Flirting with fossils: the faux crusade for ‘responsible solar’


Susan Ralston, founder of ‘Citizens for Responsible Solar’ (CRS), dons the guise of a grassroots environmentalist, pitching woo and conspiracy theories to authoritarian conservatives eager to impose science-mangling values on local land owners. While appearances can be deceiving, we have uncovered the true nature of CRS’s self-proclaimed ‘responsible’ solar advocacy. Concealed beneath the organization’s veneer of environmental stewardship lies a network of fossil fuel allies, united in opposition to renewable energy initiatives. Solar developers would do well to familiarize themselves with this group and its affiliates to prepare their defenses in town meetings.

NPR recently profiled Ralston’s CRS. Ralston, a seasoned political operative, may be best known for her 2006 resignation from a White House position as executive assistant to Karl Rove. This resignation was prompted by her close association with former longtime boss Jack Abramoff, a lobbyist who defrauded Native American tribes of tens of millions of dollars. Abramoff’s double-dealing led him to confess to three felonies – conspiracy, fraud, and tax evasion- landing him a 48- month jail sentence in 2008. Dozens of additional convictions were made against parties associated with Abramoff as a result of the probes into his felonies.

During all of this, Ralston sought immunity in exchange for testimony during these events against her former boss.

Unsurprisingly, Ralston maintains that CRS hasn’t accepted money from fossil fuel interest groups, yet the true source of CRS’s funding is not publicly available. However, NPR notes that any paperwork that goes to CRS must go through a law firm created by Jason Torchinsky. Bloomberg News describes another Torchinsky associated firm as “a boutique outfit that specializes in advising organizations that want to participate in the electoral process without disclosing who’s paying their bills.”

Given this, along with court rulings such as Citizens United, we may never know the true source of CRS’s funding.

It is known, however, that a prominent GOP donor’s foundation, with significant investments in fossil fuel companies, has transferred hundreds of thousands of dollars to Ralston’s Washington DC consulting firm while she was establishing CRS.

CRS has had additional dalliances with the fossil fuel industry as well, as evidenced by its hiring of public relations and consulting firm Shirley & Banister Public Affairs. This group has also worked for the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a conservative think tank that opposes renewable subsidies and maintains ties with several administration officials who deny climate science.

Spotsylvania Solar Power Energy Center

Between 2018 to 2020, pv magazine USA covered the Spotsylvania Solar Power Energy Center multiple times following its initial tentative approval. Unexpectedly, the facility triggered significant backlash, marking one of the first instances of local solar resistance reaching national prominence.   

Energy & Policy reported that Washington D.C. think tanks, with ample fossil fuel funding and a history of climate denial, were participating in Spotsylvania town meetings. Following pv magazine USA’s coverage of the issue, the magazine received a slew of emphatically worded comments and emails on the topic.

One particularly impassioned local commentator emailed the author directly, claiming to have attended every meeting since January, and challenging the source of our information, dismissing it as the “biggest bull” they’d ever heard. The commentator rejects the idea that opposition was funded with money from fossil fuels, maintaining that “the only Cokes at these meetings were given out by SPower, and that was with pizza” as a ploy to encourage youth participation. Accusations flew at reporters for disseminating misinformation based on second-hand accounts, with the commentator describing the community pushback as “grassroots people” composed of Spotsylvania taxpayers.

As it turns out, CRS was among those assisting locals in developing their arguments. Despite the opposition from CRS, the project began partial operation in July 2021.

As CRS expanded beyond Spotsylvania, multiple groups fighting against solar power plants nationwide encountered them. These groups consistently reported that CRS “guided us in the right direction and then helped us with information”.

Source: NPR

Per the NPR illustration above, CRS has appeared in at least 12 states across the nation.

On Reddit, CRS was identified in Kentucky as “Hardin County Citizens for Responsible Solar.” The local who posted on Reddit observed the now standard arguments presented by the ‘responsible solar’ group.

The arguments included:

  • Polluting local water
  • Lowering property value
  • Ruining the ‘natural beauty’ of the land
  • Destroying the rural farming lifestyle

Interestingly, in late December 2021, Reddit users were able to determine that this Hardin County group was, in fact, a front for the Washington D.C.-based organization.

In the next article on this subject, we will attempt to define the arguments presented by this group in public meetings, and provide authoritative sources that refute them. This will equip solar developers with the necessary tools to prepare and preempt this nationally coordinated, fossil fuel-driven attack on solar power development.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own, and do not necessarily reflect those held by pv magazine.

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