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Community Engagement

Navigating Energy Politicization: Separating the Need from the Noise

Public power is no stranger to the intersection of energy and politics. Many of today’s community-owned systems came into being because of Franklin Roosevelt’s campaigning against the practices of private utilities in the 1930s. Public power has, through the decades, dealt with politically charged attacks related to socialism, the funding of the federal power program, and transmission access — to name a few. Not to mention that many utilities were born from local political initiatives.

As energy-related topics are once again politicized flashpoints, community-owned utilities must determine how to investigate what concerns and desires are truly from the community, keep public discourse about projects civil, and stay focused on what is best for the community.

What’s Feeding Polarization

Heated discussions on everything from pipelines and permitting reform to renewables and reliability certainly seems to verify that the politicization of energy exists.

Part of this polarization can feel like it arises when politicians make energy part of a campaign platform. Elevating such topics can then feed into people’s tribalistic natures, noted Abel Gustafson, a communications professor at the University of Cleveland and research associate with the Yale Center for Environmental Communication. When one side champions an issue, it can make the other side oppose it, he said.  

Gustafson gave the example of the Green New Deal. When it was first introduced, a survey queried voters to see how they felt about elements of the policy proposal, and most Republicans supported them. Four months later, after voters had become familiar with the plan, support among moderate Republicans dropped from 75% to 64%, while support among conservatives dropped from 57% to 32%. Among moderate Democrats, there was a 2% decrease in support, from 90% to 88%, but liberal Democrat support jumped a few percentage points to 96%.

Gustafson noted how political polarization sped up during the 2020 presidential race when the Biden campaign repeatedly emphasized a desire for a rapid transition to renewable energy and away from fossil fuels. A survey Gustafson conducted with colleagues at Yale and George Mason University showed that 85% of American voters supported mandating electric utilities to use 100% renewable energy by 2050. By December 2022, the portion had dropped to 66%.

But campaign talking points rarely allow for nuance, nor do polling questions that tend to frame issues as having simple support or disapproval. While some issues might allow for more cut-and-dry responses, the complexity of the energy transition requires digging into concerns ranging from grid reliability and security to environmental justice, cost, and technical viability. A drop in support of a mandate, for example, might signify that as the topics become debated more heavily on the political field, voters are getting more tuned into the nuance – or more educated about some of the realities of the complexity.

Local Concerns at Home

Outside of Washington, D.C., this rhetoric rarely reflects public opinion that power providers must navigate. More often, opposition to things like wind or solar generation shows up without a party flag attached to it. Despite what appears in nationwide survey results, utilities are still able to move ahead with projects by keeping constituents educated, showing local impact, and engaging in proactive communication.

The city of Traverse City, Michigan, is refreshing its integrated resource plan, and renewable generation is a priority. Eventually, the utility plans to add distributed storage to the mix, as well.

While Traverse City Light & Power only operates a distribution network, Brandie Ekren, the public power utility’s executive director, has seen resistance to some nearby renewable power projects and even outright bans or siting restrictions. “Whether it’s rooftop or some other type of array, there are some communities in Michigan that are putting up bans on solar generation and solar placement. It’s a real concern,” she said.

She’s also heard arguments against renewables that have to do with the nuisance of perceived noise from wind turbines, worries about bird migration safety, and the desire for fair compensation for landowners.

What she hasn’t heard is that one party voices such concerns over another. “I don’t think opposition to renewables is a Republican or Democratic issue,” she said. “I have interacted with a number of Republican individuals who are very pro-renewables, so long as they enable economic development.”

That’s similar to what Bryan Hannegan, president and CEO of Holy Cross Energy, a co-op in Colorado, has seen. The utility is aiming for 100% carbon neutrality by 2030, and the aggressive addition of renewable resources over the past seven years or so has already pushed the co-op from 50% emission-free energy last year to a projected rate of 92% in 2024.

The co-op serves a politically diverse territory encompassing Pitkin County — home to the towns of Aspen and Vail, where 75% of voters chose Democrats in 2020 (the city of Aspen is served by a public power utility) — and Garfield County, where the electorate was split nearly 50–50 in the 2020 election.

Hannegan shared a tale of two solar projects, one which had a fairly easy permitting process and another that faced significant resistance. He said the project in Garfield County was met with enthusiasm. “County staff, commissioners and landowners thought it was awesome. ‘This is going to create jobs,’ they said. ‘It’s going to create economic development.’ Our project just flew through approvals,” Hannegan recalled.

Whereas the co-op faced resistance to the Pitkin County project for four years due to concerns about the viewshed and if the project would depress property values. “Because the array was near the airport, we even had a county commissioner ask if we could make it look like a lake from above.”

Appealing to Value

Both Hannegan and Ekren have experienced something Gustafson saw show up in his research. “Republicans are much more likely to support a transition to renewable energy because of its ability to create jobs,” Gustafson said. He also noted that Republicans like renewables because they can cut costs and improve energy independence, while Democrats are more likely to support renewables because they help mitigate climate change.

That was a message Hannegan used to overcome the “not in my backyard” arguments he was hearing. “We mobilized school kids, Olympians, and the Pitkin County sports industry to remind people that the community cares about climate change and this was their chance to walk the talk,” Hannegan recalled. “Now that it’s finally done, the community is happy with it and very proud of it.”

Hannegan also pushes renewables on cost. “In a fossil fuel-based power supply, you have a lot of fuel-price exposure and, in 2018, we were already seeing prices on the rise, so we could project that our power supply costs would increase quite a bit over the next decade,” he said. The utility started replacing fossil-based generation with renewables via fixed-price purchased power agreements. After factoring in tax credits for such investments, Hannegan said Holy Cross’ wind and solar power come online at or below the levelized cost of electricity from new fossil energy resources.

The cost argument shows up in Gustafson’s research, too. “Cost savings appeal to everybody, regardless of where somebody is on the political spectrum or other characteristics about them,” he said.

To find out what other messages might work in communicating with constituents, Gustafson said he might start with survey work or focus groups, something he has done as a consultant to renewable energy companies. “We’re trying to get inside the minds of the people in a community. Then we have a better idea of what messages might be most effective in engaging the community or building public support for a project.”

This is the method Ekren takes in Traverse City. “I like to take an educational approach, whether it’s through one-on-one meetings, community board meetings or having an open house,” she said. The renewables-focused integrated resource plan, which the utility calls its climate action plan, is getting developed via a thorough stakeholder engagement process. It includes focus groups and open houses at a local library where she has been doing exactly what Gustafson recommends: finding out people’s beliefs, concerns, motivations, and more.

“What are some of your aspirations?” and “Where do you see the role of the utility in terms of climate action and renewable generation in particular?” are two of the questions she has used to get stakeholders talking. “You need good stakeholder engagement to understand how to approach and package a project that will be responsive to what the community and utility need but that is also feasible to move forward with and acceptable to those who are going to be influenced or impacted by that project,” she said.

Ekren also expects community responsiveness from potential partners. “As I’m interacting with developers or power providers that might partner with us, I like to understand their community engagement approach,” she explained. “Are they working with people on finding the right site for projects or making an assumption that just because somebody’s got an empty field, they’ll want to put generation on their property?”

Like Ekren, Hannegan maintains that regardless of political bent, people in the community will respond to utility projects when they have some collaborative say in them. “It works when you can sit down and partner with your communities at the outset, communicate frequently, and really understand what it is your communities value and how you can protect it,” he said. “Then things like solar generation projects can coexist and add value to an area.”