The Koch brothers, known for their efforts to buy political support for the oil industry and attack renewable energy, now have a new organization dedicated to attacking clean energy policies, including those supportive of electric vehicles.

Called “Fueling U.S. Forward,” the group is a front, operated by trusted Koch operatives Charles Drevna and James Mahoney, and funded by Koch Industries money. Good reporting from the Huffington Post and DeSmog Blog offers more information on the Kochs’ new attack dog.

The Kochs’ attack on electric vehicles raises the question of how utilities, which as an industry have often provided financial support to the Koch network of operatives, feel about the Koch network’s new pivot.

Utilities desperately need electric vehicles to take off

Utilities have long viewed electric vehicles as a keystone of their future. Thanks to massive technology gains and policy supports for energy efficiency, electricity demand in the US has remained flat since 2007. State policies, the federal Clean Power Plan, and continued technology advances suggest the trend will continue. At the same time, utilities are feeling the squeeze from distributed energy resources like rooftop solar, which further threatens to erode their ability to sell more kilowatt-hours of electricity to their customers and build more power plants.

These trends present a challenging environment for the utility sector, and its main political arm, the Edison Electric Institute, has sounded the alarm since its infamous 2013 paper, “Disruptive Challenges”, which noted that utilities could go the way of Kodak and landline telephones if they do not adapt to the rise of distributed energy. In the short term, EEI and individual utilities have responded by fighting policies that encourage efficiency and rooftop solar in state legislatures and utility commissions around the country. But in the long term, most utility leaders admit that flat or even declining demand is a big problem for them, and see electric vehicles as their life raft.

In fact, Department of Energy Secretary Ernest Moniz and EEI President Tom Kuhn signed a memorandum of understanding last year including research, infrastructure, and outreach programs to accelerate the widespread adoption of electric vehicles. More recently, the Obama administration announced up to $4.5 billion in loan guarantees to support commercial-scale deployment of electric vehicle charging facilities.

If electric vehicles look like a lifeline for utilities, they sound like a death knell for Big Oil and the Kochs, whose primary concern will always be protecting its oil and petrochemical interests.

The Kochs’ funding of anti-EV politics should leave EEI and the utilities reconsidering the shoulder-to-shoulder work they’ve done with the Koch network over the years. The rift may already be opening in the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a group heavily driven by both Koch and utility interests.

Utilities support ALEC, even as ALEC attacks electric vehicle policies

ALEC’s ties to the Kochs and other oil companies are well-documented, and ALEC has had close ties to utilities, which are key drivers of its model legislation. Large utilities like Duke Energy and Dominion are and have been members of ALEC. EEI has funded ALEC and has close staff ties. ALEC has accordingly attacked net metering laws in recent years.

But as the Center for Media and Democracy has noted, ALEC recently began pushing the Koch’s anti-EV agenda as well:

At the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) meeting in Scottsdale, Arizona in December 2015, the Energy, Environment, and Agriculture Task Force heard a presentation on “State and Federal Subsidies for Electric Vehicles,” then voted on a resolution to discourage states from providing subsidies, the “Resolution Regarding Subsidies for Electric Vehicles.” The Kochs have long funded ALEC. Koch Industries has had a seat on ALEC’s “Private Enterprise” board for years, while Koch network entities like Freedom Partners, Americans for Prosperity, and Koch-funded “think tanks” have seats on a number of task forces where they get a vote on bills.

It’s unknown how EEI or individual utility members of ALEC responded to the anti-EV resolution, though Ford, which has a growing interest in electric vehicles, deserted ALEC a few months later.

Other political organizations in the Koch machine which have worked closely with utility interests, and could be other venues for internecine strife, include:

  • The Institute for Energy Research (IER), at which Drevna was a “Distinguished Senior Fellow” until leaving to launch Fueling U.S. Forward, attacked Ohio’s renewable portfolio standard, fighting shoulder to shoulder alongside utilities FirstEnergy and American Electric Power. IER also has echoed utility claims against net metering, claiming that the policy benefits only higher-income households. IER is a recipient of money from the Kochs and from Exxon.
  • The State Policy Network (SPN) is a Koch-funded web of state-based think tanks which produce studies to back their agenda. SPN worked closely with ALEC to attack state renewable energy portfolio laws in 2013. EEI funded the SPN in 2014.
  • The 60 Plus Association has poured millions of dollars into efforts led by utilities in Florida to attack rooftop solar energy there, and by the Arizona utility APS to attack solar-friendly candidates for the public utilities commission there. 60 Plus has received at least $34 million since 2010 from organizations financially backed by the Koch brothers

Time will tell if EEI and the investor-owned utilities will continue finding common cause with a Koch network that aims to destroy what may be the only technology that can save them.


Photo: A man charges his electric vehicle / Oregon Department of Transportation

Posted by David Pomerantz

David Pomerantz is the Executive Director of the Energy and Policy Institute.