As much as the Inflation Reduction Act proved that the clean energy industry's political power is stronger than ever, it also highlighted a glaring weakness.
For more than a year, Sen. Joe Manchin, a Democrat from West Virginia, held the burgeoning industry hostage over policy disputes largely supported by his party.
And for all the IRA did to fuel clean energy deployment, the historic law doesn't cure the industry's persistent NIMBY problem.
Mike Casey, a veteran clean tech communicator, and president of the clean energy communications firm Tigercomm, believes it's past time for the sector to invest in a bottom-up strategy to build lasting political power in communities across the U.S.
He wrote an impassioned plea to the industry following the passage of the IRA, calling on developers, asset owners, and key stakeholders to reinvent the definition of a political win.
Casey appears on Episode 20 of the Factor This! podcast alongside SOLV Energy CEO George Hershman, whose company is building the largest solar project in development in the U.S.
"We in clean energy pursue policy gains without building political power," Casey said. "You have brilliant people, products, really well-run companies, world changing stuff. But when it comes to how we make our case to policymakers, our approach is predominated with what I call magical thinking and principled loser-ism."
Casey says this "clean tech public affairs paradox" leaves clean energy stakeholders ill-equipped to take on powerful energy incumbents in the messy environment of American politics.
Building true political power begins at the local level. It's incumbent on every developer and asset owner to maintain a lasting engagement strategy in communities beyond commissioning, he argues.
Project visitor centers, locally-hired operations and maintenance employees, and active, ongoing digital community outreach can all support those goals.
"There is no company in this sector that now has an excuse not to do the basic black and tackle," Casey said.
A universally observed community engagement strategy — extending beyond the date of commissioning — could be the answer for the clean energy industry's NIMBY problem.
And the urgency to find a solution only increases as projects are likely to grow larger due to the benefits of the IRA.The site of the Mammoth Solar farm being developed by Doral Renewables and built by SOLV Energy in Indiana. Once complete, the 1.3 GW project is expected to become the largest in the U.S. (Courtesy: Doral Renewables)
As the engineering, procurement, and engineering provider for the largest solar project in development in the US, SOLV Energy is confronting the issues in real-time.
Once complete, the 1.3 GW Mammoth Solar farm in Indiana, developed by Doral Renewables, will be the nation's largest in capacity and size. This massive project spans two counties and 13,000 acres and required agreements with 60 landowners.
"It hasn't been perfect," SOLV Energy CEO George Hershman said on the Factor This! podcast. "With that many stakeholders, neighbors, and communities in which you're impacting, you're going to have detractors that you're going to deal with."
SOLV's approach to confronting NIMBYism is three-pronged.
For a start, early education can completely alter a project's trajectory for the better. SOLV works with project developers to begin engaging in communities as soon as a project is on solid footing. Community relations team members can then be sent to the community to begin engaging with land and business owners to showcase job and economic opportunities.
Next, it's important for developers and asset owners of all sizes to maintain a presence in communities long-term. One of the clearest opportunities is to hire local employees for O&M opportunities. For smaller organizations, this can mean sponsoring or supporting community events.
And finally, the source of opposition can't be overlooked. Incumbent energy industries are using well-funded opposition campaigns to fuel NIMBYism that are designed to appear organic.
"They're losing market share as we gain market share," Hershman said. "We are a threat. As you become a threat, they're going to get more aggressive."
The initial impulse may be to fight back. It's crucial, Hershman notes, to be mindful of where detractors are coming from and to figure out how to calmly and appropriately address concerns.