Near the end of the American Revolution, in a famous speech he gave at Newburgh, NY, George Washington warned his officers against “the insidious designs of our Enemies, who are compelled to resort from open force to secret Artifice.”
Humbly following GW’s example, here I’d like to warn solar advocates against the insidious designs of the enemies of clean energy. They’ve discovered that they cannot defeat solar power in open combat. So, more and more, they’re resorting to sneaky tricks.
This is the story of one of the sneakiest things that a utility company has done in years to promote a fossil fuel project and throw dirt on solar power.
Americans Love Solar, So Utilities Have to Attack It Craftily
Nine out of ten Americans support solar power, according to a poll done in 2016 by the Pew Research Center.
Anyone who’s been to a public meeting on anything to do with energy lately knows that it’s pretty common to see people talk about how much they love solar power. Even utilities and dirty energy companies know that solar is right up there in Americans’ hearts with Mom and Apple Pie.
That’s why when those monopoly energy companies want to attack solar they don’t dare do it openly. Instead, those who hate solar power pretend to be protecting it by claiming that whatever nasty thing they’re pushing to slow down or kill solar power is actually “pro-solar.”
For example, Florida utilities couched their plan to open the door to more fees and higher costs for solar power owners in pro-solar language when it appeared on the Florida ballot in November 2016 entitled “Rights of Electricity Consumers Regarding Solar Energy Choice.”
So, even when anti-solar wolves have to wrap themselves in sheep’s clothing, it’s rare to hear anybody at all say anything at all bad about solar.
It’s even rarer to hear anti-solar talk come from ordinary citizens.
What a surprise, then, when attendees at a meeting in New Orleans last October came out, straight up, against solar power. This unusual demonstration of public affection for dirty energy came at a public hearing on whether to approve a $210 million gas-fired power plant planned for the city.
Paying Fake Protesters $60 Each to Demand Fossil Fuels Instead of Solar
But it turns out that 20 or more people in bright orange T shirts reading “Clean Energy. Good Jobs. Reliable Power” in the audience of the meeting weren’t members of the public at all. They were actors. According to non-profit news magazine The Lens:
They were paid $60 each time they wore the orange shirts to meetings in October and February. Some got $200 for a “speaking role,” which required them to deliver a prewritten speech, according to interviews with the actors and screenshots of Facebook messages provided to The Lens.
“They paid us to sit through the meeting and clap every time someone said something against wind and solar power,” said Keith Keough, who heard about the opportunity through a friend.
He said he thought he was going to shoot a commercial. “I’m not political,” he said. “I needed the money for a hotel room at that point.”
The actors had to sign non-disclosure agreements and pretend to be concerned citizens at the meeting.
This kind of deception is more common than you might think. There’s even a name for it among PR agencies who do it for their corporate clients who need to buy the public support that they can’t earn by creating a fake grass-roots presence in a political campaign or policy debate: astroturfing.
Astroturfing: Sleazy but Perfectly Legal
While astroturfing is contemptible, it’s not actually illegal. But it only works if it remains a secret. Once the cat’s out of the bag, public officials get super annoyed to have been played, as The Lens reports of the New Orleans meeting:
Councilwoman Stacy Head called what happened in those meetings “disturbing.” Councilwoman Susan Guidry, the only member of the Utility Committee to vote against the plant, called it “morally reprehensible,” saying, “I think it had a phenomenal impact on public opinion.”
At first, the utility company pushing the new power plant, Entergy, denied any knowledge of the actors. But later the company admitted that its public affairs agency, the Hawthorn Group based just outside Washington, DC in Alexandria, Va, had hired the actors.
“Hawthorn is a leader in taking political campaign techniques and applying them to winning corporate and association advocacy campaigns,” according to its website. In other words, paid liars.
And the Hawthorn Group in turn had hired a company called Crowds on Demand to recruit the fake supporters for Entergy. This L.A.-based company seems to have started harmlessly enough by political operative Adam Swart. One time at the airport on getting off a flight from Europe, he thought how nice it would have been for a crowd to meet him at the gate. From that was born a business to provide crowds for Hollywood events and corporate trade shows.
But from there, Swart entered the darker world of astroturfing politics. Now the company’s website proudly proclaims its creepy services to any corporate public affairs flack with a hot budget and a cold heart:
If you need to hire protesters, we can get a crowd on the street, sometimes within 24 hours time. If you need speakers to present at a council meeting, we can provide talented and well-spoken individuals to advocate for the cause. We also have a dedicated team of phone-banking staff who can call Congressional Offices and convince government officials to support your cause and help you overcome opposition. If you need lots of letters and emails written from constituents, we have a network of tens of thousands of individuals across the country who can send well-written constituent letters to their representatives.
Just as George Washington tried to keep his officers from falling prey to the dirty tricks of British intelligence and their Loyalist allies who sought to create discord between the army and Congress in 1783, so those of us who know should expose the anti-solar plots of utilities and dirty energy companies whenever they appear.
— Erik Curren, The Solar Patriot