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Earlier this year, I spent time in Texas reporting on a growing push from business leaders to pivot the state’s energy industry to capture growing investment in clean energy. Among the state’s many selling points was its existing energy infrastructure, which promoters argue can be repurposed for clean technology.
It’s a compelling pitch, but these same executives were often caught off guard by a follow-up question: what about the communities where the infrastructure is located that don’t want it anymore? One person was upset that I asked the question. Most sort of shrugged, admitting that convincing communities was a challenge and acknowledged that they were unclear on how to address it.
Across the country, as money begins to flow from the Inflation Reduction Act, many project developers are now urgently facing this hurdle: to build they’ll need to win over local communities. In the public dialogue, many supporters of clean energy have dismissed opposition to infrastructure projects as NIMBYism, short for “not in my backyard.” The term is derisive and refers to local people who have a negative knee-jerk reaction to any project near their community. There is certainly some truth to the NIMBYism allegation.
But to ignore all community concerns as NIMBYism would be a mistake. First, research has shown that community opposition is often grounded in important, real-world concerns, including and especially in low-income communities of color where companies have historically built industrial facilities that have contributed to health ailments, among other impacts. There’s a business case, too. Engaging communities makes projects more likely to succeed in the short term and makes them more sustainable investments in the long run.
“Education of the community is essential,” said Jigar Shah, director of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Loan Programs Office, at a September round table alongside clean energy executives. “And you’re going have to do that intelligently, smartly, to try to get the best amount of buy-in.”
To learn more about the evolving conversation on community engagement, I attended a September forum in Huntsville, Ala., where a mix of environmental justice activists and civil society groups gathered to talk through what community engagement standards should look like. Organized by the Aspen Institute and the Center for Rural Enterprise and Environmental Justice (CREEJ), the conversation nominally focused on carbon dioxide removal—though the discussion could be applied to cover community engagement broadly.
Climate scientists broadly agree that we need carbon dioxide removal technology to get anywhere close to meeting global climate targets. But the technology can, on the surface, sound precisely like the sort of sci-fi industrial project you don’t want in your backyard: the most widely discussed approach involves sucking up carbon using industrial facilities and then storing it underground.
Many on the ground are skeptical. Because of existing infrastructure and favorable geology, many companies are trying to deploy this technology in places that have historically been home to the oil-and-gas industry. After decades of fossil fuel projects that have harmed human health, trust is often low.
In the past, fossil fuel firms might have just pushed past these concerns, promising jobs and using their political clout to achieve their objectives. But that’s no longer viable. Beyond the ethical issues with such an approach, a changing political climate has made that more difficult. Environmental justice groups have access to more resources to sue. And the Biden Administration has made community engagement a consideration for federal funding.
Still, exactly what new standards of engagement should look like remains to be seen—and it’s a highly contentious question. Project developers don’t want to slow their investments and community members fear their voices will, once again, go unheard. A June gathering on the topic held in Wisconsin turned heated and generated controversy as attendees said they felt the Biden Administration officials were pushing the technology on them rather than truly engaging.
The forum in Huntsville lacked similar fireworks as attendees widely agreed on the need for a new way of doing business—with carbon dioxide removal and clean tech more broadly. “Community engagement should not just be a box to check off,” says CREEJ founder Catherine Coleman Flowers, who spearheaded the event. “It should be crucial from design to implementation.”
Donnel Baird, CEO and founder of clean technology company BlocPower, called for communities to take an ownership stake in projects. “We’re simply not going to be able to deploy clean energy at scale to the mass market unless we have a plan for ensuring that folks have at least a psychological stake, if not a literal ownership stake,” he told me after the event.
And attendees broadly agreed that engagement would need to address core issues and not just gesture at jobs. “If you go to an environmental justice organization, or activists who are concerned about toxins and pollutants from this industrial facility, you can’t go to them and promise them economic development as a trade off,” Khalil Shahyd, managing director of environmental and equity strategies at the Natural Resources Defense Council, told me after.
Creating a new paradigm for community engagement on clean technology would serve everybody. A 2022 study of reasons why proposed clean-energy projects don’t get built found that a lack of engagement with the local community occurred in nearly 30% of project failures. “Incorporating all stakeholder perspectives from the outset of a siting process will probably save time and money,” wrote the report authors. “Better to deal with perceptions of possible risks and potential benefits before opponents have made up their minds, and banded together, to block the project.”
Some companies, particularly upstarts, are keen to show that they get it. “There’s an inherent fatigue with just coming in and saying that we’re going to educate you about our tech or jobs,” said Vikrum Aiyer, the head of global public policy at Heirloom, a carbon dioxide removal company. “It might be necessary, but it’s certainly not sufficient.”
But what is? The true test remains to come–not just for Heirloom and the carbon removal business but for a wide range of new clean technologies.