Getting Plant Developers and the Public on the Same Page With Proactive Communications

David Appleyard

Adverse public opinion can have a major impact on plant managers and developers. However, the resulting challenges can be addressed and even averted with a proactive communications strategy.

As the debate over the future of coal grows more heated, public opinion has become an increasingly powerful force for plant managers and developers to contend with. In recent years, direct action, public demonstrations, and other political expressions have delayed or even halted fossil-fueled power generation projects—even ones that featured upgraded technologies for reducing emissions.

Negative public opinion presents a number of challenges for asset managers who are developing a new project or upgrading an existing facility. However, plant owners, operators, and developers have the opportunity to develop a proactive communications strategy to educate their communities about the project at hand and engage environmentalists in a two-way dialogue before they resort to political action. Here are some factors to consider and steps to take when developing such a plan.

Understand the Impact on Investor Relations

Developers of power generation projects are already taxed with securing financial investment within competitive and uncertain energy markets. Thus, political activism can have a significant negative impact on project economics, even when plans have already been put in place and projects have already been developed. Ultimately, public opposition can cause proposed projects to be abandoned.

The implications of negative public opinion for investors are clear. According to Reclaim the Power, an antifracking activist at the January 2016 demonstration at the Carrington gas power station site in the UK said: "Continued blockades of sites like these have the potential to harm investor confidence, and anyone thinking of investing in Carlton Power needs to understand that they're backing a stranded asset. New gas has got to go."

Ironically, the combined cycle, gas-fired Carrington plant is one of the UK's most modern and efficient power stations. It offers the flexibility to accommodate increasing volumes of renewables, like wind and solar, while maintaining grid stability.

Identify Community Concerns

By adopting a few simple and proactive communications strategies, power plant owners, operators, and developers can reduce the potential business risks of negative public opinion. The key is not only to inform the community of the project's benefits, but, as part of the process, also pinpoint and address the community's concerns as early as possible.

For example, the public may be concerned about air quality, global warming, and climate change. A communications strategy that highlights how a modern and efficient CCGT project with advanced emission control equipment can reduce greenhouse gas emissions, particulates, SOx, and NOx—improving local air quality—may ease public concerns about such a development and curb a confrontation with activists.

Develop a Two-Way Dialogue

It is essential for asset managers and developers to also recognize that communication is, by definition, a two-way dialogue. Plants must actively engage with, and respond to, public views and information as it is exchanged. Simply broadcasting the company's message is not effective; communications must be tailored and respond to an ongoing discussion. The public must feel their concerns have been heard and acted upon. For this reason, a social media presence is essential, as it provides a simple route for the public to express their opinion. This opinion must then be acknowledged publicly, whether online or through press outreach. Similarly, a website outlining the key benefits of the project can help developers inform the public and dismantle misconceptions.

As the world becomes increasingly digital, social media is becoming the channel of choice for many people, and it's a low-cost option for plants. It's not the only route, however. Traditional press releases and advertisements describing the project's benefits will go a long way, too.

Tailor Messaging Around Benefits

As stated, the message should primarily focus on the positive outcomes of the power generation project, in addition to answering public concerns. It should reaffirm public values like environmental protection through efforts such as renewables balancing or using cleaner coal. Presenting evidence of the benefits of a particular development in a clear, compelling, and consistent manner is at the heart of a proactive communications strategy. The positive elements of a new or upgraded power station development could emphasize the local employment opportunities a new plant provides, or how upgraded equipment shows the power plant company's dedication to corporate social responsibility, such as improving air quality.

Faced with an increasingly mobile, vocal, and active public community, asset managers and owner/operators must consider public opposition as a business risk to manage and reduce. Thus, a proactive communications strategy is a central component of the asset manager's approach to risk mitigation.


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