JUNE 4, 2020
THROUGHOUT THE 20TH CENTURY, electricity was the golden key to economic growth. Electrification lit cities, powered factories, and created unprecedented wealth and comfort. But, as we now know all too well, the results were anything but unmitigatedly golden: electric power systems also scarred landscapes, polluted waters, and pumped pollutants into the atmosphere. Fueled by coal and fossil gas, they emitted more carbon dioxide emissions than cars, trucks, trains, and planes, and coal-fired power plants in particular became the single biggest source of emissions. In short: If electricity has been the key to unlocking technology and progress, the lock has begun to catch, and the key itself is starting to look decidedly tarnished.
Generating massive amounts of electricity from renewable sources such as wind and solar is obviously crucial to decarbonization. But decarbonization also requires rewiring the grid, rethinking who gets access, and revaluating the human and environmental costs of delay. Some states are aggressively curbing their fossil fuel addictions while still providing inexpensive, reliable electric power. Others are moving more cautiously, if at all. Timing is clearly everything, especially now with COVID-19 in the mix. To transform electricity requires synchronized action across states and between government and industry. Actually clarifying the challenge is an important part of the battle.
Leah Stokes’s compelling new book, Short Circuiting Policy: Interest Groups and the Battle Over Clean Energy and Climate Policy in the American States, does clarify the challenge, illuminating the less visible forces behind the grid and ongoing energy transition. In the United States, the policy circuits between electricity producers and consumers include multiple nodes: investor-owned utilities, public municipalities, wind and solar outfits, independent system operators, regional transmission organizations, state regulators, federal agencies, fossil fuel companies, politicians, and special interest groups. Of these, argues Stokes, special interest groups have the greatest potential to either amplify or short the circuits of energy policy. It’s an important argument she is able to make by focusing on energy policy in four states in particular — Texas, Kansas, Arizona, and Ohio — which then enables her to offer up a grounded understanding of the broader nationwide networks of energy politics and power.
Having meticulously reviewed thousands of pages of public utility commission proceedings while also interviewing 108 energy policy stakeholders over a span of five years (2013–’18), Stokes is well armed. She is also passionate, her research powered by her laser-focused commitment to ending the fossil fuel era. It’s thus no accident that she deploys metaphors of war. The task at hand, she suggests, requires wartime levels of mobilization. Her primary theoretical term — “the fog of enactment” — is rooted in a war analogy: the “fog of war,” her version of the phrase denoting “the gap between actors’ expectations and the policy’s actual outcome.” Here, she offers the results of her survey of state-level politicians and their aides: even after affirming expertise in certain areas of policy, “only 20% of respondents believed they could be very certain of a bill’s impacts in the policy domain they knew the most about.” Uncertainty, even blindness, is thus the modus operandi in this arena as in war. As for her general association between enacting energy policy and winning a violent conflict over an adversary, it is scarcely a stretch given the stakes — the climate crisis will assuredly lead to economic devastation, the death of millions or billions of living beings, and the extinction of innumerable species. The stakes may be absurdly obvious, and yet, as she explains, mentioning “climate change” in policy debates can be so polarizing “that it is usually ineffective as a messaging strategy for clean energy.” What this means is that scientists and engineers cannot win this war alone. Artists and scholars from across the humanities and social sciences must join the fight to help evoke the urgency and viability of overhauling the energy sector.
Here it’s worth backtracking with Stokes to review the history of electrification, which can help us understand how utilities initially established their political clout and then, more recently, wielded this influence to slow the rise of clean energy sources like wind and solar. The basic technological framework for widespread electrification was determined in the 1890s after the “battle of currents” between Nikola Tesla and George Westinghouse’s AC system and Thomas Edison’s DC system. Stokes describes how Edison’s former secretary, Samuel Insull, moved to Chicago in 1892 and created the economic and political structure of “vertically integrated utility monopolies,” which means that utilities, from the outset, controlled generation, transmission, and distribution, often maintaining sole rights to a particular service area. This limited customers’ choices but had the virtue of avoiding the redundancies of competing power plants and lines. Following Insull’s blueprint, investor-owned utilities (IOUs) gained advantages over competitors and secured exclusive rights from states and municipalities. Progressive-era concerns about the power bestowed on these monopolies led to regulations in the form of state public-utility commissions. While in some states the commissioners are elected, in the majority of cases governors appoint the members of these committees, who then oversee the utilities and resolve issues like cost-of-service rates and new expenditures.
For almost 80 years, a generally amicable relationship between utilities and their regulators helped keep prices low and enabled utilities’ capacity to expand. Then, in the 1970s, this abruptly changed when aging technology met with rising inflation and the 1973 oil crisis. In 1978, President Jimmy Carter signed the Public Utility Regulatory Policies Act (PURPA), which attempted to protect the environment, diversify energy resources, and help the United States achieve more energy independence. Two seemingly unimportant and bipartisan aspects of the massive bill — Sections 201 and 210 — offered small renewable energy companies the opportunity to sell wind and solar power to the local grid and forced utilities to buy this power. Utilities, it seems, were distracted by their goals for reorganization or simply could not see how introducing relatively small slivers of wind and solar might give renewables a foothold in their territories.
For the past 30 years, renewable energy development has been shrouded in a policy fog thicker than a bowl of oatmeal. That fog has cut both ways. In the cases Stokes analyzes, clean energy advocates made initial progress, albeit with mostly token, short-term gains. Indeed, after making inroads, “rather than continuing the groove set out by clean-energy policy, interest groups redirect[ed] the stream, not just wrenching the course of renewables in a new direction but sometimes reversing the flow of the river.” The redirection has taken distinct forms in each state, as Stokes is able to show with her four case studies, but what all these forms share is their connection to the usual interest groups: lobbyists linked to fossil fuel companies, super PACs secretly funded by Republican donors, and attack campaigns funded directly by private utilities or utility organizations.
In addition to infamous climate deniers like ExxonMobil and the Koch brothers, business associations like the Edison Electric Institute and special interest groups like the Beacon Hill Institute, the Heartland Institute, and American Legislative Exchange Council have helped wage a coordinated war on environmental science. Some of their tactics involved sponsoring research to undermine climate change models, conducting public opinion surveys with biased questions, and hiring well-connected lobbyists. Utility executives and government officials repeated certain talking points — for example, in 2017, Thomas Fanning, then chair of the Edison Electric Institute and CEO of Georgia-based utility Southern Company, claimed that rising temperatures were not caused by carbon emissions from humans but were part of a broader natural cycle. The denial, attacks, and skepticism have now slightly shifted: Andrew Wheeler, former energy lobbyist and current EPA chief, does not deny human-caused climate change; rather, he simply believes the scientific reports are exaggerated, and therefore curbing carbon emissions is not a pressing environmental concern. Environmental rollbacks continue apace under the Trump administration and are arguably accelerating with the coronavirus pandemic. In March and April, the EPA lowered fuel economy and emissions standards for automakers, loosened enforcement rules for businesses, redefined which streams and wetlands are protected under the Clean Water Act, and concluded that it is not “appropriate and necessary” to regulate utilities according to the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards set forth by the Clean Air Act.
As Stokes makes clear, the spread of climate denial and broader pushback against regulatory oversight has helped utilities undercut one of the most effective policy levers for clean energy — renewable portfolio standards, or RPS. RPS outlines the percentages of different energy sources used to generate electricity and sets requirements or goals for the future. Currently, 28 states and Washington, DC, have legal RPS mandates, while eight more states have nonbinding renewable energy targets. The details — percentages, measurements, participating customers, and definitions of “clean” energy — vary from state to state.
The four state-level case studies account for Stokes’s most gripping narratives on this subject. And for her most frustrating, as it turns out — not because she doesn’t do a good job, but precisely because she does. In the case of Texas, in 1999, lawmakers agreed to have 10,000 MW of renewable energy installed by 2025. Across plains of central and west Texas, tall sleek turbines soared over cattle ranches, seeming to fight for space with oil derricks. Wind energy flourished, but solar was stymied, making abundantly clear the links between fossil-gas peaker plants and resistance to solar expansion. Peaker plants sit idle most of the year, making most of their profits on warm, sunny days when customers blast their air conditioners, spiking demand. Massive solar installations, especially on sunny summer days, would undoubtedly compete favorably on such days, but that would make peaker plants redundant, thus forcing them to close ahead of schedule, which in turn would leave significant stranded costs. This is why, despite having more potential solar energy than any other state, Texas has only 4,324 MW of installed solar capacity, while California continues to lead the nation with 27,406 MW.
Clean energy laws in Kansas, another state with massive wind resources, were similarly disrupted by fossil fuel interests. In 2008, lawmakers sought an RPS of 10 percent by 2010, and 20 percent by 2020. Then, with large financial support from the Koch Industries, various special interest groups worked to get anti–clean energy bills onto the legislative agenda. Their “death” to clean energy “by a thousand cuts” is an example, Stokes quotes Republican Representative Doon Hineman as saying, “of the kind of dark money campaigning that goes on in Kansas politics these days.”
Dark money similarly derailed clean energy in Arizona. Rooftop solar grew after lawmakers passed a net-metering policy in 2008. Utilities realized that solar threatened their business model, and so the state’s largest private utility, Arizona Public Service Company (APS), spent $11 million in the 2014 election for public utility commissioners. The APS donations prompted an investigation by the FBI, but “by 2017, Arizona had retrenched its solar energy policies: it had eliminated net metering, cut incentives, and raised fixed fees on customers.”
But the most extreme example of retrenchment occurred in Ohio. Like so many states, it has seen a sudden increase in electricity generated by fossil gas — two percent in 2008 and 34 percent in 2018. In 2018, renewables amounted to two percent of Ohio’s energy mix, the third-worst in the nation. Even this meager support evaporated in 2019, when Ohio lawmakers passed a bill that, “in truly Orwellian doublespeak,” was called the “Clean Air Program.” The new bill “bailed out” dirty coal plants and “gutted the RPS and energy efficiency laws.”
Even if one ignores the environmental catastrophe triggered in significant part by coal, the fact is that wind energy is now competitive or even cheaper than coal, especially in places like Ohio, which rely on old, inefficient coal-fired power plants. And another selling point: Advancements in electric power storage are now resolving the intermittency problems of wind and solar. RPS goals of 50, 80, or even 100-percent net-zero electric power seem within reach. In short: We have the public support, technological expertise, and economic incentives to make the swift transition to clean energy. We lack the policy expertise and political willpower.
As a public-facing scholar, Stokes is leading the charge for change. Last year she released analyses of Democratic presidential candidates’ energy policies, published widely circulated op-eds in the Washington Post and the Guardian, discussed energy reform and the Green New Deal in numerous podcasts, and organized an online “climate book club.” She has over 27,500 Twitter followers, and her Zoom book launch was moderated by New York Times climate reporter Brad Plumer and activist Bill McKibben. The release of Short Circuiting Policy cements her position in the pantheon of journalists, scientists, academics, and activists thoughtfully addressing the challenges ahead — not just the challenge of ending the era of fossil fuels and transitioning to renewables, but of building a more robust grid to electrify transportation, manufacturing, and our homes. If electricity was the key to modern material prosperity, we’ll need to radically recut it to achieve an equitable, resilient, and low-carbon economy.
Daniel Wuebben is the author of Power-Lined: Electricity, Landscape, and the American Mind (2019) and a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Fellow with the Ciberimaginario Group at the Universidad Rey Juan Carlos.