An open access publication of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences
Winter 2013

Rethinking the Scale, Structure & Scope of U.S. Energy Institutions

Michael H. Dworkin, Roman V. Sidortsov, and Benjamin K. Sovacool

This essay notes some of the key institutions created in the twentieth century for the purpose of delivering energy in North America. Those institutions are being challenged by a combination of stresses in three interconnected areas: reliability, economics, and environmental sustainability. The essay argues that these three stresses create an “energy trilemma” requiring institutional reform. We suggest that new and modified institutions can best be understood if we evaluate them along three dimensions: institutional scale, structure, and scope. We consider real-world examples of recent institutions in light of each of these dimensions and note both successes and concerns that those factors illuminate. We conclude by noting that some institutional changes will be organic and unplanned; but many others, including responses to climate change, will benefit from conscious attention to scale, structure, and scope by those engaged in designing and building the energy institutions needed in the twenty-first century.

MICHAEL H. DWORKIN is Professor of Law and Director of the Institute for Energy and the Environment at Vermont Law School. He has been a litigator for the U.S. EPA, a management partner in a telecommunications engineering firm, and a utility regulator. He served as Chair of the Vermont Public Service Board (1999–2005) and of the National Association of Regulatory Utility Commissioners (NARUC) Committee on Energy Resources and the Environment. He is a Director of the Vermont Energy Investment Corporation (VEIC) and a Director of the Vermont Electric Power Company (VELCO). Previously, he served as a Director of the Electric Power Research Institute and the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy.

ROMAN V. SIDORTSOV is a Senior Global Energy Fellow at the Institute for Energy and the Environment at Vermont Law School. He teaches courses on oil and gas development and renewable energy in the distance learning program. He is also pursuing a Ph.D. from the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom. His research focuses on legal and policy issues surrounding the transition to a low–fossil fuel economy and Arctic offshore oil and gas development with a special emphasis on the Russian Federation. He serves as a member of the U.S. Academic Team in the Energy Law Partnership of the U.S.-Russia Bilateral Presidential Commission's Energy Working Group.

BENJAMIN K. SOVACOOL is a Visiting Associate Professor at Vermont Law School, where he manages the Energy Security and Justice Program in the Institute for Energy and the Environment. His research focuses on the barriers to alternative sources of energy supply, the politics of large-scale energy infrastructure, designing public policy, and building adaptive capacity and resilience to climate change in the least-developed Asian countries. He has served in advisory and research capacities at the National University of Singapore, the U.S. National Science Foundation's Electric Power Networks Efficiency and Security Program, and the Virginia Tech Consortium on Energy Restructuring, among others. He is the author or editor of twelve books and is a frequent contributor to Energy PolicyEnergy & EnvironmentElectricity JournalEnergy, and Energy for Sustainable Development.

“Men work together,” I told him from the heart,
“Whether they work together or apart.”

–Robert Frost, “The Tuft of Flowers,” A Boy’s Will (1913)

People act in many ways. Occasionally we act alone. More often, we act together, because, as Aristotle said, humans are indeed social animals.1 Some group actions–and most individual ones– have short-lived effects. Other mutual actions are organized, enduring, and extraordinarily effective. These cases usually involve organizations, called institutions, that coordinate and maximize the effectiveness of individual actions. Over time, however, institutions often take on their own lives, beyond those of the people acting within them. Eventually, the institutions may be so rooted in past crises that they no longer fit emerging needs. We can see this phenomenon now, in the institutions that our grandparents developed to deal with our nation’s– indeed, our entire continent’s–energy needs.

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  • 1Aristotle, Politics, I.
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