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Alumni Confidential: Kathleen Hancock

November 10, 2021
Kathleen Hancock

Alumni Confidential

In our latest Alumni Confidential interview, IGCC associate director Lindsay Shingler talks with Kathleen Hancock, an associate professor of political science at the Colorado School of Mines and expert in the politics of renewable energy. Kathleen discusses the unexpected allies leading efforts to transition to renewable energy in the U.S., gives advice to young scholars, and explains why she thinks it’s possible to be both a scholar and an activist. Kathleen was a dissertation fellow with IGCC in 1996–97.

You are an associate professor of political science at the Colorado School of Mines, an expert on energy and politics, and worked for ten years in the fray in Washington, D.C. What’s your origin story—where did this all start?

When I was in high school, I was the student liaison between the city council and the police department. I got into politics at an early age, even though my family was mostly apolitical. When I went to UC Santa Barbara for my undergraduate degree, I thought I was going to be an economist, but it was too abstract for me. I quickly ditched it and took sociology instead. My first class in sociology was very political; I remember a particular lecture on worker alienation that was so interesting. It opened my eyes to things I had been thinking and feeling but didn’t have words for. And as a woman, I connected with the coursework that focused on how women are portrayed in society. That just rang so true. In my final semester, I went to D.C. and worked for the National Women’s Political Caucus. That launched my career in political issues.

How did you get interested in energy and politics?

I’ve had energy in my life for a very long time. There used to be a Hancock Oil company. That was my family. I used to go to Long Beach and there would be Hancock Oil gas stations. My grandfather sold out a little too early and we didn’t get to be super wealthy like some Hancocks.

Darn it.

When I was getting my master’s degree, ExxonMobil paid for my education. And then when I was doing research for my Ph.D., I was looking at the former Soviet Union, and particularly the relationships between Russia and the other former Soviet states. As it turned out, one of the big factors in their relationships was energy—oil and gas pipelines and electricity grids. So I was back into energy, but I still didn’t think of it that way.

When I came to Colorado, I was hoping to get early tenure. When I didn’t, I had to reassess. I decided that if I didn’t ever get tenure, I wanted to set myself up for a career that would be important to me, and that could become something non-academic. I went to the mountains, to a yoga meditation retreat and had no contact with anyone outside the retreat for 48 hours. I did a lot of writing and thinking about who I am, and I emerged deciding I was going to take my interest in energy and make it about the politics of renewable energy and how we can help move that needle in the United States particularly but also globally.

I had a similar career juncture where I was trying to make a big decision. And I did a similar thing—stepped away from life for a couple of days to think about who I am and what I value. It’s important to do that every now and then.

We really don’t do it enough. Now you’re making me think I need to go back to that retreat!

The Colorado School of Mines is a leading global educational institution for science and engineering. You work in the Humanities, Arts and Social Sciences Department. Why is social science important for understanding and participating in engineering?

Great question. It’s one a lot of our students ask, but more like: “why do I have to take your class?” My job is to teach engineers about why people matter and that they live in a global economy. You can’t do engineering in a vacuum. Engineering is for people. It’s about people. If you don’t understand that you’re not going to succeed.

Would you say that the political challenges associated with climate change are more challenging than the technical ones?

They definitely need to work together and too often they don’t. To the extent that the social sciences get involved in energy issues, it’s usually the economists that dominate. Very little attention is given to the political scientists, the sociologists, the anthropologists. So you might get a technical breakthrough and wonder why nobody uses it. Our role is in part to help students begin to see how money and power play this huge role in what we do. It’s not strictly that the best technology wins.

Before getting your Ph.D., you worked in Washington, D.C. as a lobbyist for the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) and then as an analyst at the Government Accountability Office (GAO). What were those roles like?

I loved being a lobbyist. We were not a wealthy organization—it wasn’t about fancy dinners. As I tell my students, it was all about the different ways you can influence people. The FAS doesn’t have grassroots, so you can’t threaten politicians with the specter of losing votes. The FAS doesn’t have money to throw at them either. We had to win on arguments. We had to bring facts to bear. Sometimes we aligned with grassroots groups, so we would bring the facts and the arguments, and they would bring the people power. I loved that.

Eventually, though, I began to feel like I needed more information. I was pushing the position that my organization wanted me to push, but I began to think, I’m not sure arms control is always the right answer. Getting my master’s was an attempt to better understand security policy. After that, I went to the GAO. Unlike lobbying where you’re moving really fast, at the GAO, you have time to really investigate an issue. I was working in the international section, so there was a lot of great travel.

I was there for five years and left for personal reasons. I didn’t know what I would do in California but thinking about how much I loved learning, I decided on a life in academia. I decided to come to UC San Diego for my Ph.D. My fellow students who mostly were 10 years younger than me, would say: oh, did you take time off? And I said no, I had a career. It was not time off!

What did you learn about how to influence people during your decade in D.C.?

We tend to think that lobbying is about pressuring people to do things they weren’t going to do, but a huge percentage of lobbying is actually working with people who agree with you. It’s building coalitions with like-minded lobbyists and other organizations, and forming relationships with the members of Congress who already agree with you. You’re sitting down and writing legislation with them, you’re talking about strategy with them.

A lot of that means working with allies. As an academic who’s trying to take your academic work and move it forward into actual policy, you want to work with organizations that are going to be open to your research.

Your forthcoming book explores the politics of renewable energy. What’s the goal of the book?

The main question I want to answer is what factors are behind U.S. states making real progress in renewable energy, and what can we learn from them to help speed up this transition? I’ve been focused on Republican states that are making progress or purple states to understand what coalitions are playing a role there.

I just finished a case study on Nevada. Most theories in political science that look at energy intensity are thinking about steel mills and big industrial organizations that use a lot of electricity. But casinos use electricity 24/7. In Nevada, you have casinos saying they want solar because it’s cheaper. They wanted to get out of NV Energy, which was not making progress in renewables. So the casinos pushed renewables really hard. I think they spent about $30 million on one referendum in Nevada.

The casinos lost that particular referendum and ended up paying millions of dollars to get out of the monopoly. Now they’re doing their own solar power and they have their own solar arrays. Cases like this show that you need to rethink who your allies are. Who would have thought that casinos would be your allies? Well, now you should.

You are looking at Republican states, but you also look at states that have been successful. Is the assumption that Republican states are more regressive and Democrat-led states more progressive, wrong?

That is the understanding we’re trying to unravel a bit. It’s true that the big leaders tend to be Democratic states. There are so many factors saying that California, for example, will be a leader in renewable energy: it’s got the resources, it’s got the ethos, it’s got the environmental organizations.

What’s more interesting to me is a place like Nevada, which, by the way, is blue right now. But it was red. I want to get rid of the idea: don’t bother working with Republicans. It turns out not to be that simple.

In Nevada, we called it the battle of the billionaires because Nevada Energy is owned by Warren Buffett’s company—the rare billionaire Democrat. But his company was against this solar push because he wanted that monopoly. On the flip side, you had Sheldon Adelson who was the kingmaker for Republicans, pushing for solar.

That is cognitive dissonance on a massive scale.

Right. But Adelson wasn’t doing it for political reasons. He was doing it for business reasons. He wanted cheaper electricity. There’s other research that shows that if you want progress on renewable energy, in places not like California, you need to disconnect it from climate change. Because our country has politicized climate change. If you disconnect renewable energy and focus instead on jobs and lower prices, you pick up a whole lot of people you wouldn’t otherwise expect to support you.

The United States is generally behind our peers in Europe in terms of renewable energy. In the U.S., coal-fired electricity generation has halved since 2007, but a lot of that was replaced with natural gas. In Europe, which also halved coal-fired electricity, they replaced it with renewables, which led to greater emissions reductions. What are the political explanations for this kind of difference?

One of the big factors is that the oil and gas industry is very, very powerful. The renewable energy industry is increasingly powerful and employs a lot of people so that they now have more political and economic power than they used to. But still. You’re pushing against big oil and gas companies that have a lot of money.

And then the United States became awash in natural gas, in large part because of fracking. That reduced dependence on other countries, which is often seen as a positive, and it was cheap. It was considered a “bridge” resource: let’s use it as a bridge until we can get solar and wind to a level where it’s relatively inexpensive.

Also, in our country, people are sympathetic to the idea that government shouldn’t intervene in the market. Whereas in Europe, having the government intervene in your economy is normal. Of course, this is often mischaracterized, because the oil and gas sector has had enormous subsidies in the U.S. But people sort of brush past that.

How do you know that you’ve been successful in your career?

Helping younger scholars move forward with their research feels really good to me. Seeing citations of my work means people respect the work and want to use it.

Now I want to impact policy. I’m teaching a course on energy equity next semester. It’s going to be overtly a normative class—we want energy equity. If you don’t believe this, if you’re not interested in this, this is probably not a good class for you.

I was one of those people who early in my career resisted the idea that you could be an academic and an activist. That was a big debate. If you’re a renewable energy policy advocate, will that change how you do your analysis? That’s the concern. But I think what it changes is the kind of analysis you want to do—your beliefs influence what questions you ask.

What do you tell young scholars who are just starting out?

I worked with a research group, where Ph.D. students would present all this fabulous research and say: “because nobody’s looked at x, I’m going to.” I’d always ask—why is this important from a real-world perspective? The fact that somebody hasn’t done something isn’t enough of a reason to care about it. Why is it important to you, and why will asking this question make an impact in the real world? That’s a question we should always be asking.