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Activists spread misleading information to fight solar

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

As Senator Markey mentioned, ramping up renewable energy is key to the U.S. plan to fight climate change, but there is a growing backlash against big wind and solar plants in some parts of rural America. An investigation by NPR's Michael Copley and Miranda Green from Floodlight found that a longtime conservative operative is stoking opposition to solar projects by spreading misinformation.

MICHAEL COPLEY, BYLINE: Roger Houser's family has been farming in Page County for generations. He raises cattle about 90 miles southwest of Washington, D.C.

(SOUNDBITE OF COWS MOOING)

ROGER HOUSER: Twelve-hundred-pound pound cows. Those calves are 150 to 200 now. They were born in September and October.

COPLEY: Ranching's tough business. Calves have been selling for about the same price the past few years while costs for fuel and fertilizer have been going up.

HOUSER: We're as sustainable as we can be, and we take good care of the land. But we're running out of time.

COPLEY: So it was a big deal when Houser found another use for his 500 acres. A company offered to lease the land to build a solar plant that could power about 25,000 homes. Houser said it was a really good offer. He could graze sheep around the solar panels, keep the properties one-parcel and get more money for retirement.

HOUSER: 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.

COPLEY: But not everybody's feeling good about it. A group of locals eventually joined forces with a nonprofit called Citizens for Responsible Solar to block development of large solar plants. A big concern was they'd ruin the landscape.

It's beautiful out here.

HOUSER: Yeah, it's pretty. It's open ground. But it's like, you know, some panels on it - it's not going to change it.

COPLEY: Citizens for Responsible Solar was founded by Susan Ralston. She was special assistant to former President George W. Bush. Ralston officially jumped into solar fights in 2019. She wanted to stop a project near her home in Culpeper, Va. She said at a hearing of Culpeper's planning commission in 2021 that big solar plants threatened rural communities and the environment.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SUSAN RALSTON: So please do not sell us out for the solar industry and the profiteering of a small group of landowners.

COPLEY: But Ralston's ambitions always seemed to extend beyond Culpeper. She tapped operatives who worked behind the scenes with some of the most powerful people in conservative politics to help set up and run Citizens for Responsible Solar. The group's treasurer worked for Republican politicians like Marco Rubio and J. D. Vance. The firm that handles official paperwork for Citizens for Responsible Solar has represented at least two dozen conservative groups. Some are headed by Leonard Leo, a conservative who's helped reshape the Supreme Court. NPR and Floodlight haven't confirmed if these groups are connected to Citizens for Responsible Solar.

And when Ralston was launching Citizens for Responsible Solar, a consulting firm she owns got almost $300,000 from the foundation of a GOP donor named Paul Singer. Singer's investment firm is the top shareholder in a major coal company. It's unclear what that money went to. Now four years since its founding, Ralston's group has helped activists fighting solar projects in at least a dozen states. Jim Thompson is an activist in Ohio. We spoke while he was driving home from work.

JIM THOMPSON: There's times you get down in the valleys that you don't know that you're making a darn difference. And you reach out to people like Susan that share your frustration, maybe get some insight as to what you might be doing wrong.

COPLEY: Michael Burger runs the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University. He says Ralston's activities reflect how climate change has been politicized.

MICHAEL BURGER: What your reporting is pointing to is a well-mobilized, well-funded national effort to foment local opposition to renewable energy.

COPLEY: Ralston has said Citizens for Responsible Solar didn't get money from fossil fuel interests. She declined to talk to NPR and Floodlight. She said in an email that she isn't opposed to solar - just projects built on farmland and timberland. But her group's rhetoric suggests a broader goal - undermining public support for the industry. That's according to Ronald Meyers. He studies siting issues around renewable energy at Virginia Tech. People often have valid concerns about solar plants. They can hurt communities if they're poorly planned and built. But Meyers says Citizens for Responsible Solar spreads misleading information about health and environmental risks, including that solar projects in rural areas wreck the land and contribute to climate change.

RONALD MEYERS: I've sure seen their impact. It sows seeds of alarm and distrust.

COPLEY: In Page County, Houser says he heard positive feedback at first, when the solar company offered to lease his land. But then he says local politics got involved.

HOUSER: Anybody can stand up in a public hearing and say anything regardless of the facts or science or whatever.

COPLEY: Residents said big solar plants would cause problems with stormwater runoff, ruin their views and harm property values along with the tourism agriculture industries. Others falsely claimed solar panels would poison the groundwater, cause cancer. As the fight dragged on, a group called Page County Citizens for Responsible Solar appeared on Facebook. Ralston's organization applied pressure, too, saying it hired a law firm to investigate the county's actions. It all ended last year. Page County effectively banned big solar plants. One official said he worried they'd hurt existing businesses without creating any long-term jobs.

HOUSER: I mean, a lot of people still comment to me that they supported it, and they wished it could have happened.

COPLEY: But Houser doesn't know how he could have gotten the county to a different outcome.

HOUSER: The anti-solar people took it on as a cause, and it became a movement of its own. In small-town politics, you can have a small group of people become very vocal and seem very influential.

COPLEY: Money is flowing into America's solar industry, and government analysts expect record development this year. All that growth means land use fights like the one in Page County are going to keep flaring up. Michael Copley, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF NAT SLATER SONG, "4 LEAF CLOVER") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Michael Copley
Michael Copley is a correspondent on NPR's Climate Desk. He covers what corporations are and are not doing in response to climate change, and how they're being impacted by rising temperatures.
Brianna Scott is currently a producer at the Consider This podcast.