This conservative group is advocating for renewable energy
March 15, 2023 Updated Wed., March 15, 2023 at 5:20 p.m.
While Republican politicians castigate Wall Street over its climate initiatives, another group of conservatives is trying to change hearts and minds in rural counties and state capitals on the benefits of the nation’s shift to clean energy.
In town halls, courthouses and statehouses across the Midwest, South and Appalachian states, members of the Conservative Energy Network has been meeting with farmers, landowners, evangelicals and state lawmakers to convince them that wind, solar and other forms of renewable power are good for their wallets, rights and votes.
The group does however eschew the term “green energy.” And while its members say they believe the science underpinning climate change, “net zero” and the Paris climate accord aren’t top of mind. Instead, their message squarely focuses on energy independence, free markets, land rights and consumer choice.
“Quite frankly, our conservative voice has been missing from policy debates for too long, especially at the state and local levels,” says Brittany Tisler, interim chief of the Michigan-based nonprofit.
CEN was started in 2016 by late Republican strategist Mark Pischea, who worked in Michigan politics and at the National Republican Congressional Committee. By 2021, CEN was bringing in $7.4 million in donations, according to its latest tax filing, with funding from groups including the Energy Foundation, which partners with other foundations including those tied to Hewlett-Packard Enterprises, Home Depot and the late hedge fund billionaire Julian Robertson.
One of CEN’s biggest challenges is fighting disinformation surrounding renewable power. “We spend a lot of time trying to convince people that they aren’t going to get cancer from wind turbines,” Tisler says. “We try to neutralize the political toxicity of clean energy issues.”
As well as seeking to educate local and state officials, CEN has placed ads on right-leaning websites like the Daily Caller and Fox News to get their message out. They also conduct polling: their latest survey shows 80% of American voters want government action on boosting renewable energy.
CEN says it works with other conservative groups in 24 states. A grass-roots project it runs – the Land & Liberty Coalition – has worked with local officials who approve renewable projects and helped secure permits for wind and solar farms that produce at least 2.8 gigawatts of power, Tisler says.
One of CEN’s biggest wins so far was in Florida, she says. CEN and other groups worked with the office of Republican Governor Ron DeSantis to help persuade him to veto a bill that would have punished homeowners who use solar panels. In South Carolina, the group leveraged relationships with Republican lawmakers there to help pass its Energy Freedom Act in 2019.
CEN doesn’t always agree with the politics of its donors, Tisler says, but “we do find common ground in our belief in the clean energy transition.”
For now, CEN says it’s educating red state officials on how to benefit from President Joe Biden’s landmark climate law, the Inflation Reduction Act. Passed last year with no Republican votes, it’s set to unleash some $370 billion for green projects that could serve to connect Americans through renewable power.
The act represents the “paradox of blue demand from a Democratic-led Congress that would be met with red supply from often conservative communities,” Tisler says.
As wind and solar projects expand across the country, CEN says it will now focus on land needed to build transmission lines for clean energy projects.
As for any impact from the Republican backlash against environmental, social and governance strategies, Tisler says it’s not happening in the “rooms that we are in. It’s happening on cable news, while we’re working to advance policies that are going to be sustainable in the long term.”
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