The renewables industry must reject existing structure of corporate influence in politics


headshot3 By Rachel Goldstein, Fall 2016 Fellow

This piece was originally posted in The Hill. 

Corporate money in politics influences energy policy and can stifle renewable growth and climate solutions. It is time the renewable energy industry address this problem. The Citizens United Supreme Court decision means that efforts to displace the fossil fuel industry with renewable energy face an uphill battle. As renewable energy growth and development continues, clean energy advocates must think about how such influences implicitly play into the Unites State’s ability to grow a nascent yet burgeoning infrastructure sector.

As a politically diverse democracy – one that requires laws be ratified through the legislature and make their ways through partisan gridlock – it is uniquely difficult for the United States to commit to global efforts needed for drastic action and coordinated decision-making in the face of climate change. Structurally, the current state of the U.S. political system is also destined to help the country fall short of its climate commitments; the dominance of corporate interests in politics does not allow for the bold actions needed to steer the world from climate disruption.

Although the renewables sector looks to businesses and corporate entities for partnership as more companies purchase wind and solar energy, and there have been great successes in the industry in the past few years, renewables are not ramping up nearly as fast as they must to effectively battle climate change. Policies set up the architecture to maintain a status quo in the energy market, which discourages innovations that exist precisely with the intent of disrupting business-as-usual, as renewable energy does for fossil fuels. Oversteps of corporate power, specifically in the energy world, have set a precedent of hindering the growth and development of renewable energy.

Right now, Ohio is undergoing legislative processes over whether or not to extend the state’s current RPS freeze, which since 2014 has hindered renewable energy development in the state, and which even Republican Governor John Kasich has said is “unacceptable.” Meanwhile, fossil fuel companies and utility interests such as the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) and ExxonMobil have aggressively used 2016 campaign contributions to influence Ohio’s legislators, driving “renewed attacks on clean energy policies” in Ohio. These actions, while legal, are indicative of the harm that money in politics can do to growing the clean energy economy.


Corporate influence in politics is exemplified with the 2009 Citizens United ruling, which, despite 78 percent opposition from Americans, allows for a pipeline of unlimited spending to political campaigns. This has struck a nerve with many Americans, with social movements calling for politics that are not beholden to special interests. From pressuring city governments to allow corporate tax breaks to yielding big election spending, Citizens United has driven momentum and outrage among the public.

Yet, fossil fuel companies win big when they take advantage of Citizens United, which opened a flood of lobbying money from coal, oil, and gas companies and campaign finance contributions that in turn disrupts climate and energy action. In 2011 and 2012, fossil fuel companies saw a 10,000 percent return on their investment in campaign spending and lobbying efforts through federal subsidies. The Keystone XL Pipeline, hailed as top priority for the fossil fuel industry, yet creating no significant amount of jobs or economic incentives for the United States, was a clear example of oil and gas interests at work. In fact, in 2014, U.S. House members who voted in favor of Keystone XL took a combined $13 million from fossil fuel interests, compared to $800,000 of oil and gas contributions received by elected officials voting against the pipeline.

But while grassroots environmental advocates have been making these connections in their campaigns, renewable energy industries have not been as active on this issue. Introducing a robust renewable energy sector is already challenging, involving disagreements over RPS bills, misinformation about energy subsidy allocation, and uncertain policy that can lead to instability and difficulty in growth. Though renewables should inherently have equal opportunities to compete in the market and corporate lobbying sphere, the reality is that fossil fuel interests have the money to competitively participate in this system, while renewable interests don’t. The bottom line is that with an uneven playing field, effectively battling climate change while democracy is hijacked by corporate special interests is not possible.


In a political landscape tainted by the impacts of court decisions like Citizens United, renewable energy is never going to come out on top. The goal for renewable energy industries should be to invest in a system that is democratic and educates, setting the stage for a new era of responsible business development. Renewable energy advocates and industry leaders must not brush aside their underlying mission of battling climate change. In reaching their objectives, they must set a new tone for influencing policy by supporting efforts to restrict corporate influence and adopting more collaborative approaches to project development than energy companies of the past.

At the heart of the climate fight and efforts to switch to renewable technologies is a love of humanity, an understanding of inequity and disenfranchisement of those least responsible for and most vulnerable to climate crises, and the desire to build a better energy system that works for all of us. It’s both unrealistic and disingenuous to suggest that a green, clean energy revolution for the planet can occur without dismantling the structures that allow corporate interests to pollute democracy in the first place. Climate change is dangerous precisely because it allows the money and power of a few to change the realities of many. To be part of the solution, the renewable energy sector has to work to change the game.

Rachel Goldstein is a Fellow with the Clean Energy Leadership Institute and a Campaign Associate with the Wind Energy Foundation.