How the Koch Brothers are Hacking Science

by Frank Ackerman

March 26, 2014

Rhode Island has recently learned that its renewable energy standards could be ruinously expensive. But they’re in good company: more than a dozen states have “learned” the same thing, from reports from the same economists at the Beacon Hill Institute (BHI).

Housed at Boston’s Suffolk University, BHI turns out study after study for right-wing, anti-government groups. Funding for BHI’s relentless efforts has come from Charles and David Koch (leading tea party funders) and others on the same wavelength. For the Rhode Island study, BHI teamed up with the Rhode Island Center for Freedom & Prosperity, a member of the Koch’s State Policy Network.

While BHI’s name and location place it close to the Massachusetts state government, it is philosophically a different beacon on a different hill. Last year BHI requested a grant from the Searle Freedom Trust, aimed at undermining the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative (RGGI), a multi-state effort that Massachusetts participates in. The grant application said, “Success will take the form of media recognition … and legislative activity that will pare back or repeal RGGI.” Suffolk vice-president Greg Gatlin said that BHI had not gone through the university’s required grant approval process, and “the University would not have authorized this grant proposal as written.” As it turned out, the proposal was not funded.

BHI has worked closely with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a corporate-funded network of ultra-conservative legislators and policy analysts, which drafts and advocates laws that will push state policies to the right. After gaining notoriety for supporting “stand your ground” gun laws, ALEC has now decided to downplay social issues and refocus on its core economic mission: attacking Obamacare, progressive taxation, and environmental protection.

In the effort to roll back renewable energy targets and standards, ALEC and its local partners have sponsored numerous BHI studies of individual state renewable energy policies. The conclusion, in every case, is that wind and solar energy are exorbitantly expensive, energy efficiency cannot be counted on, and there’s nothing like good old fossil fuels – except, of course, for nuclear power.

David Tuerck, the head of both BHI and Suffolk’s economics department, told the Washington Post that Koch funding did not determine the institute’s conclusions about renewable energy. Its reports, however, are decidedly Koch-friendly. BHI’s Rhode Island study, for example, pointed to an analysis done by another conservative think tank that in turn relied on a 2006 study, which was cautiously optimistic about the prospects for wind power in Britain. After being filtered through two American anti-renewable-energy think tanks, that study came out sounding like something different altogether. BHI claims that wind is so intermittent that expensive fossil-fuel generation is always needed as backup; in contrast, the original British study says that at the levels of wind adoption “foreseeable in the next 20 years, it is neither necessary nor appropriate to allocate dedicated ‘back up’ or reserve plant” to wind energy facilities.

The misrepresentations of renewable energy in the BHI reports are too numerous to list here. Last year, with several colleagues, I wrote a critique of the BHI/ALEC energy studies, which dives into the details. Perhaps the most outrageous was the treatment of wind power, which is rapidly becoming competitive with conventional sources of electricity. (Nine states get more than 10 percent of their electricity from wind.) Earlier BHI anti-renewable energy studies often presented low, medium, and high estimates of wind costs, just like a normal academic analysis. In fact, data on actual costs show that all wind installations in recent years have been cheaper than BHI’s low case. In other words, real data show that BHI’s three estimates of wind power costs were too high, far too high, and absurdly too high.

The Koch brothers may be getting what they paid for in BHI’s steady stream of anti-environmental analyses. It’s less clear why Suffolk University tolerates this blatantly partisan institute, seeking to overturn sound Massachusetts and national policies. Beacon Hill isn’t the place for them; there must be a small hill somewhere in Texas where they would feel more at home. Although, despite an abundance of anti-environmental politicians, Texas has installed a lot of wind power, because it looks cheap to them.

This blog is cross-posted from Talking Points Memo.

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