THE BLOG
01/21/2016 04:10 pm ET Updated Jan 21, 2017

Utilities Exert Influence Through Universities to Sway Regulatory and Political Debate

Through university courses, conferences, and reports facilitated by academic staff, the utility industry and its trade association, the Edison Electric Institute, have boosted lobbying efforts targeting state government officials and decision makers.

According to a report released today by Energy and Policy Institute, university-based institutes and faculty provide an avenue for utility special interests to educate regulators and advocate for favorable policies and regulatory regimes under the guise of an academic veil. Institutes and staff funded by industry and based at Louisiana State University, New Mexico State University, Harvard University, and the University of Wisconsin produced reports, opinion pieces, and educational events that ultimately support the utility industry's positions in regulatory and political discussions on the future of the electric industry.

With clean energy sources becoming more competitive each day, fossil fuel interests continue to spread misinformation in an effort to slow the deployment of sustainable energy solutions, and are now using universities to echo their anti-clean energy message. Universities need to prevent faculty and programs from being influenced by special interests, especially while they are receiving funding from corporations and trade associations. Otherwise, they run the risk of losing credibility and appearing like pay-to-play advocacy groups instead of independent academic institutions.

Case Studies of Utility Influence at Universities

Our report discovered utility industry influence at four universities where either faculty have routinely advocated against clean energy or institutes regularly host seminars and conferences to educate regulatory staff and utility regulators. Unfortunately, what we found shows that university centers and staff are being used to support the advocacy goals of utility special interests and their trade association.

The Louisiana State University (LSU) AgCenter released a solar report in early 2015 entitled, "Solar Power for Your Home: A Consumer's Guide." Through freedom of information requests, Energy and Policy Institute revealed that the utility trade association, EEI, not only funded the report, but provided editorial recommendations. Multiple drafts were sent between LSU and EEI in the months leading up to publication.

LSU professor David Dismukes is also featured in our report for his role in producing an economic study attacking distributed solar energy. Dismukes runs Acadian Consulting, whose clients include Duke Energy, NRG Energy, CLECO Corporation, Sempra Energy, and many other utility and fossil fuel interests. Dismukes' report did not accurately analyze the cost of distributed solar energy systems for other ratepayers (which is what he was hired to do by the Louisiana Public Service Commission). Instead, he produced a report that focused on the cost of the state's 50% tax credit for installing new solar panels.

Similarly, the Harvard Electricity Policy Group (HEPG), run by former Ohio Public Utilities Commissioner Ashley Brown, received funding from American Electric Power, Duke Energy, FirstEnergy, Southern Company, and many other utility companies. Brown has routinely criticized the value of solar in public testimony, academic journals, and opinion pieces. In many cases, both Brown and the publications failed to disclose that his organization receives funding from utility interests, and that Brown produces expert testimony as a consultant for utility companies in public hearings.

The Center for Public Utilities (CPU) at New Mexico State University provides training programs for utility commissioners and other professionals involved in the electricity industry. However, CPU relies on EEI to help craft its training program. EEI and over a dozen utility companies, including Arizona Public Service Company, MidAmerican Energy (part of Berkshire Hathaway) and Pepco, are sponsors of the center.

Finally, the Wisconsin Public Utilities Institute (WPUI), housed at the University of Wisconsin, is at least partially funded by its "Sustaining Members", which include Alliant Energy, Madison Gas & Electric, WeEnergies, Wisconsin Public Service, and Xcel Energy. WPUI routinely hosts EEI-branded courses designed to educate staff of state utility commissions. These EEI courses feature utility industry staff and consultants as the instructors and teach an EEI-recommended curriculum.

Academic Integrity or Pay-to-Play Centers of Influence

Universities run the risk of losing their academic integrity and risk credibility when they act like pay-to-play advocacy groups instead of independent academic institutions. The utility industry has long exerted its influence across the country, but academic institutions should avoid producing programs or research that is skewed towards the opinions of funders.

In one instance, Peter Taglia, a board member of the Wisconsin Public Utilities Institute, expressed concern that course presentations reflected too much of the utility industry's viewpoint. Taglia raised specific concerns about the lack of balance in programs run by WPUI and the institute's continued involvement with the utility trade association, EEI. Those concerns were ignored and, after attempting to reform the institute's practices, he was not re-nominated for a board position.

Future concerns about the independence and academic integrity of university institutions and faculty should not be ignored. Universities across the country must establish barriers to prevent companies and special interests from influencing educational events, research, and other materials that could be used to impact the debate on the future of energy. Otherwise, we risk losing the critical voice of independent academia that provides unbiased and objective information for both the public and decision makers.