Conversation

Using engaged scholarship to advance clean energy

Exploring democracy, justice & equity in our energy system

Scholars Engaged on
Energy

 

In June 2021, Gabe Chan, Assistant Professor and lead of the Chan Lab at the University of Minnesota Humphrey School of Public Affairs in the Twin Cities, sat down virtually for a conversation with CERTs sustainability storyteller Marie Donahue.

During the interview, Chan speaks about his career path and early interests in climate change and clean energy, his approach to engaged scholarship on energy technology and policy, and current projects working to explore utility business models, community solar programs, and energy justice and equity.

 

Listen to the conversation or read it below.

Both the audio and write-up have been edited for length and clarity.

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The work that we've been doing, I think has been so much more meaningful and interesting because of the amazing partners we get to work with here in Minnesota. The landscape is just so full of really exciting and diverse organizations, nonprofits, utilities, advocacy organizations, and community groups all working in different ways to advance energy transition and energy policy and to make the energy system work.

Gabe Chan, Assistant Professor and lead of the Chan Lab at University of Minnesota Humphrey School of Public Affairs

Marie Donahue: Welcome to the program, Gabe! To start, I’m hoping you could introduce yourself to our listeners and share how your path led you to Minnesota and your role as an Assistant Professor at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs.

Gabe Chan: Thanks so much for having me on the show today. I came to Minnesota about six years ago, coming from about 10 years in Boston before that, where I went to school. I came here really with an open mind. Not knowing a whole lot about the energy system in Minnesota with organizations that were here and just trying to jump in.

The work that we've been doing, I think has been so much more meaningful and interesting because of the amazing partners we get to work with here in Minnesota. The landscape is just so full of really exciting and diverse organizations, nonprofits, utilities, advocacy organizations, and community groups all working in different ways to advance energy transition and energy policy and to make the energy system work. It's just been so fun to learn about what people are doing. The perspective that they hold, how they view the energy system, and with opportunities to collaborate sitting at the University, we have this really unique role where our students are coming from and then going back out into these organizations in such different ways. Sitting in this role, I get to see some of my former students now working at big utilities, working at small utilities, working at the Public Utility Commission, working at the Department of Commerce, working in nonprofits and staying in touch with all the students. It’s such a great way to see the many different ways people are finding to have a role in this big energy system change that we're undergoing.

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Photo: Gabe Chan with University of Minnesota Humphrey School of Public Affairs students in 2018. Credit: Chan Lab.

Marie DonahueI'm also a transplant and have had a similar impression of the landscape here, and I’m just really grateful to be working in clean energy and on these issues as well. And so, why did you choose to focus—taking us even further back in your career—on clean energy.

Gabe Chan: I think initially it started off being interested in the science and technology side of things. Early in my career, I was planning to be a scientist or engineer, and I got really interested in the natural sciences. I worked on atmospheric chemistry for a number of years as an undergrad and got really interested in climate science. Learning more and more about that led to a focus on energy from there. The natural connection between the energy system and greenhouse gases, and I started doing more and more work on energy. I started to find, well, the system is really dramatically changing, so what's driving these changes?

I spent a long time in my PhD studying how energy technologies have gotten to the point where they have today—how has the cost of renewable energy come down so quickly? We all now accept that as fact, but it was a lot of work by a lot of scientists, a lot of engineers, and a lot of government funding for R&D [research and development]. I spent a long time in my PhD studying R&D policy and federal government involvement in research and development for clean energy technologies.

I also then became interested in the deployment side: how do we actually get these technologies to market? We're seeing this huge transformation in energy system, and one of the biggest drivers, I would say, is changing costs due to innovation, but at the same time, having cheap energy technologies—cheap wind, cheap solar, and now cheap storage—doesn't necessarily mean that technology is deployed everywhere, made accessible to everyone, and that declining cost is the overriding or largest factor in why the energy system is changing, it's not the same everywhere. Understanding that diversity and that institutional context, meaning state policy or utility practices or the work of activists and organizers and also how we design those to be accessible. That’s become really interesting to me, as I've continued this work. To really understand why clean energy innovation is or isn't accessible to different populations, and that the benefits flow to different populations.

A lot of the work that we're doing is what we call “engaged scholarship” in direct partnership with organizations like utilities or state agencies or nonprofits. Doing the work together and co-designing research questions, project designs, implementation plans, and even sharing staff, in some cases.

Gabe Chan, Assistant Professor and lead of the Chan Lab at University of Minnesota Humphrey School of Public Affairs

Marie Donahue: You described some of your work with students when we started, but to learn more about your approach to research and teaching, it sounds like there has been a shift from or perhaps addition to your work on the technology side into policy. So I’m curious, what is your approach to research and teaching within that context, today?

Gabe Chan: I think in the broader university landscape, we’re in a unique position at the School of Public Affairs here the Humphrey School at the University of Minnesota. In a School of Public Affairs, there's a really strong imperative to engage the public in the work and to not have audiences for your work, but partners in your work. I really tried to think a lot about how to do the kind of research that, in partnership with the communities and organizations that could use that work and who could you know help support the creation of research and that we can work together with and bring our own skills and knowledge to the real world, if you will, with these organizations.

A lot of the work that we're doing is what we call “engaged scholarship” in direct partnership with organizations like utilities or state agencies or nonprofits. Doing the work together and co-designing research questions, project designs, implementation plans, and even sharing staff, in some cases. Doing the work in that way and in partnership, I think, is a really unique and powerful way to do what we call “engaged scholarship.” To have the power of the research enterprise serves the broader interest of the public and not just the narrow interest of academia. So what's really exciting about doing work in this way is that it's very grounded in the questions and data and information that's available to organizations who ultimately hold the decision making power in the energy transition. It's a great way to do meaningful work. It's also a great way to connect students to career opportunities, internships, and jobs. So, it's a really great way to do research that you know ultimately gets returned back to oftentimes the taxpayers that are funding us to do this work and who benefit. So, it's part of, I think, our responsibility at a land grant university in a School of Public Affairs to do work that really is in service to the public.

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Photo: Gabe Chan with students and fellow instructors on a trip to Puerto Rico in 2019. The Global Convergence Lab is an interdisciplinary course at the University of Minnesota that is working to bring together students from a diverse range of backgrounds to explore the complexity of Global Resiliency issues. The lab is co-coordinated by the School of Architecture, the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, and the Acara Program at the Institute on the Environment. Credit: University of Minnesota.

Marie Donahue: Great. I’d love to dig into that some  more, with maybe some examples of what that engaged scholarship looks like for you. I’m sure, as a faculty member, there’s a lot on your plate, but how are you approaching that in the context of some projects?

Gabe Chan: Yeah, I could talk about a couple of our projects or initiatives that we have going on. One of the big things that we've been working on recently is work with electric cooperatives in the region. Electric cooperatives are interesting because they're like private utilities but they're owned by their consumers. Electric cooperatives don't have customers, they have member owners. We've been doing work with a number of cooperatives in the upper Midwest for the last several years, and some of that work has been supported by the Department of Energy through a program they’ve called the Solar Energy Innovation Network and funded in other ways, through foundations and such. But what’s really exciting is that these utility cooperatives are really important across the country. They serve a little under 15% of all people, but in the Midwest they serve an even higher percentage, and they serve mostly rural areas.

And these retailers are really different from investor-owned utilities. They're not regulated in the same way, to the same extent as investor owned utilities, because they are self-governed and through that self-governance, they have a lot of institutional structure. A lot of rules for how they operate as democratically controlled organizations, meaning that they have different practices, different incentives, different ways of operating and returning back value to their communities, than other types of utilities. And they’re nonprofits, or more accurately, they are not-for-profit utilities.

These are interesting because they have so much potential to act quickly and innovate new programs as CERTs has documented in this podcast and elsewhere, they have a lot of really innovative programs. One of the things I love about CERTs is the storytelling that goes on because you have these innovations happening in small rural utilities that they don't like to brag about. It's hard to get the word out, and I think it's really good to tell that story.

The work we’re doing with cooperatives, there's really been a lot of work on how we can work within the cooperative structure to find new opportunities for innovation. Particularly, as we're seeing cheaper renewables come online, as we're seeing wholesale markets like here in the Midwest, the MISO market, creating new opportunities for distributed energy resources, and other ways of procuring power. These market developments in technology, I think, have really been structured around a paradigm of investor owned utilities, and there hasn't yet been a clear pathway or clear mode of engagement for cooperatives to identify and then capture the opportunities that these technological and market changes are presenting.

We’re thinking, how can we work together with cooperatives in their existing structures, which oftentimes involves a local distribution utility and then a larger what's called a generation and transmission (G&T) cooperative utility. How can they work together to find these opportunities? We're looking to support the work of cooperatives through things like developing new analytic tools that help assess the opportunities of distributed energy resources, like solar energy, but also doing work like interviews and focus groups. Working with groups of distribution utilities to see really what's important to them. What do they need from their larger association in the G&T—the generation and transmission family—in order to thrive here, and how can you navigate differences? Sometimes the G&Ts role—to use the terrible analogy—seems like herding cats across members, which I think actually is not accurate. I think oftentimes it's much more about how we can better listen to, get participation from, get buy-in, fine-tailor solutions, and innovate as technology and markets are changing to really support everyone and continue to drive a lot of value for rural communities all across the state.

So that's been really exciting work because we've gotten to do this work in partnership and lend some of our capacity where available and what's been really fun is we've also integrated in my research group, a lot of students into this work and created internships out of it and have mentorship pathways for students through all this and engaged other universities in the area, so that their students can participate in some of these projects as well.

What we're really trying to do is find ways for universities to connect with all these really exciting opportunities like electric cooperatives and other kinds of organizations like that.

All of these pieces fit into a larger set of projects that we're doing to truly see how, as we develop new distributed energy technologies, we're thinking about ways in which everyone can benefit from that.

Gabe Chan, Assistant Professor and lead of the Chan Lab at University of Minnesota Humphrey School of Public Affairs

Marie Donahue: So, you mentioned your rural electric cooperative work, are there other projects, other technologies, or other structures that are particularly interesting to you and your work right now?

Gabe Chan: Yeah, another big thing we've been working on is community solar. Minnesota has one of the largest community solar programs, again this is an area where CERTs has done a lot of work too, helping support community solar information sharing, particularly for consumers. A lot of the work that we're doing on community solar has been with the National Renewable Energy Lab, which is one of the Department of Energy labs that is based out in Colorado. We've been working with them for the last three years to track community solar across the country and really in particular understand how programs are being developed and what the value to subscribers are to participate in these programs.

One of the starting points for community solar is that as solar energy is getting cheaper and cheaper and cheaper, we all can see those trends, but who's benefiting from that cheap energy? If solar energy is now the cheapest form of energy. Various research groups have pointed out, well then, how does that actually materialize for homes? Clearly there's a lot of private investment going in solar energy and investors are making a lot of money on solar energy. We’re increasingly seeing utilities taking charge of these projects as well, investing in these projects and making my money and that's all good stuff you know, I think that you know new energy technologies, innovation, creating profit incentives is like how we get new technologies to market quickly, and I think that's all really good in the sense of it helps us move towards an energy transition more quickly and ultimately cheaper forms of energy, you know, we should in theory of resulting in lower bills for consumers, but there's a disconnect to it all of the story, which is that you know we're also creating a lot of opportunities for those cost savings and environmental benefits of clean energy that aren't being equitably distributed and one of the studies showed that only half of US households have an opportunity for rooftop solar. Now rooftop solar has many problems, it also has many opportunities like any energy technology from fossil fuels to nuclear to renewables, there are trade offs.

And certainly when we think about distributed technologies like rooftop solar, there are trade offs, there are definitely trade offs, but the fact remains that a lot of states have strong incentives that have driven opportunities for rooftop solar that are accessible to someone, not everyone, and oftentimes those barriers are not owning your own rooftop maybe you're a renter, having a rooftop that faces in the wrong direction, so you can optimize production, maybe it's living on the first floor of a two floor duplex. There are many reasons why households may not be able to take advantage of such opportunities.

Here's really where community solar comes in, as an opportunity to expand the population that can benefit from cheaper and cheaper solar energy. In particular, we've been studying these programs and trying to understand better the trade offs associated with community solar, the benefits and the costs. Many community solar programs in the country, particularly at the beginning, were premium products that cost more to participate in so they weren't associated with cost savings. We're now seeing many of these programs do offer cost savings, and we're trying to understand, where does that value come from? How is that value shared? Understanding that value prospect is a really interesting project. I think community solar, if done right—quote unquote “right”—has a lot of potential to address many intersections of problems. 

From a research standpoint, what we're interested in understanding is how these programs are being developed. What's the financial structure of these programs? What does it take to get to viability? What are all of the changes that come along before and after community solar, particularly to the ecosystem of actors that get involved, how do different community based organizations activate around supporting community solar? What are their roles in supporting more equitable access to community solar? How do we think about the necessary ecosystem of actors that it takes to build community solar? You need to finance project development but then you also need things that are specific to community solar like subscriber engagement and you need to explain the model to people and reach out to communities that maybe haven't participated in energy programs before.

All these pieces get layered on top of development which from one perspective can be seen as costs from another perspective can be seen as a necessary step to really build a more equitable energy system. All of these pieces fit into a larger set of projects that we're doing to truly see how, as we develop new distributed energy technologies, we're thinking about ways in which everyone can benefit from that.

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Photo: Chan Lab students at the Clean Energy Resource Teams Conference in Saint Cloud in 2018. Credit: CERTs.

Marie Donahue: As a follow up to that CERTs works supporting Minnesota’s community solar program, but within the National Renewable Energy Lab (NREL) project context, is your research focused on other states, as well? Are you contributing the Minnesota piece to this larger project or are you looking broadly at factors across states?

Gabe Chan: We're looking both locally and nationally. I think that's what's been really interesting to do some of that comparative work. Minnesota was one of the earlier states in building out community solar and then went really fast and further than any state has and built out, you know I think over 700 megawatts of capacity now of community solar. So there are a lot of lessons learned from that experience that a lot of other states are interested in. Specifically around rate design, some of the nitty gritty on how costs are recovered and how tariffs are set. We're doing some of that work and we're participating in some of the docket here in Minnesota around the value of solar and contributing where we can to where we think there's opportunities for better analysis to inform how we set rates.

A lot of what's really interesting about the NREL work has been: What are the organizations that get involved in community solar? How did they design contracts for subscribers? What are the terms they said and what are the overall patterns in how that's rolling out and where the changes over time? I think a lot of what's really interesting is to follow some of the states that followed Minnesota. The changes to programs that they made. For example, it's very common in New York and Massachusetts to get a subscription contract that goes year to year and offers a guaranteed savings of 5-10 percent off your energy bill. That's not a very typical contract in Minnesota. You hear a lot of our contracts because of the tariff structure oftentimes give a rebate—a bill credit savings—to be more accurate for subscribers that's not exactly paid to a certain fixed guaranteed savings rate. Both of those are kind of nitty gritty about how programs have evolved over time. A lot of the work we're doing is trying to understand those changes and potentially what can be learned from that experience.

I think energy justice is something we thought a lot about, and equity in the energy system. There are several reasons for that. First and foremost, living the quote-unquote “good life” in modern society requires energy consumption... You need energy for not just lighting and heating or refrigeration or air conditioning, but now you also need energy for education and for buying groceries and doing your job... Increasingly we're seeing how interconnected energy access is to living a life that's in the middle class or above.

Gabe Chan, Assistant Professor and lead of the Chan Lab at University of Minnesota Humphrey School of Public Affairs

Marie Donahue: So, woven throughout both of these earlier topics you mentioned has been a sense of how we in our society distribute costs and benefits across those who are sharing in this energy system. As we were in touch about in the podcast, one of the third areas that you mentioned, and I think it's something top of mind for so many of us across Minnesota and across the country this year has been the topic of justice and equity. As we move forward and build this energy future, I'm curious, what work are you doing in that space?

Gabe Chan: I think energy justice is something we thought a lot about and equity in the energy system. There are several reasons for that. First and foremost, living the quote-unquote “good life” in modern society requires energy consumption. It’s in many ways a necessity of life today, especially as we're working from home and taking classes on Zoom and things like that. You need energy for not just lighting and heating or refrigeration or air conditioning, but now you also need energy for education and for buying groceries and doing your job. And all these things, not for everyone, but increasingly we're seeing how interconnected energy access is to living a life that's in the middle class or above.

In that sense, energy is something very close to a right, like water. This becomes an important framing in how we think about how we're designing our energy system. Yet at the same time, our energy system is unaffordable to households. The last time that the U.S. Energy Information Administration, part of the Energy Department, did a survey in 2015, they found that nearly one third of households face some form of energy insecurity and for African American, Black, Hispanic, and Latino households that percentage was more like 50 percent.

The fact that large fractions of the population face insecurity and accessing a necessity of living the good life. It is a real societal problem. It's not just a problem of utilities or specific households—it's societal, it’s systemic. It has deep connections to our housing policy. It has deep connections to our economic policy. It has deep connections to our environmental policy. So, all of these things get layered on top, and really start to point toward the need for research, engagement, activism, policy, boardroom decisions, that all think about the way in which we are sharing the costs and making accessible the benefits of this critical infrastructure system.

Within that context, a lot of what we're trying to do is understand, first of all, where we are today in terms of energy justice. Doing that stocktaking and then also thinking about how we're also in this unprecedented moment of change in the energy system. If we're just thinking about replacing one for one, fossil fuels with clean energy, we're missing this opportunity to also think about the deeper structural changes. The bigger kinds of systems reorientation that we could—and from a moral standpoint maybe should—be doing to address energy justice, when we're making these massive infrastructure changes.

Put another way, if we're making trillions of dollars of investment and we're not thinking about equity, then we're almost certainly guaranteeing that we're going to repeat the systems of deep structural inequality that exist today. So I think that you know with all that framing, a lot of what we're trying to do is think about the right partners, think about the right projects, and really center equity in everything that we're doing from our rural projects on distributed energy resources and governing electric cooperatives to work on community solar to other things that we're doing related to energy assistance programs, understanding utility disconnections, and so many other things.

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Photo: Gabe Chan with University of Minnesota Humphrey School of Public Affairs students in 2017. Credit: Chan Lab.

Marie Donahue: Thank you for your work there as well. I’m curious now to hear how you hope this work is having an impact, and what, especially in the context of the issues we just talked about, are you finding or seeing as effective pathways to change as we move forward?

Gabe Chan: I think one of the biggest pathways to impact, if you will, has really been through the students. Students come in and we were at you know I mostly work with students who are doing a two year master's at the Humphrey School and the master’s of public policy or the master’s of science, technology and environmental policy programs. Students come in with a lot of curiosity, a lot of motivation, a lot of experience and are looking for, I think, a kind of a push, a nudge, and networking with professionals. I feel like my job is so easy because I get to work with such amazing students who bring so much energy to the classroom and into our projects, every day, and they go out and do amazing things. I'm not sure how much that we're doing but it just feels like working in this really dynamic environment at the University, it's such a privilege. It's so much fun working with students who keep me grounded and then go off and do amazing things and tell me about it. It feels like that's really how we're having an impact in my group, by bringing in really fun people who have a ton of interesting and diverse perspectives and then they go out and change the world.

I feel like in the work that we're doing, I think it's really important in how we build in opportunities for mentorship and training throughout that.

 

Marie Donahue: So, what's next on the horizon and in your work and what are you most looking forward to about our energy future?

Gabe Chan: I’m looking forward to being back in person. I'm sure like a lot of people now, it's been a long time on Zoom meetings and such. I think we've gotten better at it over the course of the pandemic, but I'm really looking forward to being back interacting with people in person and using our new online technologies, where they're best suited. That's not everywhere, and so I'm looking forward to being back in the classroom and having some more in person meetings. I think that's really so important for relationship building.

Now I am very keen to see how things will change over the next few years in the energy system. There are so many things that we are getting ready for and and now feels like we're going to be at a time of you know, running really fast and implementing. There's news about a new infrastructure bill this morning and what that’s going to have in it for clean energy. News about new R&D policy through a bipartisan bill that passed just the other day around the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, which is super wonky, but it's all about how distributed energy resources are fed into wholesale markets. That's a really interesting development that's going to go through implementation in the next two years. Then we have this whole wave of power plant retirements and new projects being announced.

It feels like there's just so much momentum building, and now we're going to start running. It's a constant challenge just to keep up with the latest developments, and technology has really helped us stay up to date on what's going on in the world, and so it feels like there's an acceleration. We're seeing that acceleration in our projects with new partners who are interested in collaborating and in our admissions numbers. I was just telling the students who want to work on energy and climate change that it feels like a really exciting time to be doing this, where I can. There's just no shortage of projects and people to work with, so that all gives me a ton of energy. Particularly working on these big systems like continent-spanning electric grids and global or world-spanning climate connections. It feels overwhelming and existential all the time, but there's also just so much energy being brought to us by new students and new project partners.

We're really looking to do things differently at the university and show up in new ways. To welcome conversations about how we can be better partners. But also, we have great resources here that are just waiting to be used by the public, whether it's coming to do undergrad or grad degree or even a mid-career degree, or participating in our public events.

Gabe Chan, Assistant Professor and lead of the Chan Lab at University of Minnesota Humphrey School of Public Affairs

Marie DonahueAny advice for our listeners or other folks, maybe potential future students, or others just interested in engaging in clean energy in Minnesota and across the energy system?

Gabe Chan: What I'm really excited about is the opportunity for the university to show up in new in different ways, and you know for listeners out there in organizations that maybe haven't collaborated with the university before. We're really looking to do things differently at the university and show up in new ways. To welcome conversations about how we can be better partners. But also, we have great resources here that are just waiting to be used by the public, whether it's coming to do undergrad or grad degree or even a mid-career degree, or participating in our public events. We run weekly seminars and we do bigger events too, and all of those are open resources to the public. And if you're a senior citizen, you can take classes for really cheap. I love having students like that in my class.

There's just so many opportunities to use our public universities for bigger impact and broadening who has access to this kind of big bank of people and resources. Books and other forms of knowledge, so I just welcome opportunities to partner with new folks and connect you to resources.

 

Marie Donahue: Thanks so much for joining us on the show today and sharing so much with us today about your path, the work you're doing, and what keeps you going and working on these issues, as we move forward.

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