By Taralinda Willis
No one looks at a high voltage powerline and thinks, “I wish I could have one of those in my backyard.”
But as the nation looks to shift toward more clean energy sources like wind and solar, the electric grid will need to be constantly upgraded and expanded. And that’s going to mean more high voltage electric transmission lines, and more NIMBYism.
Siting a major infrastructure project like an electric transmission line, gas pipeline, or highway corridor is a multi-year project requiring a robust grassroots advocacy campaign to win local support and regulatory approval.
In this article, we’ll outline the battle-tested grassroots advocacy framework that the former head of public affairs at American Transmission Co. in Wisconsin used to get regulatory approval for major electrical transmission lines.
Table of Contents:
Setting the tone for your grassroots advocacy efforts
How to find misinformation
Setting the record straight and building support
Gathering input from stakeholders
Working with local government officials
Using allies in the statehouse to overcome local opposition
Anything that slows down the regulatory approval process for an infrastructure project adds to the cost of the project, which typically gets passed on to the users of that infrastructure. Small but vocal opposition groups can grind approval processes to a halt with their own grassroots advocacy campaigns. An efficient public outreach strategy must include a plan for countering opposition—correcting any misinformation they spread to advance their cause, and, in the best case scenario, gaining their support.
Randy Satterfield spent almost two decades of his career executing grassroots advocacy initiatives to win public support and regulatory approval for major electric transmission line projects as the executive vice president of public affairs with American Transmission Company (ATC).
During Satterfield’s tenure with the organization from 2003 to 2019, ATC built three 345-kV transmission lines that crossed through hundreds of miles of rural areas in Wisconsin and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. With each project, Satterfield and his public affairs team honed their approach to grassroots advocacy into a framework that finds and corrects misinformation, builds relationships with opposition groups, and incorporates local feedback to design the best possible route.
The basic definition of grassroots advocacy is getting a message out to the general public and urging them to contact their local, state, and federal elected officials.
Based on this grassroots advocacy definition, many people approach grassroots advocacy campaigns as a numbers game. How do you mobilize the most people to use their voice about a controversial issue to the point that decision-makers will go in your favor? Essentially, they view grassroots advocacy as a shouting match, and they put all of their effort into making sure their side shouts louder or more persuasively than the opposition.
This approach only provides short-term wins, and allows for shady tactics like hiring demonstrators or incentivizing supporters to call their elected officials (without registering as paid lobbyists). Those tactics might get you across one finish line, but they do little to actually change hearts and minds and gain real supporters for a project, meaning you’ll face the same opposition again in the future.
And in the world of public infrastructure, that opposition costs everyone money.
Effective grassroots advocacy takes a boots-on-the-ground approach to winning hearts and minds, and that’s exactly what Randy Satterfield did during his time with ATC.
Satterfield is no stranger to encountering the Not-In-My-Back-Yard argument. And while it’s an ever-present roadblock in the world of public infrastructure, it’s not an insurmountable obstacle. He put it candidly:
“The biggest issue with NIMBYism is the fear of the unknown. With each project, there was so much false and misleading info in the public space.”
Satterfield advises a systematic approach to identifying both the sources of misinformation and the incorrect facts themselves.
With the help of professional pollsters, Satterfield’s team would survey a representative sample of residents across the entire geographic region the proposed transmission line would cross to find out what they thought about the need for the project, the proposed route, their attitude toward clean energy, and any other concerns. They would repeat these polls throughout the project to gauge how effective their public outreach efforts were and to be able to show regulators and elected officials how the public felt about the project.
In the 16 years Satterfield worked with ATC, he saw the polling answers remain mostly the same. The baseline level of understanding about why we need public infrastructure was about the same, meaning most people have a very low level of understanding, and their opinion can change with a small amount of education. One change he did notice was an increased awareness of the importance of renewable energy.
A tool that Satterfield did not have at the beginning of his career was social media. But now, he highly recommends using social media to gauge how the public feels about public infrastructure projects, and to find out what opposition groups are saying.
There are a wide variety of social listening tools available, including software from big names in the marketing tech world like Hubspot and Sprout Social.
Social media is not the only place where members of the public go to share strong opinions about public infrastructure projects. The minutes and agendas of local government meetings are a gold mine for understanding public sentiment toward a proposed infrastructure project. During their allotted time for public comment, concerned citizens and stakeholders will share their feelings about public policy items on the agenda or issues they see in neighboring cities and counties that aren’t on the agenda.
The best way to monitor local government minutes and agendas is to use Curate’s AI-powered policy tracking tool, which finds and reads government documents from 80,000 municipalities across the country. Public affairs directors use Curate to flag any relevant mentions of the topics and keywords they need to monitor, including their own company’s reputation, without having to read through thousands of pages of irrelevant materials.
Once you have identified some themes in the information that is getting out to the public about your particular project or industry, it’s time to set the record straight.
Your public messaging needs to accomplish two things:
“We did everything, all the way from the 30,000-foot level of advertising all the way to the grassiest of the grassroots,” Satterfield says.
The ultimate goal of any grassroots advocacy campaign for siting a public infrastructure project is to co-create a plan for the best implementation of the project that causes the least harm to people and the environment.
Satterfield says he is most proud of the framework his team developed for gathering input from stakeholders. This step is not just about meeting legal requirements for public notice. This is where projects go from good to great by incorporating the input of highly engaged stakeholders throughout the affected areas, he says.
In Wisconsin, the transmission company must present two viable routes to the Public Service Commission. Developing good routes that have a high chance of getting approved requires massive levels of stakeholder engagement. Here’s what that two-to-three year process looked like.
ATC would host initial public input meetings in central locations all over the affected area. To maximize attendance and opportunities to solicit feedback, they would offer multiple meetings in each location at different times. They would advertise these meetings using every marketing channel available (direct mail, radio, flyers in public places, social media, and asking local public officials and activists to share with their networks).
The goal of the meetings was to inform the public about the need for the project and the benefits that would come from it, and to answer any questions they might have. So each meeting included time for the subject matter experts in real estate, engineering, and environmental impact to outline the whole process of getting the easements, constructing the project, and maintaining it.
But the most important part of the meeting was getting the public’s feedback about which route would cause the minimum negative impact to natural and cultural resources. These local meetings were the best way to find out about vulnerable habitats, rare animal populations, and important and popular recreational areas, etc. Satterfield says there was always information shared at these meetings that his team couldn’t have learned anywhere else.
“I’m very proud of that process,” Satterfield says. “People would still say we don’t want it in our backyard, but once we got past that, others would say, ‘If you have to build it, then it’s a lot better over here than over there.’”
Based on the public input from the meetings across the region, ATC would revise the proposed route and the public input process would repeat. They would do that two or three times until they were confident they had two viable options to bring before the Public Service Commission.
Throughout the long process of gathering public input, Satterfield’s team was in constant contact with local elected officials.
“Our local relations team was constantly, regularly engaged with the local officials to let them know where we were at, where our public meetings were going,” Satterfield says.
Sometimes those meetings happened at a town council member’s kitchen table, sometimes in county board supervisor offices. The goal was always to answer questions, share the messaging around why the project was needed, and to counter the messages from opposition groups.
One especially effective tool when meeting with local government officials was to share the results of later-stage surveying. Sharing the polling results could give lawmakers a better sense of where the general public stood on the project, which was often not accurately represented by the very vocal minority.
And in addition to these proactive efforts to work with local government, Satterfield’s team also monitored local government meeting minutes for any mentions of the company or the project. In the early 2000s, this involved a lot of manual labor, but now that process can be automated with a legislative tracking tool like Curate, allowing public affairs teams to quickly respond to a mention of their issue and set up a one-on-one meeting or a tour of an existing project to answer questions and counter misinformation.
During one of the first major transmission line projects Satterfield worked on, ATC faced especially strong opposition from one county, which held up the entire project. The county refused to grant an easement for the transmission line, even though the route had already been approved by the Public Service Commission. ATC had only one alternative: seek easements from private landowners, which would likely end up being more expensive and could cause more negative impact on the surrounding communities than building on the unused county land that had been determined to be the ideal route.
Instead of turning to this problematic option, ATC went to the state government for a solution. After an effective bipartisan lobbying effort, Satterfield and his team saw the passage of a law that said if the state permits a project, and that project crosses town/city/county land, that unit of government must grant an easement.
“That law has probably saved rate-payers tens of millions of dollars,” Satterfield says. “Every project we’ve done since then, we haven’t had the risk of local units of government saying no and dragging on the process.”
From a relationship standpoint, it’s not a good idea to try to circumvent local government officials by lobbying for law changes that take away their authority just to make the process faster. Local officials play an important role in protecting their community’s interests and helping to plan the best possible infrastructure routes.
It’s always preferable to work with local government first and try to solve disputes with them directly, but if they refuse to negotiate and force the utility into a position that causes greater harm to more people, then the state government can be a useful ally in the service of creating a smoother process for all future projects.
Of course, every state has its own process for siting public infrastructure projects, so the actual laws that would work at a state level will be different from what worked in Wisconsin. For example, Satterfield noted that in Iowa, a transmission line must get approval from each of the counties it passes through before approaching the state regulator for approval, which just further underscores the need for a local government outreach strategy.
The utility industry is tasked with building society’s infrastructure. It’s a huge responsibility, and even though the particulars of each project may be contentious, most people recognize that the industry serves a huge public need.
Ultimately, the key to getting good projects approved is listening to what the public is saying.
When Satterfield was executing his grassroots advocacy framework, he was working with a team of six to eight people, scouring local news reports, reading minutes and agendas of local government meetings when his team could find them, and relying on good relationships with local officials to give them a heads up. And even with all of that effort, there were times when his team would find out weeks or even months after the fact that a small municipality had held a discussion about the transmission line project or even made decisions about it. In most cases, his team didn’t even know the meeting was being held and so they missed an opportunity to provide comments and influence the discussion.
Today, the time and labor-intensive process of monitoring local government discussions can be facilitated by the use of modern grassroots advocacy tools like Curate to make sure your team never misses an opportunity to be at the table where decisions are made.
“If you don’t listen and you don’t engage, you just open yourself up for folks to throw rocks at you,” Satterfield said. “lf you’re a utility or a real estate developer or a law firm representing a public infrastructure project, and you need to have an awareness of local government all the way up to state government’s thoughts, concerns, and observations, a tool like Curate is invaluable.”