An activist group is spreading misinformation to stop solar projects in rural America
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.
"It's an enormous concern," says Alan Anderson, a lawyer in Kansas who represents renewable energy companies. "If we can't get projects permitted at counties or townships or whatever local level makes a decision, we can't do any of the goals we think we need to do for climate change."
From White House insider to local organizer
Susan Ralston launched Citizens for Responsible Solar to stop a project near her home in Culpeper, Va., about 70 miles southwest of Washington, D.C. She brought years of experience in the upper echelons of national conservative politics to her new role as a county-level organizer against rural solar.
Ralston served as special assistant to former President George W. Bush and as a top aide to Karl Rove in the White House. She resigned in 2006 when a congressional investigation found that she passed messages to Rove from her former boss, the disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff. The investigation did not accuse her of any wrongdoing.
After leaving the White House, Ralston started her own consulting firm, SBR Enterprises LLC. In 2012, she organized a fundraiser for Mitt Romney's presidential campaign that was hosted by GOP luminaries. She's currently listed as a senior adviser at a nonprofit that works to elect conservative women.
As she was setting up Citizens for Responsible Solar, Ralston got help from operatives who have worked behind the scenes with some of the most powerful people in conservative politics.
The treasurer of Citizens for Responsible Solar is Lisa Lisker. Lisker was treasurer for a campaign committee for J.D. Vance, who was elected last year as a Republican senator from Ohio. Her firm does financial consulting for Republican candidates and political committees to ensure that they comply with campaign finance laws.
When there's official paperwork that has to get to Citizens for Responsible Solar, it goes through a firm created by a lawyer named Jason Torchinsky. The same firm has been the registered agent for at least two dozen conservative organizations based in Virginia. One of them was a voter-focused group headed by Leonard Leo, who helped remake the federal judiciary through the Federalist Society. NPR and Floodlight haven't verified whether any of the conservative groups that use Torchinsky's firm as a registered agent have ties to Citizens for Responsible Solar.
Torchinsky is also a partner at a law firm that Bloomberg News once described as "a boutique outfit that specializes in advising organizations that want to participate in the electoral process without disclosing who's paying their bills."
Torchinsky has worked as a lawyer for Americans for Prosperity, an influential activist group that promotes conservative causes. And he's represented the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), an association of companies and Republican state legislators that has engineered and spread anti-climate messaging and draft legislation.
And Ralston's consulting firm, SBR Enterprises, got almost $300,000 from The Paul E. Singer Foundation between 2018 and late 2020 — the period when she was setting up Citizens for Responsible Solar. Paul Singer, the foundation's president, is chairman of the Manhattan Institute, a think tank that has criticized government support of renewable energy. His investment firm, Elliott Management, is the largest shareholder in the coal producer Peabody Energy Corp.
Ralston and the Singer Foundation declined to tell NPR and Floodlight what the money to SBR Enterprises was for. The foundation's tax filings say the firm was a "consultant for the foundation mission."
Ralston reportedly said to E&E News in 2019 that no money from fossil fuel interests went to Citizens for Responsible Solar. Since then, she has declined NPR and Floodlight's requests to identify the organization's sources of funding.
Lisa Graves, executive director of the progressive watchdog group True North Research, says Ralston has surrounded her group with "a national network of right-wing political activists who are very powerful, very, very plugged in."
Graves adds: "Having them invested in one way or the other in her agenda here is a sign that this is a key tactical component of the way that powerful right-wing donors or strategists want to attack solar."
Ralston didn't respond to subsequent emails seeking comment. Torchinsky and Lisker did not respond to repeated messages seeking comment.
Ralston was soon eyeing bigger fights
Around the time Ralston founded Citizens for Responsible Solar in Culpeper, Va., she got involved in debates over solar projects in other communities. One of the first places she went was the bedroom community of Spotsylvania, Va., tucked between Richmond and Washington, D.C. A solar company had purchased 6,350 acres of land there, and it was asking for approval to build the largest project east of the Rockies.
Greg Benton, a county supervisor at the time, was tasked with determining whether it would be a good thing for Spotsylvania. "I'm not a big energy person, one way or the other. I think solar will make a difference in helping the electric companies and helping the planet a little bit," Benton says. "I wanted to do right by the county with this project."
A Republican who had worked at the local sheriff's and fire departments, Benton spent months researching the project. He looked into concerns over stormwater management and fears that toxic materials like cadmium could be in the solar panels and leak out, hurting people or the environment. Benton found no major risks.
But he was soon overwhelmed by local activists who criticized the project's impact on the landscape and pushed issues that Benton says he'd debunked or addressed.
"I think initially they were concerned about it, and they had some legitimate concerns," he says. "I think it was from bad information. Just information that was not true, not factually based."
Ralston declined to discuss her relationship with activists in Spotsylvania. But she told E&E News in 2019 that she "worked closely" with residents there who opposed the project. "Their fight is much, much bigger," Ralston told E&E. "They don't have as much financial resources that I have."
After months of angry public hearings, Spotsylvania County ultimately approved the project in 2019. The loss in Spotsylvania was an early setback for Ralston. But her campaign was just getting started. Shortly after she formed Citizens for Responsible Solar, the solar company she was organizing against in Culpeper cited "community concerns" and withdrew its project application. Soon, Citizens for Responsible Solar grew in size and influence and spread beyond Virginia.
More local activists pitch "responsible solar"
Many grassroots activists today credit their success in stopping solar projects to Ralston. One of them is Kathy Webb. Webb says she learned that a company wanted to clear a forest for a solar plant near her home in Rowan County, N.C., days before local officials planned to vote. She sent out a flurry of emails to anyone she thought could help. Somehow, a message came back from Ralston.
Ask the county to delay the vote, Ralston told her. And get a lawyer. It worked, Webb says. The solar company scrapped its plan. "Susan guided us in the right direction and then helped us with information," she says. Ralston's advice "absolutely was part of us defeating it."
Soon, Webb was spreading Ralston's message throughout North Carolina. She runs the Facebook page Rowan County Citizens for Responsible Solar, where she posts material that's emailed out from Ralston's organization.
The reach of Citizens for Responsible Solar appears to extend across the U.S. On Facebook, at least two dozen groups and pages dedicated to defeating solar projects feature the same term: responsible solar. There's a Kansans for Responsible Solar and an Iowa for Responsible Solar. Ralston spoke at a fundraiser last year for a Kentucky-based group called Hardin County Citizens for Responsible Solar.
In her only substantive email to NPR and Floodlight, Ralston said she offers help to those who ask. While other groups might adopt the name "Citizens for Responsible Solar," she says they aren't "affiliated" with her organization.
Ralston's group has nurtured networks of activists who often work together across state lines. In testimonials, people from South Carolina to Maine say Citizens for Responsible Solar connected them with other activists and gave them resources to sway local officials.
In one Virginia county, for example, Citizens for Responsible Solar gave residents information about "the science and downsides" of solar. It then put one of those activists in touch with someone in New Jersey who was looking for information about the solar industry. And it connected people in Pennsylvania with John Droz, an activist who has spent years challenging mainstream climate science and trying to limit renewable energy development.
"Susan was a great resource for information and, probably more importantly, inspiration," says Jim Thompson, who runs an Ohio group called Against Birch Solar. "There's times, you know, you get down in the valleys, and you don't know that you're making a darned difference. And you reach out to people like Susan and share your frustration, maybe get some insight as to what you might be doing wrong."
Ralston didn't have contacts of her own in Ohio, Thompson says, so she made him part of her network. When people in Ohio reached out to Ralston, "then she would start sending them to me," Thompson says.
Ralston's growing influence has drawn criticism from renewable energy advocates across the political spectrum. Ray Gaesser is chair of the Iowa Conservative Energy Forum, which promotes renewable energy to drive economic growth. In 2021, he warned that Citizens for Responsible Solar — "a dark-money organization based in Virginia" — was meddling in local affairs.
Groups like Citizens for Responsible Solar "are operating from the same playbook featuring shared materials and draft petitions from national sources that originate thousands of miles from Iowa," Gaesser wrote in an op-ed in The Gazette newspaper in Iowa.
"Their mission is to kill new development," Gaesser said in the op-ed, "not to help develop common-sense ordinances."
Ralston's group has grown as the world grapples with how to swiftly cut greenhouse gas pollution that drives climate change. Big solar and wind projects on vast tracts of land are the cheapest and fastest way right now to add lots of energy without increasing greenhouse gases.
But Zunk, the former Trump administration official, says limiting global warming isn't driving development. Companies build solar projects because they make financial sense, he says. "They're not coming because of the Green New Deal," says Zunk. "They're not coming because of any government action."
The U.S. Energy Information Administration expects the amount of solar capacity added in America this year from big power plants will be more than double the current annual record.
All that growth means local land-use fights will keep flaring up.
The strategy Ralston uses has been the basis of many social movements. "There's often this hub and spoke model, and there are resources that are planted in different places," says Burger of the Sabin Center at Columbia University. What's noteworthy here, he says, is that "what people are advocating for is based on misinformation and is antithetical to, not only the public good, but to probably their own self-interest, in most instances."
Strategies to fight the wind industry have been turned against solar
Misinformation spreads easily online. It bounces around in echo chambers where dubious articles, videos and memes are posted and shared repeatedly. Longtime critics of the wind industry like John Droz cultivated opposition strategies that are now being used in the fight against solar, says Anderson, the renewable energy lawyer in Kansas.
"The geometric growth of misinformation by the same people posting to 50 different places, that method and that impact flows through to solar, just as it did to wind. The gathering of groups and creating a social unit so that people become emotionally and socially tied to the group is the same for solar as it was for wind," Anderson says. "Then it is just new talking points for the different technology."
When Ralston was setting up Citizens for Responsible Solar, Droz was one of the people she consulted.
Droz is a member of the CO2 Coalition, a nonprofit supported by fossil fuel magnate Charles Koch that promotes "the important contribution made by carbon dioxide to our lives and the economy." As a science adviser for a group of coastal North Carolina counties that promotes economic development, Droz helped stall state efforts to consider climate change in coastal planning.
A decade ago, Droz shared a memo for a national public relations campaign against wind power at a meeting of activists in Washington, D.C. The memo was aimed at undermining public support for the wind industry "in what should appear as a 'groundswell' among grassroots."
Droz's website provides model ordinances that activists like Ralston can use in their own communities. It also features a list of "solar energy concerns," including claims of environmental harm and the potential loss of farmland. Droz calls himself an "educator" and says his website is meant only to share information, adding that he doesn't get involved in debates outside of his own community.
"All I've tried to do is to provide the other side of the coin, sort of things here that aren't being told by state agencies or the federal government," he says.
A number of the concerns Droz raises are echoed on the website for Citizens for Responsible Solar. The information on Ralston's website is "extremely misleading and appears designed to be misinformation," says Meyers of Virginia Tech.
That includes claims that solar projects ruin the land they're built on. With the right practices, companies can improve local ecosystems, Meyers says, and farming can continue alongside power plants. He also says the group's warnings about hazardous waste from solar don't account for the fact that most solar panels aren't considered toxic and won't leach material.
Ralston didn't respond to subsequent emails seeking comment.
"I'm just saying that there are credible people who have expressed these concerns," Droz says of the information he puts out.
Farmers are caught in the middle of local solar battles
In Page County, Houser says he heard a lot of positive feedback at first when a solar company proposed building the project on his land. But then, he says, "local politics got involved."
He says: "Anybody can stand up in a public hearing and say anything, regardless of the facts or science or whatever."
At public hearings starting in 2018, some residents said the solar plant would create problems with stormwater runoff, ruin their views and harm property values, as well as the local tourism and agriculture industries. Others falsely claimed solar panels would poison the groundwater and cause cancer.
A year later, Page County rejected the project and put a moratorium on new development.
Things got more tumultuous from there. Urban Grid, the company that offered to lease Houser's property, resubmitted plans for the project in late 2020. And a group calling itself Page County Citizens for Responsible Solar created a Facebook page to organize local opposition. Ralston's organization applied pressure, too, saying it had hired a "prestigious law firm" to investigate the county's actions.
The battle finally ended in 2022. After Page County adopted a solar ordinance, Urban Grid abandoned Houser's project. The new law doesn't outright ban big solar plants, but it imposes so many restrictions that there's no place to build, says Peter Candelaria, chief executive of Urban Grid.
Candelaria says it was a missed opportunity, and not just for companies and landowners who stood to make money. The project on Houser's property could have generated millions of dollars for Page through land and equipment taxes, as well as payments under a siting agreement, he says. And the soil underneath the project could have been improved with regenerative land practices, Candelaria says, like grazing sheep around the panels.
Keith Weakley, a member of Page County's Board of Supervisors, says officials worried that big solar projects could hurt existing businesses without creating any long-term jobs.
Page County Citizens for Responsible Solar didn't respond to messages seeking comment.
With the chance to put up solar panels gone, Houser has been talking to a poultry company that wants his land. But the recent outbreak of bird flu put the plan on hold. "We're as efficient as we can be in our operation here, and we're as sustainable as we can be, and we take good care of the land. But we're running out of time," Houser says of the financial pressure farmers are under. "Everybody's faced with the same thing, every farm family."
Looking back, Houser doesn't know what he or Urban Grid could have done to get to a different outcome. "We just presented the facts," he says. "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."
This story is a collaboration with Floodlight, a nonprofit environmental news organization.
Siri Chilukuri contributed reporting to this article.