Nationwide Fossil Fuel Funded Network Spreads Misinformation About Clean Energy

February 18, 2023

As the report, above, from an Iowa TV staton shows, clean energy is under coordinated attack by a nationwide network of fossil fuel funded “think tanks”, using social media algorithms to spread misinformation, lies and fear.


Roger Houser’s ranching business was getting squeezed. The calves he raises in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley were selling for about the same price they had a few years earlier, while costs for essentials like fuel and fertilizer kept going up. But Houser found another use for his 500 acres.

An energy company offered to lease Houser’s property in rural Page County to build a solar plant that could power about 25,000 homes. It was a good offer, Houser says. More money than he could make growing hay and selling cattle.

“The idea of being able to keep the land as one parcel and not have it split up was very attractive,” Houser says. “To have some passive income for retirement was good. And then the main thing was the electricity it would generate and the good it would do made it feel good all the way around.”

But soon after he got the offer, organized opposition began a four-year battle against solar development in the county. A group of locals eventually joined forces with a nonprofit called Citizens for Responsible Solar to stop the project on Houser’s land and pass restrictions effectively banning big solar plants from being built in the area.

Citizens for Responsible Solar is part of a growing backlash against renewable energy in rural communities across the United States. The group, which was started in 2019 and appears to use strategies honed by other activists in campaigns against the wind industry, has helped local groups fighting solar projects in at least 10 states including Ohio, Kentucky and Pennsylvania, according to its website.

“I think for years, there has been this sense that this is not all coincidence. That local groups are popping up in different places, saying the same things, using the same online campaign materials,” says Michael Burger, executive director of the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University. 

Citizens for Responsible Solar seems to be a well-mobilized “national effort to foment local opposition to renewable energy,” Burger adds. “What that reflects is the unfortunate politicization of climate change, the politicization of energy, and, unfortunately, the political nature of the energy transition, which is really just a necessary response to an environmental reality.” 

Citizens for Responsible Solar was founded in an exurb of Washington, D.C., by a longtime political operative named Susan Ralston who worked in the White House under President George W. Bush and still has deep ties to power players in conservative politics.

Ralston tapped conservative insiders to help set up and run Citizens for Responsible Solar. She also consulted with a longtime activist against renewable energy who once defended former President Donald Trump’s unfounded claim that noise from wind turbines can cause cancer. And when Ralston was launching the group, a consulting firm she owns got hundreds of thousands of dollars from the foundation of a leading GOP donor who is also a major investor in fossil fuel companies. It’s unclear what the money to Ralston’s firm was used for. Ralston has previously denied that Citizens for Responsible Solar received money from fossil fuel interests

Ralston said in an email to NPR and Floodlight that Citizens for Responsible Solar is a grassroots organization that helps other activists on a volunteer basis. The group isn’t opposed to solar, Ralston said, just projects built on farmland and timberland. Solar panels belong on “industrial-zoned land, marginal or contaminated land, along highways, and on commercial and residential rooftops,” she said.

But her group’s rhetoric points to a broader agenda of undermining public support for solar. Analysts who follow the industry say Citizens for Responsible Solar stokes opposition to solar projects by spreading misinformation online about health and environmental risks. The group’s website says solar requires too much land for “unreliable energy,” ignoring data showing power grids can run dependably on lots of renewables. And it claims large solar projects in rural areas wreck the land and contribute to climate change, despite evidence to the contrary.

People often have valid concerns about solar development. Like any infrastructure project, solar plants that are poorly planned and constructed can potentially harm communities. But misinformation spread by groups like Citizens for Responsible Solar is turning rural landowners unfairly against renewables, says Skyler Zunk, an Interior Department official under President Donald Trump and chief executive of Energy Right, a conservative-leaning nonprofit that supports solar projects that preserve ecosystems.

Analysts and industry participants say the prevalence of bad information is also increasing pressure on local officials who are often charged with approving renewable energy projects. Many are wary of proposed development because of the political blowback it can bring. “This type of misinformation is very difficult to dispel. And politicians are just afraid of getting engaged with it,” says Ronald Meyers, director of the Renewable Energy Facility Siting project at Virginia Tech.

Getting projects built in the face of local opposition is among the biggest challenges wind and solar companies face. A 2022 report by the Sabin Center at Columbia University found 121 local policies around the country that are aimed at blocking or restricting renewable energy development, a nearly 18% increase from the year before

Solar restrictions are gaining traction as the stakes for addressing climate change keep rising. Construction of more renewable energy is key to the country’s plans to cut greenhouse gas pollution and avoid the worst damage from extreme weather in the years ahead.


2 Responses to “Nationwide Fossil Fuel Funded Network Spreads Misinformation About Clean Energy”

  1. ubrew12 Says:

    I wonder how many ranchers and farmers, reliable GOP voters for decades, are waking up to realize the Party they have been supporting, the ‘Party of Limited Government’, has no intention of letting them decide what to do with their own land.

  2. John Oneill Says:

    ‘.. ignoring data showing power grids can run dependably on lots of renewables..’
    That might be true if the ‘renewables’ are hydro, and it rains enough. Or geothermal. Or biomass, if burning ‘lots’ of trees is ‘renewable’. (Greta Thunberg and Mark Jacobson don’t like it, and neither do I.)
    It might be true too, if ‘lots’ means ‘about half, on average’, and there are also ‘lots’ of gas and coal ready to take the load at any time.

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