To avoid the worst effects of climate change, we need to make two big transitions at once: First, we need to generate all our electricity from clean sources, such as wind turbines and solar panels, instead of power plants that run on coal and methane. gas Second, we need to retool almost everything else that burns oil and gas — like cars, buses, and furnaces that heat buildings — to run on that clean electricity.
These changes are happening, but their speed and ultimate success depend heavily on one type of company: the utilities that have monopolies to sell us electricity and gas.
But around the country, utility companies are using their considerable political power to slow the clean energy transition, and they’re probably using your money to do it.
State regulators must ensure that customers’ monthly utility bills cover only the cost of supplying electricity or gas and set limits on how much utilities can benefit. But large investor-owned utilities, with legions of lawyers to help them avoid scrutiny, bake many of their political costs into rates right alongside their investments in electric poles and wires. In doing so, they are conscripting their customers into an unwitting army of millions of small-dollar donors to prolong the era of dirty energy.
fortunately, Colorado, Connecticut and Maine passed laws this spring which prohibit utilities from charging clients for their lobbying, public relations expenses and fees to political trade associations such as the American Gas Association and the Edison Electric Institute. Regulators in Louisiana consider similar political changes. Every state in the country should follow those leads.
These reforms are crucial because while all companies in the United States can spend money on politics, in most cases, consumers who don’t approve can take their business elsewhere. Utilities – like regulated monopolies – have the unique ability to force customers to participate.
It’s not that utilities aren’t interested in building and profiting from clean energy. Many do, and the Inflation Reduction Act offers utilities extensive tax incentives to increase their investments in wind, solar and batteries. But that doesn’t mean utilities want others to do the same. They will only support a clean energy transition if it happens exclusively on their terms and at their speed – an attitude at odds with the scale and urgency of the Herculean task of decarbonizing our electricity grid.
Most electric utilities view distributed energy—customer-owned technologies that generate electricity in smaller amounts—as a threat to their business. They have tried for years to prevent their customers in many states from investing in rooftop solar by rigging rates to make it less economically attractive. They also funded opposition to policies that would rush clean energy.
Florida Power & Light spent millions of dollars on political consultants who are accused of engineering a scheme to siphon votes to third-party phantom candidates, according to a report by The Orlando Sentinel. The ghost candidates never campaigned, but their names appeared on ballots for competitive State Senate seats to ruin the chances of Democrats who were critical of the utilities. One of the Democrats has repeatedly introduced legislation supporting rooftop solar energy, which Florida Power & Light has. crucified against for years, including writing legislation in 2021 this would slow down its growth. “I want you to make his life a living hell,” the chief of the utility wrote in an internal email. The legislator lost by less than 40 votes. Florida Power & Light has denied wrongdoing in the ghost candidate scandal.
Utilities have also fought to cling to plants powered by fossil fuels for as long as possible. In Ohio the utility FirstEnergy hid $60 million in bribes through a network of dark-money groups to the political organization of the state speaker of the House. Before his conviction and sentencing for this case of racketeering, he helped pass a law that ensured $1.3 billion funded bailout for FirstEnergy’s bankrupt nuclear and coal plants, gutted the state’s renewable energy and energy efficiency standards for utilities and bailed out coal plants owned by other utilities. Reviews showed that FirstEnergy used money collected from ratepayers in its scheme.
Electric utilities have even opposed policies to speed up the development of desperately needed long-distance transmission wires for clean energy, as NextEra Energy, the parent company of Florida Power & Light, has spent millions to do. in New Englandwhere NextEra generates and sells power from oil and gas.
And many utility conglomerates don’t just sell electricity; they also sell methane gas, a major threat to decarbonization efforts. Many of these gas services are fighting tooth and nail against local communities’ efforts to electrify our buildings and use ratepayers’ money to do so. In California, SoCalGas, the nation’s largest gas distribution utility, was caught illegally and repeatedly abusing tax payer to oppose construction electrification plans of cities. In New York the gas service National Fuel its customers are said to have done pay for promotional materials directing New Yorkers to oppose pro-electrification policies.
The laws of Colorado, Connecticut and Maine address these tactics by prohibiting utilities from charging customers for a series of political activities. Other states and the federal government should go further in two ways:
First, they should add mandatory enforcement provisions so that if utilities illegally charge customers for political activities, severe and automatic fines would kick in.
Second, policymakers should, at a minimum, require utilities to disclose all political expenditures. The recently passed state laws will not prevent utilities from spending their profits on politics. The post-Citizens United campaign finance landscape makes it difficult to limit such spending, but it doesn’t protect companies’ ability to spend in secret, so utilities like FirstEnergy, Florida Power & Light and SoCalGas have tried their most damaging influence campaigns.
Utilities are too central to the clean energy transition to be allowed to dictate our energy and climate policies based on their profit motives. Limiting their influence gives us the best chance to move quickly and cheaply to a safer and cleaner future.