Battling NIMBY-ism with Better Tactics

By Al Maiorino | July 16, 2013

Biomass projects continue to be met with NIMBY-type groups protesting companies’ efforts to start new projects. Although these projects can create plenty of jobs, they are met by opposition groups who cite various concerns. For example, a biomass project in Greenfield, Mass., was met with local opposition due to the noise and disruption the project would have on the surrounding community. Another project in Siskiyou, Calif., faced similar opposition and was delayed several years before finally being approved. Hu Honua Bioenergy faced the same battle when trying to develop a biomass power plant in Hawaii. In the midst of construction now, the plant faced almost three years of delays.

Companies need to look at their strategy of building public support to counter the NIMBY effect to projects, as the outcome for a smooth entitlement of their projects is at risk. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce stated that in 2011 more than 350 energy projects were delayed or abandoned due to public opposition, and the economic impact of these projects were estimated at about $1.1 trillion in GDP and 1.9 million jobs a year. That is a lot of missed opportunity for jobs and clean energy, all due to public opposition.

Having been in the business of running public affairs campaigns to build public support for controversial projects for nearly 20 years, I can tell you that the key piece of the puzzle missed by developers in their public outreach strategy is the “campaign” style approach the opponents seem to do so well.

Too often biomass proposals do not offer up an aggressive public affairs campaign when they announce a project, often letting crucial time pass between the announcement of a proposal and when public outreach begins. Opponents use this time to build opposition and sway residents against these projects. By running a political style campaign, you can reach all residents, identify the supporters, and harness them into action for your project. Here are some crucial tactics that biomass companies should consider in their outreach efforts:

• Announce your proposal wisely. When announcing a project, have a few pieces of direct mail ready to hit all the households in the host community to spread the positive benefits of the project. Follow this up with newspaper, Web ads, and phone banking of the community to, again, further identify supporters. Have an open house to answer residents’ questions and recruit supporters. All of this should be done in the first few weeks after announcing a project, to not allow the opposition to gel and take over the narrative. Too often companies allow precious time between announcing a project and disseminating information to the community.

• Meet with identified supporters. Once you have a database of supporters built from the mailers, ads and phone calls, the developer should meet with them so that they know they are not alone in their support, and they are a grassroots force that can begin to write letters to public officials, the newspapers, and attend key public hearings and speak out. Rarely will a supporter write a letter for you or attend and speak at a public hearing if you have not had the face to face contact with them previously.

• Build grasstops support. In addition to reaching out to residents, also meet with stakeholders, well-known members of the community, businesses, associations, and other civic groups to attempt to bring them on board for support.

• Keep an updated database. As you begin to identify supporters of your project, that information should be put in a database to refer to throughout the entitlement process of your proposal. Coding your supporters by local legislative districts can also help if you need to target a particular local legislator who may be wavering in support.

The key goal of these types of campaigns is to never allow the opponents an opportunity to seize the moment because of inaction by the developer. Just announcing a biomass project is not enough to assume that everyone will be on board to support it. By running an aggressive campaign and identifying supporters, you have taken a key step of any successful campaign. Knowing what to do with the identified members of a community who support your project is the next step, and one that will allow vocal support to outnumber opponents, whether it be petitions, letters or crowds at public hearings.

In 2013 and beyond, expect NIMBY opposition to biomass projects. Meeting this challenge with proven grassroots techniques will be critical to making this year a success for biomass companies.

Author: Al Maiorino
President, Public Strategy Group Inc.


3 Responses

  1. Cam McAlpine



    Hi Al, Thanks for the article. I think you've hit on a key issue for project developers that all too often gets overlooked. And most of your tactics are useful. That said, I think running a "campaign style" communications program only gets you half way there to addressing the global issue of NIMBY-ism. The key term in stakeholder engagement is "engagement." I think it's imperative to not only build support and communicate openly and transparently about a project TO your audiences; it's also critically important to engage WITH all your stakeholders -- including opponents. This helps you to understand the root of the opposition, and to adjust your project plan (where feasible) to address those issues. Doing so will help build social license for the project in the long-term, rather than simply winning the short-term battle for a development permit or rezoning or whatever the immediate issue is. Not doing so will mean the same battles are fought at every stage of the development and on every subsequent development. It will also serve the larger goal of building understanding and awareness of what the biomass industry as a whole can offer the country in the way of renewable energy and energy security. Cheers. Cam

  2. Joe Zorzin



    I suggest much of the problem wasn't NIMBYism- at least in Massachusetts. People were concerned about air pollution- which is a very reasonable concern- and potential damage to watersheds- for example, the Russell biomass plant would have raised the temperature of the Westfield River (perhaps insignificantly?). Also, many people claimed that the forests would be wasted- including my state ref, Denice Andrews, who said, "they'll tear down the forests". But, the biggest concern of all was global warming. The state contracted with Manomet which produced a report claiming or should I say assuming, a "carbon debt" which makes burning wood as bad as or worse than coal - and that conclusion was picked up by the opposition. Then, the governor was running for reelection, saw the ferocious opposition, and turned on a dime- from "ramping up" biomass to stoping biomass for electric power dead in its tracks. All of this was more politics than science. The forests would NOT be ravished- in fact they'd be improved. Air and water quality would not be severely impacted- perhaps a bit, but that's the price for civilization. The theory of carbon debt is just that, an unfounded theory- which makes no sense if on the large scale, the forest ecosystem is growing in volume or at least holding steady. And, if not biomass, the trees will be cut for something else and soon enough rot and return the carbon to the atmosphere. Another thing- those who hate biomass don't mind when solar farms turn landscapes into deserts and they don't mind covering the beautiful New England mountains with wind turbines- negative qualities far exceeding those of biomass. So, in conclusion, it's not just NIMBYism- it's a very complex political problem and should be seen that way- one not easily to be fixed- but seeing the big picture is a start. I've been caught up in all these renewable energy battles here in Mass. so I know of what I speak- and, I've been a forester for 40 years.

  3. Elaine Munro



    Aloha Al. Interesting article, but perhaps you do not know that a group of residents are appealing the county's decision to grant a permit to burn biomass. Another group of residents has sued the EPA over the state's issuing a clean air permit. Als, several unions are in dispute with themselves over work at the Hu Honua site, and have left the project until the labor board can reach a decision. Perhaps HuHonua won the public relations battle, but the war has not been decided yet.


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