While a typical news cycle may lead you to think otherwise, the executive branch is not the most impactful level of government for the average American citizen. Our daily lives are most affected by a handful of our neighbors making decisions right down the road: noise ordinances, parking regulations, and building codes. These decisions are the outcome of collaborative processes such as community surveys and neighborhood meetings.

So, when a pandemic hits, what becomes of community engagement with these local governments? Civil servants who rely on public input are now entering territory that can significantly distort representation; switching to online surveys or video conferencing can marginalize the group of senior citizens who regularly show up to council meetings, while reminding twenty-somethings that they have a voice too (and that no one appreciates electric scooters being dumped everywhere). The family-run farm that supplies dairy and meat for the only grocer within 30 miles doesn’t have Google Fiber that allows them to effortlessly dial in on Skype. Strong relationships with local leadership are critical in keeping exurban and rural America connected and heard.

Local governments are adapting how they maintain transparency of their day-to-day work while observing physical distancing guidelines. Even prior to stay-at-home orders, improving participation in local elections, surveys, and other engagement was a feat. And, now distancing is cultivating concerns that governments will lose connectivity with constituents. Yes, executive orders and waivers can mitigate some issues like in-person plan review requirements or neighborhood meetings for grant compliance, but many small jurisdictions are already overwhelmed with bureaucratic procedures. Drafting and completing these stop-gaps will be a huge burden for municipal staffs with limited resources. 

Working in utility-scale solar energy development, I became familiar with the small, rural counties of the United States and the challenges they face on a daily basis. Many jurisdictions have only part-time staff and employ planners that also work at neighboring towns. These communities prioritize efforts to keep their publics engaged and informed.

Public input is also a vital component of development and construction, and the solar industry must welcome involvement and earn trust from the citizens we respect so much. Solar developers value the landowners that lease us their land without the guarantee that the project will actually pencil and be built, the neighbors that tap us on the shoulder when the subcontractors park on their lawn, and the people that show up to public hearings about our projects to learn about what we do. It warms our hearts to share the benefits of solar and help others navigate misinformation. We love connecting with and learning from our neighbors.

While a lot of rural Americans do not have access to high speed internet, many do rely on their land-line telephones for communication. What if developers collaborate more closely with jurisdictions on appropriate notification ranges and work the phones to aid in collecting public input? We can help boost the capacity for government staff to stay connected with constituents about projects via telephone outreach and citizen network programs that proactively inform and invite feedback about proposals in each jurisdiction. Phone conversations have proven more effective in responsiveness compared to mailer campaigns. And, the two efforts combined offer the greatest chance for valuable, lines of communication directly to the companies proposing the projects. This approach can provide a comparable level of information sharing as public hearings while removing the obstacle of scheduling conflicts, and, of course, adhering social distancing guidelines.

It’s my dream that this challenge can ultimately unite us across all sectors. Solar companies can only become productive members of the communities they serve with public input and close collaboration with local governments.

At Sol Systems, we have attended numerous local government meetings over the years to ensure our projects complement the values and goals in the communities we serve. Today, we must lead with empathy for both those directly impacted by the virus, and also for local government leaders working to keeping us all healthy, connected, and engaged as we navigate our current circumstances.

ABOUT SOL SYSTEMS

Sol Systems is a leading national solar energy firm with an established reputation for integrity and reliability across its development, infrastructure and environmental commodity businesses.To date, Sol has developed and/or financed over 850 MW of solar projects valued at more than $1 billion for Fortune 100 companies, municipalities, counties, utilities, universities and schools. The company also actively shapes and trades in environmental commodity and electricity markets throughout the United States. The company was founded in 2008, is based in Washington D.C, and is led by its founder. Sol Systems works with its team, partners, and clients to create a more sustainable future we can all believe in. For more information: www.solsystems.com

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