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Can Clean Energy Strike Back Against the Growing Smear Campaign?

There has been a noticeable shift within the clean energy industry over the last few months as the election season brings a fresh round of attacks.

From 2005 to 2008, advocates racked up an impressive array of policy support on the local and state levels due to strong bipartisan support. Many people believed that local momentum would carry forward on the national level and provide the catalyst for a comprehensive climate and clean energy bill after President Obama came into office in 2009.

Of course, it wasn’t enough. And the defeat of the climate bill in 2010 marked the beginning of an intensifying campaign against renewable energy. Now, with the Republican party using Solyndra as the center of its messaging strategy, that campaign has become a central theme of the 2012 election.

Renewable energy groups have come to grips with this reality and are adapting their messaging strategies accordingly. Consider this recent email, sent by Adam Browning of the Vote Solar Initiative, on the industry’s need to counter disinformation:

When people ask: What keeps you up at night? I tell them this: There’s an unholy amount of money being spent to attack renewables right now — an unprecedented blitz of solar slander, renewable-mongering and clean energy kvetching that could set policy efforts back decades.

Consider: Of the negative advertising in April of this this election cycle, 81% have targeted renewable energy for attack.  And when you factor that this presidential election is shaping up to be the most expensive in history, with experts estimating spending in the range of $6 billion dollars, well, we got trouble.

Since its founding, The Vote Solar Initiative has been all about helping states and municipalities understand the value of solar. They’ve had to deal with their fair share of misinformation over the years, but they’ve made extraordinarily impressive bipartisan progress on getting better regulatory standards and support mechanisms for solar in place.

But today, with organizations like Americans for Tax Reform, the American Legislative Exchange Council, the Manhattan Institute, and a growing army of Agenda 21 conspiracy theorists (supported by the Republican National Committee) all working to rhetorically smear renewables or take them down on the local level, a lot more people are waking up to the threat.

For sure, groups like Vote Solar want to maintain their non-partisan stance. They’ve worked in the bluest of the blue states and the reddest of the red states, communicating with regulators, policymakers and business owners about the benefits of solar. But they recognize that the political hits are going to pile up against them this election season. That’s a fact.

Consider these trends:

  • American Energy Alliance, Americans for Prosperity, American Future Fund, and Crossroads GPS – the top outside interest group spenders – have spent a total $24.9 million on deceptive ads, many of them energy-related, the Annenberg Public Policy Center found.
  • The Koch-backed Americans for Prosperity has devoted more than 90 percent of its ad spending to energy ads. Two of these ads pushed the patently false claim, roundly rejected by fact-checkers, regarding clean energy jobs. Politico just reported the Koch-backed organizations plan to spend $400 million ahead of the 2012 election, with a large amount of that money likely going toward energy issues.
  • 85 percent of the dollars spent on presidential ads by four top-spending third-party groups were for ads with at least one claim ruled deceptive by fact-checkers.
  • One in four of the dollars spent on TV ads has funded mostly false advertising mentioning energy. This equals the amount of spending on health care ads, according to Kantar Media.

In other words, hundreds of millions of dollars are being spent — virtually overnight — on straight-up lies designed to unravel the last decade of progress in renewable energy.

And just yesterday, the Sierra club issued a report detailing the flow of money from fossil fuel interests to organizations and individuals engaging in the campaign to take down renewable energy. The report outlines most of what we’ve been reporting on this website for the last year, but it’s a solid comprehensive overview of the players involved.

The report outlines political donations, industry dollars funding anti-renewable think tanks, and the relationship between local and national groups.

It’s still unclear how finely coordinated many of the current attacks are, particularly between local and national groups. However, it’s perfectly clear that organizations opposed to renewable energy — either for short-term political gain or long-term business reasons — are funneling hundreds of millions of dollars into the current smear campaign against the industry. There’s no refuting that it’s underway and it’s intensifying.

The Sierra Club summed up the attacks this way:

It is a testament to the success and rapid growth of clean-energy resources that they are now regarded as enough of a threat to draw fire from some of the largest, most powerful corporations on the planet. But with this rising status, there comes a heightened degree of difficulty that the renewable and efficiency companies — as well as advocates for their products as an environmental solution — must both recognize and contend with. The Koch brothers, Exxon Mobil, Peabody Energy, and others are playing for keeps. They have unlimited resources and we have documented that they are committing them to undermining clean energy. We clearly face a dog-eat-dog environment and must respond with as much vigor and aggressiveness as those who would see wind, solar, geothermal, and other technologies fade into the sunset — a product of a brief period in American economic history when the competitive environment was a friendly place for clean energy.

Ambitious efforts to change the political landscape to fit a certain set of interests are very unlikely to happen on a shoestring. Most of the activities described in this report have not taken place overnight, nor have they happened by accident. Hours of work and dedicated individuals have collaborated to build a meaningful opposition to renewable energy, whether through the previously discussed “think tanks,” “citizens groups,” or political contributions. These efforts have also required a significant amount of funding.

In order to combat this disinformation, many of the clean energy industry groups have banded together to create an Energy Fact Check website. It’s a great resource for keeping up with the growing list of deceptive or completely nonfactual claims. Unfortunately, it can’t match the Kochs, who can easily raise and spend $400 million in a few months.

But what’s potentially more valuable than money? Local businesses, entrepreneurs, and advocates sticking up for their industry. Look at what happened in New Jersey where Republican Governor Chris Christie — a man loved by the Kochs — expanded the state’s solar industrybecause it has been such an economic boost for small businesses. That happened because the New Jersey solar industry, along with the local utilities, were able to communicate the benefits of the technology. Local pragmatism beat out national politics.

In the medium and long-term, we know renewables, efficiency, and conservation will win the day — the need for distributed, low-carbon resources is far too environmentally and economically important. But that win isn’t going to be easy. It’s going to take some equally powerful push back from folks on the local level to counter the national smear campaign.

This article was originally published on Climate Progress and was republished with permission.

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