AE Reads: A patchwork of energy policy approaches

June 15, 2024
Book Club

rare arctic whale species

Interest Groups and the Battle Over Clean Energy and Climate Policy in the American States

In service to the subject matter applicability and our insatiable curiosity at American Efficient, we dove deeply into this super wonky book by Dr. Leah C. Stokes, an Associate Professor of Environmental Politics at the University of California, Santa Barbara. We found that it opened up as many questions as it provided answers, so we spent much of our weekly discussion time digging beyond the book’s content into some of the topics that Stokes presents. This book took seven sessions of hour-long discussions to cover.  In this post, I’ll outline some of the highlights of our discussions.

First, Stokes starts with a powerful wake-up call (in case anyone is still asleep): The Narwhal Curve (here is a helpful video).

"The Narwhal Curve" for 100% by 2035

“The Narwhal Curve” for 100% carbon-free energy by 2035

The intention of the Narwhal graph is to shows how much clean energy development needs to happen by 2035-2040 if we are going to keep the global temperature rise under 2 degrees C. As a planet, she says we need to quintuple the rate of clean energy deployment by 2040 and bring on new clean power at 2-3.5 times faster than the historical installation rate of all electricity infrastructure (fossil and clean). Dang. As we will discuss in a future book, Electrify (spoiler alert), electrification heavily influences one’s perspective on how much clean energy development is needed, but one way or the other, it’s A LOT.

Stokes argues that the only way we can possibly achieve such massive goals – like it or not – requires significant changes. Lest a “policy change” solution already has you despairing, Stokes informs us that states are already leading the charge.  Twenty-four states meet the goals necessary to satisfy the Narwhal Curve.  Twenty-six states are failing.  The book details the history and results in a handful of example states.  

Acknowledging that some MAJOR federal policy changes have come in since the publishing of this book, here are state examples shared in her book:

  • In Texas, Stokes believes that this state has vast room for improvement; particularly around energy efficiency and solar as of the writing of her book. (Since Short Circuiting Policy was published in 2020, the Lone Star State’s solar growth rate almost doubled from 2020 to 2021 and continues to grow in 2022.)
  • In Ohio, between relatively abundant coal, natural gas and corruption, the state ranks around 47th on fraction of energy coming from renewables.
  • In Arizona, based on solar irradiance, the state should have SO MUCH solar installed and yet is ranks ~30th on its fraction of energy that come from renewables.
  • In Iowa, 42% of electricity generated came from wind, which is a positive trend.

Some new terms and concepts covered included:

  • The Fog of Enactment: This refers to the gap or ambiguity between expectations and what actually happens with novel policy reforms.
  • Foxes and Hedgehogs: This refers to the attributes of interest groups.
  • Goals vs. Targets: We learned about the subtle but important differences between these two terms. “Targets” are voluntary; “goals” are mandates. 
  • Regulatory Capture: This is what happens when interest groups successfully influence regulators.
  • Net Energy Metering: This refers to policies to enable paying customers for their generated energy, however there are many different ways to implement. 
  • Public Utility Commissions (PUCs): These regulatory bodies are created in two very different ways – some are elected, some are appointed – regardless of how they are formed, they are an exceedingly critical and influential piece of the puzzle. PUCs get a lot of warranted attention in Short Circuiting Policy.

For better or worse, Stokes does not attempt to provide easy, pithy solutions.  This is a book about policy so the take is nuanced and wonky. It benefits from an author who has an unusual willingness to dig through the muck and find some useful principles though.  This is hard work. The United States is, in many ways, a patchwork of ongoing experiments with respect to energy policy.  Short Circuiting Policy doesn’t magically turn this patchwork into a beautiful tapestry because it’s not.  Stokes instead zooms out and finds some compelling threads that could be useful for folks who are trying to advance our energy transition while not making the mistakes of the past.

Luke Fishback is a Senior Director of Market Operations at American Efficient. He has worked in energy analytics since 2007 and was previously an aerospace engineer. Luke leads weekly Book Club sessions at American Efficient.