BiGS Actionable Intelligence: Recent research from Harvard Professor Dustin Tingley shows that renewable energy businesses need to put greater emphasis on direct community engagement to limit local-level barriers. Companies that underestimate society’s distrust towards institutions, or assume project opponents are unsophisticated, may not achieve their goals. Community engagement is not just a checkbox – it matters for long-term business success.

BOSTON–Climate-friendly energy project sponsors that fail to wake up to increasing local-level hurdles to projects such as wind, solar, and battery manufacturing do so at their own peril. So says Harvard University Professor Dustin Tingley, who wrote a major study of stakeholders involved in the clean energy transition.

Across the United States, renewable energy projects are facing increasing barriers at the local level that can lead to long delays or cancelations of projects vital to the transition away from fossil fuels. Tingley acknowledges that companies commonly dedicate significant resources to managing local issues, regulations, and approvals. He observes, however, that energy project sponsors tend to look at community relations from a top-down or legalistic perspective.

Distrust Colors Opposition

Too often business leaders fail to appreciate the distrust that characterizes popular sentiment toward institutions today and the dangers that lie within regulatory processes across different levels of government, Tingley says. Better and more direct engagement in communities is more likely to lead to improved outcomes. Only 40% of Americans surveyed say they trust the government, compared to 53% who say trust business, according to the 2024 Edelman Trust Barometer.

"You're going to get these projects through a lot faster if you think in these terms. That's what people are realizing," often belatedly, Tingley notes. He adds that community-first strategies can help businesses attract better local workers and avoid outright opposition that leads to long delays or project cancelations.

Tingley’s observations emerged from regional and national surveys of more than 22,000 individuals, interviews with people ranging from community residents to power company executives, and fieldwork in places on the front lines of the energy transition. This wealth of evidence served as the basis of Uncertain Future: The Politics of Climate Change, a book published in 2023 co-authored with Princeton University political scientist Alexander Gazmararian.

Coming roughly a year after the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act, their work notes that the energy transition is treated as challenge of innovation, engineering and cost by some advocates, policymakers, and business leaders. Yet even with growing popular acceptance of the dangers related to climate change and the decline in the cost of renewables in recent decades, the energy transition is moving slower than expected.

Tingley is not alone in finding that local opposition to renewable energy power production and transmission is widespread and growing. A report released earlier this year by the Sabin Center for Climate Law Change at Columbia University found 59 newly adopted local renewable energy project restrictions had been added to the nearly 300 it previously identified. The report named 293 renewable energy projects that had encountered significant opposition in 45 U.S. states.

Slow-Moving Energy Transition: “A Political Problem”

“It is a political problem,” Tingley says about why the energy transition is not proceeding more quickly. Now, governments and other stakeholders must learn new ways to work together at all levels, or the energy transition will limp along too slowly to meet the challenge of global warming.

Tingley cautions business leaders and other project advocates against falling into a trap of believing popular labels attributed to some opponents of renewables or dismissing community-driven concerns.

"We found people were very sophisticated in their analysis. They were often very well informed about policies, and how they hurt or at times benefited their communities," says Tingley. He adds, “There's a demeaning tendency in a lot of media and journalism that [portray] people in rural areas as poor rednecks, or country hillbillies. It just isn't true."

Marrying Perspectives

Tingley’s research puts a political lens on issues affecting business success in the renewables area. He offered a new 2023 fall semester course called "Energy” for Harvard Business School students, sharing and learning new perspectives on how political and economic analysis can support business leaders. He found that new solutions can emerge from improved understanding beyond the core areas of energy project financing and management.

“There’s this other set of considerations. If you forget them, it doesn’t matter how much you’ve de-risked your investment using the usual tools. Your project isn’t going to move forward,” Tingley says of the perspective offered in his elective course taught to second-year MBA students. He says the course helped students better appreciate the value of adding political and social perspective to business analysis, while he gained perspective on the power of business to offer innovative solutions.

When it comes to addressing the rising opposition to renewable energy projects across the United States, another recent study led by MIT researchers reviewed opposition to dozens of renewable energy projects and categorized the sources of discontent. Types of opposition range from lack of consultation, health and safety or property value concerns, tribal rights issues, to intergovernmental disputes. Meanwhile, research from UC Santa Barbara, the University of Michigan and Gallup Inc. found that one in five wind projects faced significant opposition with opposition coming from a range of groups.

Building stronger relationships with local community groups and officials in local government and contributing in-kind support around projects takes time and effort. In terms of total project cost, however, it is not especially costly and has the potential to pay big rewards.

The calculation should be simple, says Tingley, “You're going to live in that community, your talented workers live in that community. The community can make it hard for you or they can make it easy for you. Look for win-win opportunities. Invest in public goods. Support and be a part of local civic organizations.”