Solar and wind are broadly popular in the United States. A 2017 poll of Pew Research Center showed that 65% of Americans were in favor of giving priority to developing “alternative sources such as wind, solar and hydrogen”, with only 27% expressing a preference for expanding exploration of oil, coal and gas.
When it comes to solar, the numbers are even higher. Polls have also consistently found strong support for policies such as net metering that enable rooftop solar.
So it is always a bit surprising when a large number of people show up to support a fossil fuel project, while speaking out against wind and solar, as happened at a public hearing last October on a new gas plant that utility Entergy New Orleans wants to build.
It turns out that many of the 50 supporters who showed up in orange t-shirts to support the new gas plant were motivated by cash and not their personal opinions. As revealed in an article by local publication the Lens, at least some of these were actors who were paid to support the gas plant and to show opposition to wind and solar as alternatives.
In the city which has attempted to rebrand itself in the past decade as “Hollywood South”, there is no shortage of out-of-work actors. According to the Lens, these actors were paid $60 each time they wore the orange shirts to meetings in October and February, and also got $200 for delivering a pre-written speech.
One of the actors has told the Lens that they were specifically paid to clap every time someone said something against wind and solar power. They were also told that if they told anyone they were being paid or spoke to the media, that they would not be paid and would not be considered for future projects.
One of the actors has linked this effort to a Los Angeles-based company that provides crowds on demand for protests, public meetings and other events.
Utility tactics and EEI
Councilmember Susan Guidry, the only one of five City Council members to vote against the plant, has accused Entergy of being behind this effort. “How can you not link Entergy to this?” Guidry asked the Lens. “Who else would have paid all these people to come there and say they want a gas-fired power plant?”
Entergy has denied any connection to the hiring of the actors, and says that it is conducting an internal investigation to determine if any of its employees or contractors have acted inappropriately.
But for Entergy, both opposition to solar and strong influence on political processes are nothing new. The company is one of only two Fortune 500 companies headquartered in Louisiana, and has some of the least solar built in in the service area of its subsidiary utilities in the United States, lagging well behind its fellow Deep South power giant Southern Company.
It is also notable that per its power generation business, Entergy is the nation’s second-largest operator of nuclear power plants.
Entergy is far from the only organization that has lobbied against policies to support wind and solar. As the trade group for the nation’s electric utilities, Edison Electric Institute (EEI) has fought solar tooth and nail, including working with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) to create model legislation to gut net metering at the state level.
Perhaps what is most concerning here is that whether EEI or Entergy, political activity which aims to slow the adoption of renewable energy is often funded by utility customers. As documented by Energy and Policy Institute, investor-owned utilities regularly include EEI membership dues in their operating expenses.
In other words, New Orleans residents could well be the ones ultimately writing the checks for the fight against the transition to renewable energy – a fight which has not consistently been above-board.