ve become targets of political campaigns, companies are often uneasy about embracing political strategies. Companies say they’re “apolitical” or “non-partisan.” Being non-partisan is wise, but being apolitical is now crippling.

Despite the staggering costs of this emerging reality, community engagement programmes are desperately under-resourced. We spoke with people whose companies had 1-3 employees handling community engagement for dozens of projects. That’s not community engagement – it’s fire fighting. It's time executive teams see community engagement as an existential threat to industry scaling, and invest accordingly.

Now the good news: With adequate resources, this industry-wide problem can be solved in five years for a fraction of what it’s costing companies. They will have to experiment with early polling, message testing and moving supporters up a ladder of engagement, but solutions exist. Many developers we spoke with know what they should be doing, but few have resources to do it. The industry must embrace political realities and give their teams the resources they need to win.

Ayelet Hines is Director of Community Engagement at US clean-tech communications agency Tigercomm. Mike Casey is president of Tigercomm.

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