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New Report Reveals Electric Utility Industry’s Influence at Universities

Energy and Policy Institute has released a report detailing how several universities, funded by utility companies are producing academic reports.

In 1971, Lewis Powell, before becoming a Supreme Court Justice, authored a memo, now known as the Powell Memo, and sent it to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. Powell called on corporate America to take an increased role in shaping politics, law, and education. Business leaders, Powell instructed, must marshal their resources to influence institutions that influence public opinion and wield political power – especially at universities. Four decades later, the public can see examples of Powell’s instructions taking hold.

Energy and Policy Institute (EPI) has released a report detailing how several universities and professors, funded by fossil fuel and electric utility companies are increasingly producing academic reports, supporting advocacy efforts, and amplifying policies important to utility companies and their trade association, the Edison Electric Institute (EEI). This amplification lends credibility to what the industry seeks to achieve in the legislative and regulatory arenas.

Using public record requests, the report highlights the key roles that institutes and professors housed at Louisiana State University, Harvard University, New Mexico State University, and the University of Wisconsin play in the utility industry’s strategy of weakening distributed solar energy policies. As reported by The Washington Post last year, the industry created a plan in 2012 to impede the growth of distributed solar generation. That strategy included lobbying utility regulators. It is now clear that these universities are now and have been part of that plan.

For example, EEI not only funded a Louisiana State University report, but also worked collaboratively with the report’s author to advise homeowners that they should wait before installing solar panels and first invest in energy efficiency upgrades. Aware of expiring federal and state tax credits while witnessing a surge of solar installations in the state, a utility industry funded report that advises homeowners to wait before installing a solar system appears deceitful, especially when disguising the report as academic research.

Several reviewers of the report raised concerns in their comments sent back to the professor about the report’s main focus. One reviewer specifically noted:

“I generally agree with efficiency first. However, for situations where solar would take a 50% or lower bite out of the household usage, it may be prudent to take advantage of the solar tax credits before doing efficiency. The reality is that state-level politics have made the solar tax credits a political punching bag. Therefore, each time the state legislature is in session (in LA every fiscal session), the homeowner could lose the opportunity for a major return on investment.”

Additionally, EEI influences courses taught at the University of Wisconsin’s Public Utility Institute (WPUI). The courses are called “EEI Electric Rate Advanced Course: Rates to Address New Challenges” and the “EEI Transmission and Wholesale Markets School.” Public records again reveal industry influence.

An email from Eric Ackerman, director of alternative regulation at EEI, proposed that one of the courses cover the “Distribution 2020 Program.” When questioned by an EEI course instructor at WPUI about the program, Casimir Bielski, manager of rate and regulatory business at EEI, said,

Distribution 2020 is a project that started at EEI, basically in response to several trends, such as: 1) weak growth in load and sales, 2) increasing penetration of alternative forms of generation, like solar panels, wind, etc., and other new technologies like improved batteries. EEI has created a CEO task force on this and internal teams are working on such projects as defining the threats and opportunities and writing papers on possible industry responses, such as fifing net metering.

David Owens, EEI’s executive vice president, was a “board lead” for EEI’s Distribution 2020 project, which was presented the board of directors in 2012 as shown in the 2015 story in The Washington Post.

The new EPI report also reveals that a former member of the WPUI board raised concerns over the institute’s relationship with EEI. WPUI’s board ignored those concerns and the member was later not re-nominated to continue his role with the institute.

Energy and Policy Institute’s revelations are the latest in a string of exposures of fossil fuel and utility companies leveraging financial contributions to influence academic work. Examples include, Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics’ Willie Soon, Suffolk University’s Beacon Hill Institute, and the University of Kansas’ Art Hall.

The instructions from Lewis Powell to the business community continue to resonate today. Universities across the country need to establish barriers that prevent corporate donors from dictating agenda topics and conclusions and influencing training programs in an effort to advance corporate interests over the public interest. By publishing reports and operating training programs funded and dictated by utility companies and the Edison Electric Institute, universities are providing avenues for corporations to push their viewpoints in an academic setting – viewpoints that not only shape the opinions of the audience but can also be used by utility interests when advocating in the regulatory and political arena.

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