Leah Stokes
Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science, University of California, Santa Barbara

Politics is critical to understanding the development of climate policy in the United States, particularly the interest groups influencing the process and the feedback that new laws and regulations experience once they have been enacted.

That’s what political scientist Leah Stokes tells us in her new book, “Short Circuiting Policy,” whose subtitle is “Interest Groups and the Battle Over Clean Energy and Climate Policy in the American States.”

In this edition of Columbia Energy Exchange, host Bill Loveless talks with Leah about her book and its look at climate policies in different states. The discussion is particularly timely now in the aftermath of a scandal in Ohio, one of the states she writes about in the book.

Bill and Leah delve into the situation in Ohio, where an FBI investigation involving a state law providing aid to struggling nuclear and coal power plants led to the arrest of a prominent state legislator and others in an alleged bribery scheme.

They also discuss the ebb and flow of climate policies in states as utilities and other interest groups vie over proposals to implement policies that would reduce greenhouse gas emissions from power plants.

Leah is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and affiliated with the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management and the Environmental Studies Department at UC, Santa Barbara.

She completed her PhD in public policy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning and a master’s degree from MIT’s Political Science Department. Before that, she earned an MPA in environmental science and policy at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs and the Earth Institute, as well as a Bachelor of Science degree in psychology and East Asian studies at the University of Toronto.

She’s also worked at the Canadian Parliament and the think tank Resources for the Future.



Bill Loveless:  Hello and welcome to Columbia Energy Exchange, a weekly podcast from the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University.  I’m Bill Loveless.  Our guest today is Leah Stokes, a Political Scientist at the University of California, Santa Barbara whose new book “Short Circuiting Policy” takes a critical look at the role that utilities and other interest groups play when states consider clean energy laws.  Our discussion is especially timely now in the aftermath of a scandal in Ohio, one of the states she writes about in her book.  In short, Leah tells us that to understand climate policy, you must put politics at the center of your theories and an important part of that is the feedback that new laws get once they’ve been enacted.  

Leah is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science and affiliated with the Bren School of Environmental Science and Management and the Environmental Studies Department at UC Santa Barbara.  She focuses on representation and public opinion, voting behavior and public policy, particularly at the state level.  She completed her PhD in Public Policy at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning and a masters degree from MIT's Political Science Department.  Before that, we’re proud to say, she earned an MPA in Environmental Science & Policy at Columbia University’s School of International & Public Affairs and the Earth Institute.  She also holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Psychology and East Asian Studies at the University of Toronto.  Prior to academia, Leah worked at Canada’s Parliament and the think tank Resources for the Future.

Here’s our conversation, I hope you enjoy it.  

Leah Stokes, welcome to Columbia Energy Exchange.  

Leah Stokes: Oh! Thank you so much for having me on.  

Bill Loveless: It’s a delight and you’ve been busy lately and we’re going to be talking about some of these things you’ve been watching so closely and of course you have your new book out, “Short Circuiting Policy”, but first tell us a little bit about yourself and how your career has taken shape?

Leah Stokes: Yeah, sure.  So, I've been working on climate change for about 15 years now.  The time has flown even while the emissions have continued to rise and I started out working on behavior change campaigns, trying to get people to save energy in their apartments and in offices, things like that and then I went to Columbia University and did a Masters of Public Administration and got really interested in public policy because when I was working on those individual behavior change programs what I took away from it was that it wasn’t a big enough lever that we couldn’t save enough energy or reduce enough emissions by working at the individual level.  We really had to get policy right.  And so that’s why I decided to focus on policy and politics.  And I worked in policy for a year at the Parliament of Canada before and also at Resources for the Future in DC before going back to the United States and doing my PhD at MIT and yes since then I've been a professor at UC Santa Barbara and just working away on energy and climate policy and it’s been quite an exciting five years as a professor so far.

Bill Loveless: You mentioned your studies in behavior and all, and that I've often thought in the years when I was reporting on energy and all that’s one thing that hasn’t received that much attention, behavioral trends, how people respond to policy, to technology, to new opportunities, to new things that are happening in the market place.  

Leah Stokes: Yeah, well, they definitely are some companies in organizations like Opower was very focused on this and of course Cass Sunstein when he was in the Obama Administration was focused on these kinds of ideas.  So, there are some people who want to use findings from psychology and behavioral science and apply them to climate policy narrowly or public policy more broadly, but it doesn’t necessarily get a lot of attention in terms of how people think about climate.  

Bill Loveless: You know, I noticed in reading up a little bit about you that your mentor was Lawrence Susskind who of course is a well-known teacher and expert in public disputed the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, how has he influenced you?

Leah Stokes: Yeah so, I worked with Larry for five years and he’s an absolutely amazing giant in the field.  He’s been at MIT for – I don’t know, I don’t want to round up but I think well over half a century and he has graduated something like 80 PhD students.  One day because I'm a nerd, I had gone and counted up how many doctoral students he’d had and I’d come to him and I said wow, Larry, you’ve had this many and he said well that’s not true, I've had even more so, he – it’s a point of pride for him, how many people he has mentored over the years and his students really are in all corners of the academy but also working in public policy and he’s a negotiation expert and I did a fair amount of negotiation work for my PhD and I teach that too as a professor, but I ended up also being influenced by Judy Layzer, who was another prof at MIT who has since passed away and she wrote a really important book called “Open for Business” which looked at the ways that that corporations have undermined the environmental movement over a 40 year time period.  

And my book really built off of her research looking at how companies have undermined environmental laws.

Bill Loveless: Well, let’s talk about the book in “Short Circuiting Policy”, you write that to understand climate policy it’s important to put politics at the center of our theories and also interest groups and an important part of that consideration you say is feedback, tell us what you mean by this?

Leah Stokes: Yeah.  So I think sometimes when people tell the climate story, I think of this work that Nathaniel Rich did in the New York Times Magazine a long form article called “Losing Earth”.  He kind of concludes that we haven’t done much on climate change because humans are short-term thinkers and we just can’t seem to figure this thing out.  And he misses the corporate campaign against climate action which has been playing out for 40 years.  It’s hard to say exactly how much money corporations have spent on climate denial or even climate delay, but it’s probably in the 10 billion plus range.  We’re talking about enormous amounts of money, the person who’s done the most tracking of this is Robert Brulle.

So, I think that if you want to understand well, why aren’t we tackling the climate crisis?  You have to look at the corporations that have a vested interest in delaying progress, because especially for electric utilities and fossil fuel companies, every single year that we don’t do very much about climate change, they make money, they get to continue to pay off the debt in their coal plants.  They get to continue to extract fossil fuels from reserves that they have on their balance sheets.  It literally pays them back money to delay progress and roll back laws.  

So, that’s really how I come at this problem and I think it helps us understand delay to a much greater extent.  When it comes to the idea of policy feedback, this is a core concept in political science which I think has a lot of value.  The basic idea is that we often think about how politics are going to reshape policy.  So, for example right now we’re all thinking about the November election and who is going to win the White House and also who is going to win the Senate.  And we’re thinking about how we reshape the political landscape, we will get new and different policy.  But you can also reverse the causal arrow and you can think about how policy itself can reshape politics.  So, for example if we were to pass a clean electricity standard that required utilities to build more clean energy, that would reshape the electric utility industry and would provide more funding for clean energy companies to bring down the cost of wind and solar.

So, when actors had been working to pass these early clean energy laws like renewable portfolio standards and net metering laws, they were thinking about policy feedback.  They were thinking if we can get these laws on the books that begin to catalyze the clean energy industry, then we can reshape the power of electric utilities and we can clean up our energy system.  So that was the idea, unfortunately it didn’t work out quite as well as we would have hoped, because the electric utilities have fought back pretty hard.  

Bill Loveless: But you looked at a number of states and tell us about the laws that were passed beginning some 20 years ago with renewable portfolio standards and efforts to promote renewable energy and quite a bit of success was made by the advocates of clean energy and you say that once policy is set, it’s difficult to reverse.  So, what happened? 

Leah Stokes: Yeah, so that’s the idea of policy feedback, if you can get that law in place and it gives new benefits to new groups, it’s going to be hard to repeal that law, that was the logic behind a thing like a renewable portfolio standard.  And in the book, I tell the history of these policy ideas.  Let’s take California of course the state with the most clean energy that is really ahead of the curve on lots of issues, whether it’s cleaning up the transportation sectors through electric vehicles or cleaning up electricity, California is out ahead globally really.  California 40 years ago passed their first target for clean energy, they said I believe in 1978 if memory serves, we want 1% of our electricity to come from wind energy and I think it was within a decade.  

That was the first target that they passed and 40 years later in 2018 they increased that target to a 100% clean electricity by 2045.  And during that time period between the 80s and today, states all across the country had been doing the same thing, even places like Texas which in 1999 passed its first clean energy law when George W. Bush was then the Governor.  And we just – we’ve seen a lot of progress towards cleaning up the electricity system, but unfortunately most states have not followed the pattern of California which is setting the first small target and then ratcheting up overtime as the clean energy industry grows in the state, gets more political power until we are targeting 100%.

There are handful states across the country who are at 100% targets now, places like New York, Colorado, New Mexico, Hawaii, a few of them, I'm probably forgetting a couple others.  But a lot of other states have either not continued to increase their targets, rolled back or weakened targets that already exist, that’s places like Ohio or West Virginia, or for most of the Southeast United States never passed a clean energy target in the first place.  So, it’s just not happening in a broad enough way across the country to get us on track to tackle the climate crisis, because the electricity system in the United States is the first linchpin globally.  If we can clean up the electricity system in the United States, let’s say by 2035 then other countries will be able to do it.  And of course, we’ll be able to use that clean electricity to clean up our transportation sector through electric vehicles and our homes through electrifying and retrofitting our homes.

So, this is a really important thing and unfortunately, we haven’t seen that virtuous cycle that we saw in California play out in every single state across the country.  

Bill Loveless: And even in some of those states that where progress was made initially, you mentioned Texas with that 1999 law which really was a catalyst for the emergence of the wind energy in the Lone Star State.  Things slid when it came to clean energy subsequently, so why didn’t things happen in Texas in the same way that they happened in California.  

Leah Stokes: Yeah.  So, that’s a key question I take up in my book.  I have two chapters on Texas.  Texas is an extremely well known case within clean energy, because as you mentioned that 1999 law which was before California’s first real comprehensive law I believe in 2002, that 1999 law was pretty landmark, it targeted cleaning up the air, building a lot more clean electricity which ended up being a burgeoning wind industry in Texas and as many people point out today Texas is now the leader in the United States for wind, but what a lot of people don’t know is the rest of the story.  

On the one hand, Texas did have this classic policy feedback cycle where we got the first law that gave new resources to wind energy companies, those wind energy companies built businesses and they brought in revenue to rural areas where Republicans had seats in the legislature, those Republicans then said hey let’s keep trying to grow this wind energy industry and they passed a very large transmission investment bill in 2005.  So that would be the policy feedback cycle that we’re talking about.  And those investments by the – at the state of Texas were not small, we’re talking $7 billion, it was a huge commitment to clean energy, but what many people don’t understand is that that 2005 law also included requirements to start building solar in Texas.  And Texas has the most solar capacity potential of any state in the country, basically it’s a really big place and it’s a really sunny place.  

So you could build a lot of solar in Texas.  But instead of implementing that law, what happened was fossil fuel companies which have an enormous amount of influence in the capital, I mean, we’re just talking like as I document in my book a lobbyist for the fossil fuel industry literally would work out of the office of the most important Senator on energy in the Texas legislature.  He would just kind of set up shop, make sure he was there for all the negotiations, that same lobbying organization that represented the fossil fuel industry had other lobbyists whose family members worked in the office of this legislator.  I mean, let’s just talk about access, there was a lot of access there and by contrast the solar companies they didn’t know what was going to happen, they weren’t invited to the meeting in that Senator’s office when they were finalizing the language.  

And so what happened was that lobbyist wrote bill language that weakened the solar requirement and only made it clear that he had done that during implementation.  And so we never had a solar energy requirement properly implemented in Texas and as a result that state is below the national average when it comes to clean electricity.  A lot of people don’t know that, but it’s way below the national average.  It’s also one of the least energy efficient if not the least energy efficient states in the country, so it’s a lot of wasteful energy – there’s lot of energy being wasted in the Texas electricity system and the state is just not where it could be and it’s really free riding off the efforts of other states like California that have been leading the way on solar and making that technology cheaper, not just for the rest of the country, but for the rest of the world.  

So I think that we have to look more carefully at what's been happening to clean energy and make sure we pay attention to fossil fuel companies and electric utilities, because they maintain enormous influence in legislatures and public utility commissions across this country.  

Bill Loveless: Okay.  So, you had Texas off to a good start but then things slipped when it came to clean energy and we’ve seen the results of that so that so far.  You mentioned Ohio, let’s talk about Ohio, it’s very much in the news right now over an FBI investigation involving a state law providing aid to struggling nuclear and coal power plants that led – this investigation led to the arrest of the State Speaker of the House and others and in an alleged bribery scheme.  What's happening there? 

Leah Stokes: Yeah, I was following this very closely last summer when that bill passed in Ohio because Ohio was part of my book and for many years there were several legislators who were affiliated with the American Legislative Exchange Council which is a rightwing organization of corporations and state legislators that comes up with model bills and one of the model bills they had come up with was called the Electricity Freedom Act.  These groups always come up with creative names for things that pretty much do the opposite of what they suggest and that law that model bill was to repeal renewable portfolio standards across the country and it got introduced in Ohio and one politician named Bill Seitz became a really big champion of getting the renewable energy law in Ohio and as well as the energy efficiency law.  And this is really unfortunate because the energy efficiency law had saved Ohioans $5 billion over ten years.  It was an extremely successful program.  

And in 2014, when John Kasich was the Governor they managed to pass a bill through the legislature that froze the standards.  Kasich said look I'm not going to sign a bill that fully repeals it, but you can freeze it for two years.  But the other thing they did which didn’t get as much press but turned out to be even more consequential was that they put a budget line item basically that’s called a rider into a budget bill that said that wind turbines had to be built much farther away from property lines than the law was currently saying, this is called a setback rule and the reality is that Governor Kasich could have line-item vetoed that change, but he didn’t.  And the consequence was that the wind energy industry shutdown in Ohio pretty much overnight.  It is almost impossible to build a wind project in Ohio now.  

When that setback rule changed, only two of the existing wind projects in the entire state could have even been built under that under that new policy.  So, that law in 2014 made it impossible to build wind energy and of course solar is more expensive, but there were still some requirement to build solar, once the freeze for the clean energy target came back.  So then starting in around 2018, FirstEnergy as well as FirstEnergy Solutions which was – which is the subsidiary company that they spun off when the utility was going through bankruptcy as well as AEP, they started to seek a coal bailout.  And after Trump was elected, they initially started in 2017 going to DC to try to get a bailout from the Trump Administration, we’re talking about meetings between Department of Energy Secretary Rick Perry and the CEO of I believe FirstEnergy.

And the corporate jet was just flying back and forth between Ohio and DC.  Indeed, Larry Householder the gentleman, former Speaker of the House who was arrested by the FBI, he went to Trump’s inauguration with his son on a FirstEnergy corporate jet.  So, there was definitely ties to the Trump administration here.  And what these utilities started to do is that they realized that they needed to get a bailout to keep some coal plants open as well as some nuclear plants.  And that they – what they should really do is gut these clean energy laws because those were meaning that we’re going to create new cheaper clean energy that will make it even harder for them to afford to keep their coal plants open with all their debt on them, or their nuclear plants running.

So let’s get rid of that, let’s get rid of the energy efficiency policies because that means we’re going to use less energy which again is going to put pressure on our terrible old coal plants.  And instead let’s spend a lot of money to get Larry Householder elected Speaker of the House.  And what you might not know is that Larry Householder had previously served in this role and had left it during a corruption scandal.  So, he was not very popular, he wasn’t a popular choice for the role, but what FirstEnergy and FirstEnergy Solutions did is that they funneled money to I believe 21 other politicians running for office to make sure that all of those people would vote for Larry Householder to become the Speaker.  

And then once Larry Householder became Speaker there was a shell corporation setup called Generation Now which funneled that 60 plus million dollars into a bunch of dark money groups to run campaigns to get this coal bailout passed and part of that money went directly to line Larry Householder’s pockets.  We’re talking about $300,000 to him for his outstanding legal problems, a $100,000 for his vacation home in Florida which he was neglecting to pay taxes on and about a 100k for his reelection campaign.  So, he was benefiting very directly from this bribery scheme.  And the other thing that the that this Generation Now dark money group from utilities like FirstEnergy, AEP as well as Marie Energy they all funded this.  The other thing they did is they literally harassed people who were collecting signatures to try to get this coal bailout put on the ballet so that Ohioans could decide whether or not they wanted to be having ratepayers subsidized dirty coal plants.  And rather than let the democratic process play out, what this company did is they would go up to people collecting signatures, they would bribe them.  They would say how many signatures do you have?  If you sell me your signatures, I’ll give you good money or in some cases they literally physically assaulted people colleting petitions of signatures.  And so unsurprisingly that petition campaign didn’t go well and we only discover – I mean, we knew all this to some extent.  It is actually documented in my book, but we only understood the full extent of it when the FBI a few weeks ago arrested Larry Householder at his farm early in the morning.  And honestly it is really great that the FBI did that, because I literally have the number 60 million in my book.  We all knew this; it was hiding in plain sight.  But if we don’t hold corporations accountable for their bribery and corruption, it’s hard to say that we have a functioning democracy.  

So it’s been really heartening to see these electric utilities be held accountable.  

Bill Loveless: Well, of course and what you laid out is what was in the allegations, this is what’s alleged in the FBI’s investigation.  I should note for the record that the CEO of FirstEnergy Charles has said, I'm forgetting his last name.  Well –

Leah Stokes: Jones I think, isn’t it?

Bill Loveless: Yeah, thank you very much.  The CEO of FirstEnergy has said that at no time does our support for nuclear plants in Ohio interfere or supersede our ethical obligations to conduct our business properly.  You said that the facts will become clear as the investigation progresses and we support bringing the facts forward.  What we’re seeing now is of course is – there’s a movement even supported by the Governor of – Governor DeWine, Republican Governor of Ohio, to repeal that legislation that provided the support to the nuclear power and the coal power plants.

Leah Stokes: Yeah, well, you know, an enormous amount of politicians all across Ohio take money from FirstEnergy and AEP and I think we have to start asking tough questions of whether or not monopoly electric energy utility should be legally allowed to participate in politics in this way, because we’ve seen this kind of corruption play out in other states too like Arizona with Arizona Public Service, Dominion, Duke, Southern, like these companies use unlimited funds from ratepayers which I mean they’re literally providing a basic service.  We can’t be having this conversation without electricity, your listeners can’t be listening to it without electricity, of course.  We use electricity to cook our food and, for medical reasons, it’s an essential service and I don’t think that it’s fair when you don’t get to choose who is your electricity provider, you get no choice, that they can use money from your bills to engage in corruption, to engage in delay for climate action.  We’ve seen companies like SoCalGas in Southern California using ratepayer funds to run a campaign that’s against electrifying buildings and says we should keep using fossil gas in homes, when we’ve seen just yesterday in Baltimore buildings explode because of fossil gas in people’s homes.

So, I just think there are some real questions here about why monopoly utilities get to participate in politics in this way, when they have captured customers who have no choice and are selling an essential service.  And where the CEOs comments are concerned with FirstEnergy, as well as FirstEnergy Solutions now, Energy Harbor, I don’t buy it, because the bailout for the nuclear plants was designed explicitly with no transparency or oversight.  If you look at HB6, that law doesn’t require these companies to open up their books and before it even became law, the CEO of what was then FirstEnergy Solutions said, if we can get that money, then we’ll be able to keep the Sammis Coal Plant open, if we can get the nuclear energy money, and a few days after HB6 passed, a spokesperson for the company said, now that we have those bailout funds, our company is doing well enough, that we can put $40 to $50 million into Sammis Coal Plant, which was a coal plant, that was already scheduled to be retired.

So, my concern is not with keeping nuclear plants open, I think that there very legitimate reasons to do that, but I think it has to be done with transparency so that we know how those funds are being used, because it’s fairly clear that some proportion of those funds likely $40 to $50 million because that is what FirstEnergy Solutions spokesperson has said, it’s being used to keep open a very dirty, very old coal plant.  So, that’s where my concern is with this company.  It’s not being straight forward or honest about, the way it’s been using funds, about the way it participated in generation now and it will be interesting to see how this unfold over the coming months.

Bill Loveless:  Well, and there has been some movement on Ohio, to not only repeal that law, but also to attempt some reforms.  I was reading in the note from the Brennan Center for Justice, that said that the legislation has been introduced to fight dark money in future Ohio elections, one bill would make certain nonprofits disclose political spending, another would require disclosures from entities that make contributions to candidates in Ohio.  So, as this note says, either would be an improvement on the situation that we’re seeing there right now.  You write in the book, quote if anything fossil fuel companies and electric utilities tactics have become more extreme as the climate movement has gained momentum, that South Dakota, Louisiana, Oklahoma, Texas and other states have outlawed protest against energy infrastructure, like pipelines.  And that maybe true, but we’ve also seen lately how, this opposition to pipelines, gas pipelines in particular has built in different places around the United States and in some instances actually stopped them from being built.

Leah Stokes:  Yeah, so, unfortunately in the last year or so, a bunch of more right wing leaning states have been passing these laws that basically try to make it illegal to protest pipelines.  Amy Westervelt who runs Drilled News, has been doing amazing work during the pandemic documenting a lot of these policies that are being pushed while people are busy, trying to stay healthy and stay at home and maybe they don’t have as much time to pay attention to what the fossil fuel industry is up to, so, I would recommend people check out her tracker, the tracks where these things are happening, but you’re right, the reason why this is happening is because the climate movement is gaining momentum and it’s winning.  

A pipeline was recently canceled that Dominion was working on, and that was really big news, I believe the Atlantic coast pipeline is what it was called.  Of course, there’s been lots of movement around DAPL, Keystone XL is held up and gosh knows what, and so, yeah, these pipelines are getting really difficult to build and that just shows that the climate movement is gaining momentum and given that I’ve been working on this for 15 years, I’ve seen how much bigger the movement is now, and I think when a lot of people, like Bill McKibben at 350 started those pipeline protest, I didn’t really understand it.  I was like well that’s not going to stop climate change and what’s the point of this, but it was actually a really brilliant move from a campaign perspective, because it gave people something tangible to focus on and it helped them get in the fight and have a way to understand climate policy as being about fossil fuel companies and corporate power.

So, I think that these campaigns have been not just successful at blocking a given piece of infrastructure, but also at telling a narrative, which is that these corporations are not acting in line with what is necessary to keep warming to 1.5 or 2°C, they’re not protecting climate stability and that we have got to regulate them so that they get in line and they start thinking about the planet that we need to be our home.

Bill Loveless:  That, all of what you just said, sort of illustrates something else you wrote in the book which said, clean energy advocates must learn from their opponents playbook, I mean is that what we’re seeing here?

Leah Stokes:  Yes, I think so, I think that the movement is getting more and more savvy and, I document all the nefarious ways that electric utilities have been using, what are called “astroturfing” campaigns which is like fake grassroots, the most extreme one is Entergy in New Orleans literally paying actors to show up to a hearing for a proposed gas plant, and pretend that they liked natural gas and didn’t like solar, but these kinds of fake grassroots campaigns play out all across the country and I think that shows that the real grassroots power of the climate movement has influence on the way politicians are thinking, on the way the public is thinking, and we’ve seen the power of the climate movement grow so much since the fall of 2018, when the IPCC 1.5°C report came out.

So, I think that campaigners are getting really savvy and that they’re thinking about the courts as a really key venue, they’re thinking about implementation, not just policy making, they’re looking at how to build a big public campaign and communicate public preferences to politicians.  We’ve seen this so much during the Democratic primary.  Groups like The Yale Program on Climate Change Communication or Data for Progress, have been publishing these polls that show just how many Americans care about climate change and they’ve been getting them into the media, they’ve been getting them on to debates, for the presidential primary, they’ve been getting them in front of politicians so, I think it’s dawning on particularly the Democratic Party, but maybe someday soon the Republican Party, that you can’t continue stick your head in the sand.  The climate crisis is here now and people would like you to do something about it.  

Bill Loveless:  You’re critical of the role of electric utilities in the public policy arena, but utilities across the United States have cut carbon emissions in recent years and many have them have set goals of net zero emissions by 2050.  In your estimation, are they doing anything right?   

Leah Stokes:  Well, a lot of those utilities’ goals are not worth the paper they’re written on, they’re not legally binding.  Let’s take for example Southern Company, southern company is the parent corporation to several utilities like Georgia Power and Alabama Power, and their subsidiary companies who are the ones that actually make decisions about what they’re going to build and how much they’re going to charge customers, they have said in rate cases that they do not need to follow that policy, that they don’t need to do net zero by 2050, they’re not following their own parent corporation’s statements.  So, I think that just shows that we have to have laws, we can’t just rely on these corporations to police themselves, because they won’t, unfortunately, I wish it were otherwise, but this appears to be the case.  

So, then the second thing is 2050 is not fast enough.  We’re talking right now with the Biden campaign, saying that they would like to get 100% clean electricity by 2035, so, that’s not fast enough and any company, any electric utility that continues to file an IRP, which is the plan for what they plan to do, that has new gas in it, to me is not looking at the science, because we have research from several years ago now, showing that you cannot build any new fossil fuel infrastructure and keep warming to 1.5°C.  And we have a lot of natural gas infrastructure that we built in this country over the last decade, way more than enough, if let’s say we need 10% of our grid to be running with natural gas in the 2030s.  So, I just don’t think that these utilities see the writing on the wall yet, there are few exceptions and I gave them some share outs in my book, Excel, NIPSCO, a couple, but they are rare birds at this point, they are not the industry at large.  

Bill Loveless:  I enjoyed the twitter item you had recently on the Narwhal Curve using an illustration of the -- the Arctic whale and how he sticks his tusk out of the cold waters and essentially you were using that as an illustration of -- that sort of trajectory we need on clean energy implementation in the next 10 years or so, if we are going to meet the goals or say the Paris Agreement, but, I mean, are you confident that there is the wherewith all in terms of technology, investment, business commitment, public commitment to meet those sorts of goals?  

Leah Stokes:  Yeah, I mean -- 

Bill Loveless:  So, soon?

Leah Stokes:  I guess, I believe in American innovation, I guess, I believe in what happened in World War II in the moonshot, in all the amazing inventions that the United States has pioneered over the last century, I mean, the United States is the global innovation engine, right?  I mean, this is just a fact.  And so, if we said, this is what we want to do, I have no doubt that the United States could figure it out and we could invent batteries, we could build transmission lines, we have wind and solar, we could build offshore wind, these are all things that can be done in the United States and what the modeling shows, for example the report from UC Berkeley and GridLab, the 2035 report, is that we can get to 90% clean electricity by 2035, by moving two times faster than our best year from the 2020s and three times faster for the 2030s, so these aren’t crazy multipliers of what we have been doing in the past.  

And we don’t need new technology to get there, there is no magical wand that doesn’t exist to get to 90% clean energy, so I guess, I just believe that in 15 years the United States, if it invests in it, put it’s human capital and ingenuity behind it, it can figure out that last 10%.  And, yeah, so, I’m a hopeful person and if we can unlock the power of the clean electricity system, we can then clean up transportation, we can clean up buildings and the United States could be a leader globally at manufacturing electric vehicles, at manufacturing heat pumps or other induction stoves for people’s homes and we could sell that technology to countries all over the world.  And really start to turn the tide on carbon emissions not just in the United States but globally, so, yeah, I believe in it, it’s a moonshot effort but we did put people on the moon when we tried, so, I don’t know why we can't clean up the electricity system.  

Bill Loveless:  You mentioned the Democrats before as well as the Republicans.  Joe Biden has unveiled a clean energy policy as have Democrats in the Unites States House of Representatives, what do you make of those plans?

Leah Stokes:  It is super exciting.  Joe Biden has adopted that 100% clean electricity system by 2035 target, I was overjoyed when I saw that.  And what does this policy mean for people?  The modeling shows people like the GridLab report, Christopher Clack’s work, lots of independent group show that relying on more and more clean energy will bring down the cost of electricity, so it will actually be cheaper.  The organization Energy Innovation has done all this amazing modeling showing that, especially across the Southeast, there are coal plants operating today that we could replace with a wind plant tomorrow and it would be cheaper for ratepayers.  

So, first of all, any idea that this is expensive and we can't afford it is false, we can afford the current energy system which is, A, very expensive and B, kills people through air pollution.  We know that black people living in the United States, black children have asthma rates two times the rate of white children and that’s in large part because of fossil fuels in their backyards, things like coal plants and so we’ve got to shutdown those coal plants.  And we can do that, if we were to follow the ideas that Democrats in Congress are talking about, that Joe Biden’s campaign has adopted.  So, yeah, I think that we’re really starting to get everybody singing the same tune here and the next step is going to be getting this through Congress.  

Bill Loveless:  Is it going to be a much of an issue in this presidential election just given all we’re going through right now with the pandemic and concerns over racial injustice and these sorts of things?  

Leah Stokes:  Well, Donald Trump is not on the right side on climate change and it’s not just me who thinks that, the American people know that.  I remember a year or so ago I was taking a cab in the DC area and I had a driver who didn’t know anything about climate change but I started to talk to him and he said, Oh! Well, didn’t Trump pull out of that agreement, that Paris thing, he knew about that, everyday Americans know about the rollbacks that Trump has been putting into place that prop up fossil fuel companies and damage public health across this country.  They understand that Trump is taking us on the wrong direction on climate change and you can see it in the polls this isn’t just my opinion or my anecdote from one cab driver, it’s in the polls.  This is a wedge issue between the Democrats and the Republicans and Donald Trump even kind of began to talk that way not so long ago, few months ago, he started to pretend like he had some great environmental record and tried to kind of spin that in press conferences.

So the Republicans know that it’s a problem that they have such an abysmal record on climate change and just in the last couple months since the CARES act was passed, the Trump Administration has been funneling enormous amount of money, both directly and through the Federal Reserve to prop up fossil fuel companies and I think people are seeing that too.  So, it may not be something that they talk about a lot, I don’t really know how debates will work or anything else, but I think the fact is that there are more and more people experiencing climate change whether that’s hurricanes, heat waves, forest fires, flooding and they are starting to say enough is enough.  We can't have a climate denier in The White House, we need some new leadership to get on top of this crisis.  

Bill Loveless:  Well, it’ll be interesting to see how this plays out in the next few months.  Well, the book is “Short Circuiting Policy” and we’ve been delighted to host its author, Leah Stokes on Columbia Energy Exchange.  Leah, thank you for taking the time.  

Leah Stokes:  Oh! Thank you so much for having me on, it’s always nice to hang out with my alma mater a little bit.  

Bill Loveless:  Well, for more on Columbia Energy Exchange and the Center on Global Energy Policy, find us on the web at energypolicy.columbia.edu and on social media @ColumbiaUEnergy for Columbia Energy Exchange, I'm Bill Loveless.  We’ll be back again next week with another conversation.