Stanford Law School Felix Mormann
Research Fellow

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Research Agenda

    My primary research interests lie at the intersection of international environmental and energy law and policy, with a current focus on climate change and its mitigation through sustainable energy solutions. Drawing on my background as an internationally trained lawyer admitted to practice in the U.S. and the E.U., my research follows a comparative, sometimes empirical approach to address the heterogeneity of renewable energy regulation and policies across the U.S. and around the world. My goal is to identify and further develop the most successful measures at overcoming the challenges to a timely transition to a low-carbon, renewables-based electricity sector. My findings allow me to offer design recommendations for the next generation of renewables policies to foster large-scale deployment and successful grid integration.

    My research interests have evolved in parallel with my work in private practice, where I began my career in commercial, corporate, and securities law. My earlier published work, including my doctoral dissertation on transatlantic securities litigation, gives testimony of my original research focus. Over time, my clients' business emphasis on power generation from renewable sources of energy led me to shift the core of my practice toward environmental and energy law. Accordingly, when I decided to pursue a career in legal academia, I directed the focus of my research toward environmental and energy law and policy. My original business and finance-oriented practice and research continue to influence my current research in its aim to balance environmental concerns with economic interests - no small feat in light of the multi-trillion dollar challenge to decarbonize the electricity sector.

    Most industrially developed nations have adopted policies to promote the large-scale deployment of renewable energy technologies to mitigate climate change, to create a strong domestic renewables industry, and to foster energy security. Despite the general agreement on these underlying policy goals, the various promotional measures adopted around the globe differ considerably in their design and implementation as well as in their success. The global quest for the policy that best promotes renewables has received much attention in the engineering and economic literature. In contrast, the international potpourri of promotional policies has thus far attracted relatively little attention in the legal literature, especially among comparativists. My research aims to close this gap.  

    I. Requirements for a Renewables Revolution (38 Ecology Law Quarterly 2011 forthcoming) (Full Text at SSRN)

    Any attempt to promote electricity from renewable sources of energy or evaluate such promotional efforts requires a deep understanding of the obstacles that stand in the way of scaling renewable energy technologies. Hence, the first stage of my research at Stanford was devoted to an in-depth analysis of the impediments to innovation and barriers to entry that hinder renewable energy technologies in their competition with fossil fuel incumbents. Only once these obstacles are properly identified can an adequate promotional policy be crafted to overcome them.

    My article "Requirements for a Renewables Revolution", forthcoming in the Ecology Law Quarterly Vol. 38 (2011), identifies and analyzes the obstacles presently barring the rise of renewables and evaluates the role of the current policy favorite emission pricing. The fiercely debated introduction of an emissions tax or a cap-and-trade regime might eliminate the market failure of environmental externalities and thus render electricity from renewables more cost-competitive. Emission pricing, however, fails to address other market failures and imperfections of the electricity sector and will by itself hardly drive the transition to renewable sources of energy at the speed necessary to successfully mitigate climate change. Additional policy measures are needed to overcome such challenges as the risk of a new technology lock-in, knowledge and learning externalities, a market structure favoring long-established fossil fuel incumbents, and problems of fragmented permit processes and local acceptability. Drawing on the policy experience of the U.S. energy, health and defense sectors, as well as the international leaders in renewables deployment, I offer design recommendations for a comprehensive U.S. renewables policy.

    II. The Case for State-Level Feed-in Tariffs (Work in Progress - Draft available on Request)

    My current research undertakes a qualitative and empirical comparison of the main policy instruments for the promotion of large-scale renewables deployment, calls for greater emphasis of state-level initiatives, and offers suggestions for regulatory reform to grant states the necessary latitude for their promotional efforts.

    Drawing on the policy experience of the U.S. and the pioneering nations in renewables deployment, I compare various promotional regimes representing the primary policy approaches across the globe. Empirical evidence spanning twenty years of deployment support allows me to evaluate the respective regimes' efficacy and efficiency. Against this background, my qualitative analysis of the primary policy instruments and their key features yields valuable insights into their ability to achieve the aforementioned trifecta of goals commonly pursued with the promotion of renewables climate change mitigation, economic growth, and energy security. Empirical evidence and qualitative analysis point to feed-in tariffs, that offer subsidized rates for power sold to the grid, as the policy of choice.

    Following the identification of feed-in tariffs as the most promising policy approach, I explore whether they are best implemented at the U.S. federal or state level. Building on the extensive debate over national versus state-level Renewable Portfolio Standards, I survey, weigh, and challenge the most widespread arguments on both sides to juxtapose them with the special characteristics of renewable energy technologies and feed-in tariffs. Contrary to common claims that uniform, nationwide policy measures offer superior value, environmental, economic, regulatory, and institutional arguments suggest that feed-in tariffs promise greater promotional success at the state rather than federal level. Based on this result, I investigate the compatibility of state-level feed-in tariffs with the current regulatory landscape of the U.S. electricity market. In particular, the shared allocation of state and federal regulatory authorities under the 1978 Public Utilities Regulatory Policies Act and the 1935 Federal Power Act is likely to interfere with effective renewables support at the state level. I propose short-term alternatives to circumvent these barriers and offer recommendations for regulatory reform to adjust the U.S. framework for electricity regulation to the special needs of state-level initiatives to foster large-scale deployment of renewables.

    III. The Economic Impact of Renewables (Ongoing Research for Future Writing)

    The economic effects of renewable energy technologies and their large-scale deployment are fiercely debated. The advocates of promotional policies claim that they create a strong domestic renewables industry yielding many innovations and jobs. Their opponents warn of increasing energy prices, a resulting decrease in overall economic activity and job losses. The existing literature tends to measure the efficiency of promotional regimes as a function of cost per unit of installed renewables capacity or cost per unit of electricity produced. In contrast, my goal is to harness the heterogeneity of promotional policies across the U.S. and around the world as a quasi-natural experiment to assess these policies' effects on economic indicators such as innovation and employment in the renewables sector.

    For instance, certain International Patent Classifications, such as IPCs F24J2 and H02N6, identify innovations in the nexus of electricity generation from solar energy. I investigate the development of these patent applications and correlate it with efforts to promote renewable energy technologies to evaluate the effects of these policies on innovation. Similarly, I analyze the development of employment across sectors and over time in correlation with policies promoting renewables to help resolve the ongoing controversy over the labor effects of renewable energy technologies and their large-scale deployment. In order to control for other not promotion-related effects on these economic indicators, I identify control jurisdictions, e.g., by pairing a promotionally active jurisdiction, such as Sweden or California, with a geographically, politically, economically, and culturally similar, but promotionally inactive jurisdiction, such as Norway or Florida.

    In contrast to existing studies of renewables' economic impact, my work offers an in-depth legal analysis of the promotional policies for renewables. My legal coding extends beyond the respective policy measures' black-letter law to include the regulatory and administrative frameworks pertaining to key issues such as grid access, forecast and balancing responsibilities, spatial planning, and permit procedures. These and other aspects relevant to the deployment of renewable energy technologies form the basis of my ongoing work on a detailed legal coding matrix to track policy adoption, implementation, and development. The resulting panel data set will allow me to compare the various regulatory frameworks and policy regimes. My work on the legal coding of policies from jurisdictions featuring a variety of legal systems and cultures benefits from my background as an international lawyer with practical experience advising clients on energy projects in a legal and business context, as well as from my bar admissions in civil and common law jurisdictions. I acquired the necessary skills to gather and manage the data for this empirical and comparative project as a management consultant at McKinsey, where I worked on statistical analyses using Excel and SPSS.

    IV. How Policy Adoption and Diffusion Affect Promotional Success (Future Research)

    In future work, I hope to use my legal coding matrix to answer a different question: whether and how the origins and paths to adoption of technology policies influence their ultimate success. In the absence of a clear commitment to renewable energy technologies at the federal level, the U.S. has witnessed a remarkable policy activism for the promotion of renewables at the state, regional, and municipal level. This grassroots bottom-up policy diffusion stands in stark contrast to other countries, such as France, which rely almost exclusively on a top-down policy approach mandated by the national government. Somewhere in between, the E.U. requires its member states to meet renewables targets but does not prescribe the nature or design of the policy measures to be adopted for this purpose.

    The evidence suggests that the origins and diffusion of policies promoting renewable energy technologies influence their promotional success. For instance, the comparatively high level of public acceptance for wind turbines in Denmark was achieved by giving the local population a voice in the planning process and financial incentives to become a shareholder in new wind plants. In 2007, some 200,000 Danish families participated in over 100 wind turbine cooperatives. In contrast, jurisdictions following a less democratic approach struggle to overcome local resistance based on a strong "not-in-my-backyard" mentality as evidenced by the fierce opposition to wind projects in the Nantucket Sound, Wisconsin or Wyoming. Using my legal coding matrix, I plan to analyze how the origins and paths to adoption of renewables policy initiatives affect their promotional impact. The results will provide valuable insights into the level of popular support, outreach and education that facilitates the greatest success of policies for the promotion of renewable sources of energy.

    V. First Commoditization, then Securitization - the Virtual Utility (Future Research)

    The dawn of the Smart Grid announces the next transformation of the U.S. electricity market. Greater use of distributed generation, real-time pricing and demand response are among the many changes to come. As a result, analysts predict that the current model of oligopolistic electricity utilities with predominantly in-house power generation will make way for virtual utilities, which trade rather than generate electricity. These virtual utilities will use the Smart Grid to buy electricity from increasingly scattered independent power generators and sell that electricity at the wholesale and, where possible, retail level. Already, wholesale trade of electricity takes place primarily in forward markets. The Smart Grid will lead to further commoditization and, more importantly, securitization of electricity. Going forward, I plan to investigate the regulatory challenges this growing securitization will pose. For instance, the Dodd-Frank legislation and its underlying "too-big-to-fail" argument may demand special attention in light of how important uninterrupted power supply is for today's energy-intense economy. For this stream of research, my practical and academic experience in securities law paired with my expertise in electricity regulation will be instrumental.