Book Club

The Chair read for you Short circuiting policy by Leah Cardamore Stokes

Published on 28 October 2020

Stokes begins her book “Short circuiting policy: Interest groups and the battle over clean energy and climate policy in the American states”* by telling a story which seems somewhat unlikely to a modern-day reader: in the late 1990s, Texas was the US’ leader in wind energy. At the time, the state also seemed to be on the verge of developing a large solar energy industry. While we all know the end of the story – i.e. the renewable revolution never came to Texas, which remains a bastion of the fossil fuel industry – Stokes breaks down the history of how this came to be.

Her core thesis is that local energy policy in the US is largely shaped by the ongoing battle between clean energy advocates and incumbent utility and fossil-fuel opponents. To support this, she presents four in-depth case studies: Texas, Arizona, Kansas, and Ohio. These states were chosen because at various points in time, they each had the potential of developing significant renewable energy capacity thanks to ambitious policies, but this never came to be. Through various strategies, opponents either weakened or fully repealed these policies and blocked renewable energy from significantly developing in their state.

The evidence presented by the author is 6-years’ worth of interviews with stakeholders and an in-depth review of policy documents. While this sometimes makes for relatively dense reading, it also paints quite a convincing picture of the power that incumbent utilities and industries still hold in the state-level policymaking process.

In Texas, initial progress on clean-energy policy in the 1990s was possible only because the fossil fuel industry did not believe that renewable energy production would ever expand enough to impact its bottom line. When opponents realized this could in fact be the case, their tight links with legislators allowed them to weaken clean energy policies during implementation, and later fully retrench the little progress that was initially made.

In Kansas, advocates were able to maintain bipartisan support for clean energy throughout the first half of the 2010s, but opponents polarized the issue, which eventually led Republicans to systematically oppose clean energy policies.

In the case of Arizona, utilities had enough resources to capture regulators and blocked the implementation and expansion of clean energy policy.

In Ohio, fossil-fuel producers and utilities had learnt from their battles in other states and fought hard and fast when clean energy policies began being discussed. The state never developed its renewable energy industry.

Overall, Stokes presents a convincing story – although the way the lesson is told is heavy-handed at times. Additionally, while the political history she gives of each state is extremely detailed and well-researched, some of the policy recommendations she concludes with break with this tone and appear slightly simplistic in comparison. “The key to success, she writes as one of her final thoughts, may lie in growing clean energy advocates, their networks, and their coalitions, to ensure there is sufficient support to counter opposition along the difficult road to decarbonizing our economy”. This rallying cry, while somewhat obvious, is truthful and applies as much to the US as it does to the rest of the world.

Aliénor Cameron, Internship Resear Fellow « CO2 Price and low-carbon innovation program »

*Cardamore Stokes, L. “Short circuiting policy: Interest groups and the battle over clean energy and climate policy in the American states”, Oxford University Edition, 336p.