We can do better than using engineers as front line “experts” when it comes to converting communities to the benefits of renewable energy, writes Clean Energy Council media manager Mark Bretherton.

When my partner starts an argument, it sometimes sounds like something trivial. For example: You said you would be 10 minutes and it was 25.

At this point I have a few choices. One is that I can get grumpy because it seems like an argument about nothing, then defend my actions with what I see as the facts of the matter. This is the wrong choice.

What works is to look at what is being raised and realise it’s not actually about that. Then I need to ask about what’s really going on, demonstrate some care and understanding and work out how we can address the underlying issue.

When a wind farm or some other kind of project is being built, I have watched a lot of engineers and technical people try to solve community issues by responding directly to exactly the point that is being raised by a community member. Some senior technical expert will say something like: “What they’re saying isn’t right. We need to get ‘the facts’ out there.”

Now, I have done my share of fact sheets, myth-busting documents and so on over the years. But if someone’s already upset, handing them a fact sheet isn’t going to help. Neither is getting on the radio or TV to challenge what someone in the community is saying and why it isn’t factually correct. You end up trying to treat the symptom rather than the underlying condition.

Trust matters

When you’re building projects, locals need to be a meaningful part of the journey. It’s their community and their surroundings, and some of them have lived in the area for generations.

In the case of renewable energy, making the journey meaningful might involve appealing to higher things like reducing pollution, helping farmers to drought-proof their property or promoting the local job and investment benefits. But none of this matters a jot if you can’t win the trust of most people in the community.

If you make promises which you don’t deliver or say things you don’t mean, whatever bridges you have started to build with people will explode like a New Year’s Eve firework display. It is essential that you do what you say you will. Make notes after meeting people and follow through on any promises you have made.

And the personalities and skill sets of the people in these positions really matter. Soft skills like listening, empathy and communication are often under-valued, particularly by people with excellent technical knowledge who are looking at the bottom line.

But when you parachute a diamond-hard technical person into a situation where a community member just wants someone to listen to their concerns, there is the very real potential for discontent to spread.

It’s important is to seek out the underlying emotional issues which aren’t so obvious.

When someone says wind farms slice up birds, make people sick, devalue their property, give them herpes, make their dogs stare at walls or their kids lose focus on their homework (it’s a long, often strange list) often what they’re really saying are things like: “You’re not listening to me”, “This isn’t fair”, “I’m worried about my country view”, “I think climate change is crap” or “I just don’t trust you”.

When we’re building a renewable energy project near someone’s home, we actually have an obligation to hear out their concerns and listen until they are talked out before we respond. Not only will we respond effectively after we’ve had a chance to properly hear them out without interjecting, but they will be able to get their burning issues off their chest without someone jumping in with “the facts” of the matter. They need to feel that their voice is being properly heard. And fair enough too.

Digging deeper

Risk management expert Peter Sandman has been working in the field for about 40 years. In his work on community outrage, he defines some common underlying factors. These include lack of trust, unfamiliarity, feelings of unfairness or coercion and unresponsiveness (from the project developer, for example). These are often the underlying conditions you really need to treat.

Accurate information can play an important part in addressing many of these issues. But the way it is presented and the way you treat your community really counts. People will only listen to your “facts” if you accurately tune in to their emotional wavelength and establish some credibility in their eyes first, because one person’s facts are another person’s lies or spin. And once you hit the outrage point, that’s a whole other issue.

As Sandman said in his book Responding to Community Outrage: “Please don’t imagine that there is a slide show that you can play for 300 angry citizens gathered in a high school gymnasium that will make them say, ‘Oh, now I get it’ and go home and watch television. There is no such slide show.”

Whatever you’re building, some people will be upset. The worst thing you can do is take it personally and hit back in the same spirit. But if you make every effort to talk to the right people, do your utmost to respect everyone – whether they agree with you or not – and spend a lot of time talking patiently and in good faith to people who have genuine concerns for themselves and their families, it just might be the beginning of a beautiful community relationship (and yes, I know there’s more to it than that).

My employer, the Clean Energy Council, is running a project to look at some different ways across the country and the world that wind farms are adding extra value to communities. The aim is to have a very broad series of conversations to find out what is and isn’t working locally in this area and how we can do it better.

Ultimately, the more effectively our industry can work with the people who live in the vicinity of projects like solar, wind and bioenergy plants, the easier it will be to deliver on our long-term goal of a nation powered by clean energy.