Register Now for Energy Week at Duke (Nov. 8-11)!
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Text: November 8-11, 2021. Logo: Energy Week and Duke University. Horizontal series of 4 images of individuals in professional attire conversing, including 1 with a group of people holding a giant check. Label on series of images: Pre-COVID images. Text: Column 1: Mon (11/8) 5-6:30 p.m. ET Energy Solution Room; 7:30-8:30 p.m. ET, Building a Just Foundation for Our Energy Transition: An Expert Panel Event. Column 2: Tues (11/9) 9 a.m-2 p.m. ET, Energy in Emerging Markets Case Competition; 4-7 p.m. ET, SPARK Career Event. Column 3: Wed (11/10) 9:30 a.m.-4 p.m. ET; Duke University Energy Conference. Column 4: Thurs (11/11) 4-7 p.m. ET Energy Innovation Showcase. Text box: Learn more & register:

Registration is now open for the sixth annual Energy Week at Duke: Nov. 8 - 11, 2021.

ALL are invited to join the Duke University Energy Conference (Nov. 10):

Logo: Duke University Energy Conference, Achieving Climate Commitments, Part of Energy Week at Duke University, Text: Wednesday November 10, 2021, Geneen Auditorium Fuqua School of Business, Join on Zoom, Keynote Speakers, Amy Duffuor, Principal at Prime Impact Fund, Chris Shelton, President of AES Next, Senior VP & Chief Product Officer of AES, Jennifer Gerbi, Acting Director & Deputy Director of ARPA-E, Jeff Ubben T'83, Founder & Managing Partner at Inclusive Capital Partners

At the Duke University Energy Conference (Wed., Nov. 10, 9 a.m. - 4 p.m., FREE), industry experts will exchange ideas about how the private and public sectors can actually realize ambitious climate commitments. Keynotes include Amy Duffuor (Prime Impact Fund), Jennifer Gerbi (ARPA-E), Chris Shelton (AES Corporation), and (in-person only) Jeff Ubben T'83 (Inclusive Capital Partners). Duke students, faculty, and staff can view in-person; all others are invited to join virtually! Register now. 

Duke students, faculty, and staff are also invited to register for these five additional in-person events: 

The Energy Solution Room (Mon., Nov. 8, 5 - 6:30 p.m.): Duke students from all degree programs, kick off Energy Week with a visit to the inaugural Energy Solution Room!  You will collaborate with a small interdisciplinary team to develop solutions for an energy challenge, and you’ll have the opportunity meet and learn from energy startup, investment, and policy experts. Register to compete no later than Sun., 11/7 at 5 p.m.  

Building a Just Foundation for Our Energy Transition (Mon., Nov. 8, 7:30 - 8:30 p.m.): How can we keep equity and justice at the forefront while advancing a nationwide transition to renewable energy? Duke students, faculty, and staff are invited to hear from experts Sherri White-Williamson (NC Conservation Network) and Joshua McClenney (Appalachian Voices), whose organizations are working to ensure a more just and sustainable future for our economy, communities, and energy grid. They’ll join Duke’s J. Spenser Darden (Sanford School of Public Policy) and moderator Kay Jowers (Nicholas Institute for Environmental Solutions) for a lively conversation. Register. 
Energy in Emerging Markets Case Competition (Tues., Nov. 9, 9 a.m. - 2 p.m.): This year’s case competition has engaged 108 teams of grad students from across the globe in generating solutions for a real-world energy challenge in Sub-Saharan Africa. This event—open to competition participants and Duke students, faculty, and staff—will showcase finalist teams' solutions as they compete for $15K in prizes sponsored by the James E. Rogers Energy Access Project. Also on the agenda: a documentary viewing and fireside chat with Matt Siller (C-Quest Capital) and "lunch and learn" sessions with experts serving as case competition judges. Register. 

SPARK Career Event (Tues., Nov. 9, 4 - 7 p.m. ): Duke undergraduate and graduate students, kickstart your career and explore the energy industry at the SPARK Career Event. You’ll be able to network with Duke alumni from 20+ companies and organizations, including Enel, E3, Fluence, ICF, NextEra, Rocky Mountain Institute, Schneider Electric, Vestas, and many more. Register. 
Energy Innovation Showcase (Thurs., Nov. 11, 4 - 7 p.m.): Meet some of the North Carolina-based players accelerating a clean and equitable energy future! Duke students, faculty, and staff, come learn more about the work of 19 NC companies and organizations advancing innovative technology, policy, finance, energy justice, and development. The event will kick off with remarks by Ajulo Othow (EnerWealth Solutions) and Marshall Cherry (Roanoke Electric Cooperative). Register. 

ABOUT ENERGY WEEK: Energy Week at Duke is an annual event series organized by dozens of undergraduate and graduate students from degree programs across Duke, dwith support from the EDGE Center at the Fuqua School of Business, the Duke University Energy Initiative (which is merging with the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions), and many organizational and corporate sponsors.  

QUESTIONS? Contact  

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Energy Internship Program fuels Duke students’ summer learning
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Dozens of undergraduate and graduate students from across Duke University are taking deep dives into the energy industry this summer. Many connected with their internship opportunities thanks to the interdisciplinary Energy Internship Program, and 21 received supplementary funding through the program.

Created by the Duke University Energy Initiative in 2019, the program identified more internship listings than ever for summer 2021, including opportunities at start-ups, utilities, renewable energy developers, large firms, non-governmental organizations, and government agencies.

As in the past, students could apply to the Energy Internship Program for financial assistance if offered unpaid or low-paying positions. Thanks to a partnership with the Energy Access Project, some funding was reserved for internships related to energy access or energy transitions in low- and middle-income countries.

Will Slap with his dog Rooney.
Will Slap (MEM/MBA’22) is completing his finance internship with BlocPower remotely, aided by capable office assistant Rooney.

One of the students funded by this year’s program is Will Slap, who is pursuing dual master’s degrees in business administration and environmental management at the Fuqua School of Business and Nicholas School of the Environment. Will is a finance intern at BlocPower, a climate technology startup that retrofits buildings in disadvantaged communities with clean energy projects, helping lower utility bills and create jobs. Founded by Duke University alumnus Donnel Baird (’03), BlocPower has garnered national attention with its creative approach to advancing sustainable energy, energy efficiency, and economic development in American cities.

“I'm able to take the modeling and strategy tools I've learned at Duke and put them to work in service of decarbonizing buildings and expanding access to those who traditionally have been marginalized and left out of the green economy,” Slap reflected. “I'm so grateful to the Energy Initiative, the Fuqua School of Business’s Summer Internship Fund, and the BlocPower team for this opportunity.”

Tina Machado working remotely next to two kittens.
Tina Machado (E’23) appreciates her remote project management internship with Sustaining Way even though some of her coworkers are kind of "catty."

Tina Machado, a rising junior at the Pratt School of Engineering, received funding for her project management internship with Sustaining Way, a nonprofit that uses education, collaboration and advocacy to create sustainable, caring and equitable communities. “I am getting real-life experience working with sustainability and energy efficiency that I would not otherwise have,” reported Machado. “I am making great connections with my coworkers and enjoying every minute of the internship.”

“We want to be able to connect as many Duke students as possible to real-world experiences with the energy industry,” explained Dr. Brian Murray, interim director of the recently merged Energy Initiative and Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions. “Thanks to a network of Duke alumni and friends, we’ve been able to match more students to new opportunities. I’m deeply grateful for their generosity and look forward to continuing to grow the Energy Internship Program.”

The Energy Internship Program provided supplementary funding to 21 undergraduate and graduate students in the summer of 2021:

  • Scott Burstein, a rising senior majoring in earth and climate sciences at Trinity College of Arts & Sciences, is a summer intern at Standard Normal.
  • Jeff Fromuth, who is pursuing a master's degree in environmental management at the Nicholas School of the Environment, is a summer intern at The North Carolina Clean Energy Fund.
  • Abhinav Jain, a rising junior majoring in economics at Trinity College of Arts & Sciences, is a summer intern at Terrafuse, Inc.
  • Rajat Khandelwal, who is pursuing a master’s degree in environmental management at the Nicholas School of the Environment, is a summer intern at the Indo-German Energy Forum. **
  • Pierce King, who is pursuing an MBA degree at the Fuqua School of Business, is interning at Clean Energy Ventures.
  • Colin Lee, a rising senior studying energy mechanics and geopolitics in the Middle East at Trinity College of Arts & Sciences, is a summer intern at Aspire Power Solutions. **
  • Harry Lord, who is pursuing a master’s degree in management studies at the Fuqua School of Business, is interning at EQ Research.
  • Christina Machado, a rising junior majoring in electrical and computer engineering at the Pratt School of Engineering, is a summer intern at Sustaining Way.
  • Kate Neal, a rising junior majoring in environmental sciences at Trinity College of Arts & Sciences, is a summer intern at SmartBlock Communities.
  • Jonathan Peralta, who is pursuing a master’s degree in environmental management at the Nicholas School of the Environment and an MBA from UNC's Kenan-Flagler School of Business, is a summer intern at Aspire Power Solutions. **
  • Hope Pratt, a rising sophomore majoring in biomedical engineering at the Pratt School of Engineering, is a summer intern at Aspire Power Solutions. **
  • Jose Pumarejo, who is pursuing an MBA at the Fuqua School of Business and a master’s degree in public policy from the Sanford School of Public Policy, is interning with the Doing Business Project at The World Bank. **
  • Casey Schoff, a rising sophomore student majoring in economics and public policy at Trinity College of Arts & Sciences, is a summer intern at Ecolytics.
  • Swetha Sekhar, a rising sophomore majoring  in mechanical engineering at the Pratt School of Engineering and computer science at Trinity College of Arts & Sciences, is a summer intern at Ecolytics.
  • Sagar Shah, a rising senior studying public policy at Trinity College of Arts & Sciences, is a summer intern with the U.S. Department of Energy’s State Energy Program.
  • Will Slap, who is pursuing a master’s degree in environmental management from the Nicholas School of the Environment and an MBA from the Fuqua School of Business, is a summer intern at BlocPower.
  • Ava Weinreb, a rising senior majoring in environmental sciences and policy at Trinity College of Arts & Sciences, is a summer intern at Advanced Energy Economy.
  • Michael Wood, a rising junior majoring in mechanical engineering at the Pratt School of Engineering, is a summer intern at Varea Energy.
  • Katherine Wu, who is pursuing a master’s degree in engineering management at the Pratt School of Engineering, is a summer intern at Lyft.
  • Winston Yau, a rising senior majoring in public policy and physics at Trinity College of Arts & Sciences, is a summer intern at Prime Impact Fund.
  • Erin Yu, a rising sophomore majoring in environmental sciences and policy at Trinity College of Arts & Sciences, is a summer intern at SmartBlock Communities.

** denotes the student received funding from the Energy Access Project at Duke

Questions about the Energy Internship Program?
Contact Stacy Peterson:

Want to make a gift to support the Energy Initiative’s educational programming?
You can give online or contact Mary Catherine Hall, Duke Development.

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Keep going: 5 tips for pursuing energy career opportunities in 2020
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Will Foster

The Career and Professional Development Center at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment assembled a group of energy professionals to advise students on advancing their careers during this challenging time. The webinar was conducted in partnership with the Energy Initiative, the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, and the Nicholas School Energy Club.

Here’s some of the wisdom that industry experts dropped during a virtual panel discussion:

1 - Your network is more important now than ever.

Everyone is busy these days, but that doesn’t mean your network can’t be there for you. In times like these, when online job postings are harder to find, check in with your professional connections. When reaching out, be sure that you are sensitive to the difficulties that your contact may be going through due to the coronavirus pandemic.

“It is a numbers game, but I also think that you can spend a lot of time just doing [job] applications. And I’ve known people who have done hundreds and hundreds of applications. I have always taken the approach of building relationships, and I’ve always been a person who has done very few applications.” – Melissa Semcer, MEM '07, Program Manager, Wildfire Safety Division, California Public Utilities Commission

“Ask, ‘Who else would you recommend, and would you be willing to introduce me to them?’… Definitely ask for more contacts as you go through.” – Nicole Buell, MEM '11, Democratic Professional Staff Member, Energy and Natural Resources Committee, U.S. Senate

“When you reach out, just do it very thoughtfully… For a lot of us now, we’re working full time and we have kids at home and it’s very distracting.” – Hannah Polikov, T '05/JD '08, Managing Director, Public Utility Commission Program, Advanced Energy Economy

“For each contact, you have to be very specific about your outreach. You need to know why you are trying to talk to this person and you need to have done your homework prior to talking to this person.” – Tian Qiao, MEM ‘17, Associate Consultant, Siemens

2 - Persevere.

The process of finding a job or internship takes time, and many job seekers have been thrown off their leads by the pandemic. It is important to not get discouraged and find a way to organize information about your job search. Try developing an Excel tool or other system to help you keep track of your progress and connections to help you to stay positive.

“I wanted to go to the Hill for three years, and I just kept the conversations going and eventually one of the contacts that I made was the reason that I ended up getting my foot in the door.” – Nicole Buell, MEM '11, Democratic Professional Staff Member, Energy and Natural Resources Committee, U.S. Senate

“There will be a cure to the COVID-19 crisis, but there will be virtually no cure for the climate crisis. [After the pandemic] the renewable energy industry will still be an important industry.” – Tian Qiao, MEM ‘17, Associate Consultant, Siemens

3 - Learn what your priorities are, and what you can be flexible on.

The reality is that not everyone will get their dream internship or job. It is important to know what your highest priorities are for your next job, and to identify aspects of the job that you are willing to be flexible on. For instance, if you know for certain that you want to work somewhere in New York, you may need to take a different type of role than you were expecting to make that locational goal happen.

“What’s really important is… getting clear on what you really want, like getting clear on what really, really matters to you, but also allowing for flexibility. So for me I really wanted to go out West. I really wanted to experience that part of the country and I had to get really flexible about what job I took… I ended up finding a great career that I never could have envisioned.” – Melissa Semcer, MEM '07, Program Manager, Wildfire Safety Division, California Public Utilities Commission

4 - If you can’t find something right away, make use of the gap period!

Staying proactive about your career during a lull period is crucial. You may find yourself taking a job that’s not in your chosen field, just to make ends meet and fill a gap period. If this happens, you can still use your free time to read articles about the industry or volunteer with an industry organization. And keep in mind that your career detour will likely give you new skills that can help when you return to the industry. Just make sure to stay connected during the gap period.

“If you can’t travel and you’re in North Carolina… there are a lot of local organizations you can get involved in… Everyone is quite connected, the state players really connect with the national players… Getting a handle of how things move at the state level is a really good place to start.” – Caroline Golin, Senior Regulatory Policy Lead, Google

“The more skillsets that you can acquire will help you later on. It’s something really valuable to have. We always look for people that are adaptable and can handle a lot of ambiguity, who can slot into different spaces and learn quickly.” – Caroline Golin, Senior Regulatory Policy Lead, Google

“If you do something else [during your gap period], do something to stay relevant in this space… If you have to do something else, no one is going to hold that against you, but stay relevant in some way.” – Hannah Polikov, T '05/JD '08, Managing Director, Public Utility Commission Program, Advanced Energy Economy

5 - Plenty of places are still hiring, but you may need to broaden your search.

If you have been looking only at positions in private industry, try looking at government agency postings, as many still seem to be hiring at pre-pandemic rates. Also, you might be limiting yourself geographically without even knowing it—try looking at some of the local organizations that work in your field. Even if they aren’t where you want to end up permanently, you will probably learn something that will prove useful later in your career.

“Even though the economy is really sketchy, organizations still need people… for example, I am building my entire team.”  – Melissa Semcer, MEM '07, Program Manager, Wildfire Safety Division, California Public Utilities Commission

Meanwhile, take advantage of these resources...

  • Your Duke Career Center can connect you with employment opportunities, advising, and resources.
  • Any Duke student interested in an energy career can request a virtual advising appointment with Stacy Peterson, assistant director for student and alumni engagement at the Energy Initiative.
  • Students interested in energy research careers or learning more about what it's like to work at a federal agency can request a virtual advising appointment with Dr. Eric Rohlfing, executive-in-residence at the Energy Initiative (formerly of the U.S. Department of Energy and ARPA-E). 
  • Subscribe to the Energy Initiative's email newsletter for postings, events, and more. 

Will Foster is a 2019-2020 graduate student assistant at the Duke University Energy Initiative. He is pursuing a master’s degree in environmental management (MEM) at the Nicholas School of the Environment and a master’s degree in business administration (MBA) at the Fuqua School of Business. 

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Melissa Semcer (MEM’07) takes us inside California’s wildfire crisis
firefighters facing a blaze
Ian Reichardt
Melissa Semcer headshot
As an administrative law judge for the California Public Utilities Commission, Semcer presided over many stakeholder proceedings ranging from ratepayer disputes to policy cases. In this role, she authored complex decisions advancing California energy and climate change policies. 

As wildfires ravaged California in late 2019, millions of residents coped with massive power blackouts. Duke alumna Melissa Semcer's work at the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) has given her a unique perspective on the crisis. 

As an administrative law judge, Semcer helped develop the guidelines that govern execution of the new Public Safety Power Shutoffs (PSPS). Several of the state’s utilities implemented these in October and November, cutting power to millions in preemptive efforts to avoid starting wildfires. On Nov. 12, Semcer issued a ruling requiring the large electric utility PG&E to defend its violation of communication protocols during recent shut-offs, describing the events as “ill-conceived, poorly planned, uncoordinated (both internally and externally) and ineffectively communicated.”

Semcer has now pivoted to address California’s challenges from an implementation perspective, as Program Manager for Wildfire Mitigation at the CPUC’s newly created Wildfire Safety Division. She sat down recently with Duke student Ian Reichardt (MEM’21) to discuss the complexities of the wildfire crisis. This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

To get started, would you mind describing what the California Public Utilities Commission does and what your role there is?

The CPUC is the agency in California that is tasked with regulating investor-owned utilities of all kinds. That includes water companies, large investor-owned electric utilities like Pacific Gas and Electric Company, and smaller ones like Liberty Utilities and Bear Valley. We also oversee rail crossings, transportation (including Lyft and Uber), moving companies, and other services. We have some communication oversight as well.

As an administrative law judge at the commission, I mostly focused on energy cases. Whether it’s a ratepayer dispute or a policy case, the judges work to build the record, get stakeholder input through hearings, and put forward decisions that are legally sound and evidence-based. For the major cases, the commissioners vote on those decisions—and that’s how the commission sets policy.

In my current role as a Program Manager in the new Wildfire Safety Division, I am overseeing the evaluation of the electric utilities' wildfire mitigation plans. I am building a team to evaluate the plans as well as to support real-time Public Safety Power Shutoffs. In essence, I'm taking everything I learned as a judge and getting into the day-to-day work of reducing utility-caused wildfires.

PG&E’s Public Safety Power Shutoffs have been getting a ton of news coverage recently, and I want to talk about that. But first, these shutoffs are just one measure included within the Wildfire Mitigation Plans that new legislation (SB 901) has required utilities to develop. What else do these plans encompass?

Grid hardening is one element. That can include replacing wood power poles with concrete poles and stopping the use of reclosers so that when power is interrupted, the line is not sparking as it tries to re-electrify.

Vegetation management is another aspect: making sure the trees are not close to the wires and trying to calculate the trajectory of wind to minimize contact with the lines. But it’s also an environmental issue because it can mean cutting down so many trees.

There’s also sectionalizing the grid so that you can be more strategic about what is on and off.

And then forest management, which is not the utility’s job: controlled burns and things like that.

And then also outside of the plans, there’s building codes. As we build new communities, the question is, can you build communities that are up to fire code, but also have breaks around them? And then also things like ingress and egress. One of the issues with the Paradise (Camp) fire was that there were only one-lane roads. That was a massive issue because people couldn’t get out.

Can you talk about the CPUC’s process for assessing the utilities’ Wildfire Mitigation Plans and the major stakeholders involved?

Each of the plans went through our case process. When I was an administrative law judge, my colleagues and I heard from a number of stakeholders like counties, local governments, water companies and disability rights organizations. We coordinated with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, and, for Public Safety Power Shutoffs (PSPS), with California Office of Emergency Services. In the case addressing PSPS guidelines, we heard from people running refineries, healthcare, and transportation.

This year, there was such a tight turnaround. SB 901 allows for 90 days from the time the plan is filed to approve it, which doesn’t leave a whole lot of time for digging into it. So with the first round of Wildfire Mitigation Plans that were approved, we were really only able to ask, did the plans include all of the pieces and information they were supposed to, per legislation? We didn’t have time to ask, are these the right expenditures? Are these the right choices for achieving our goals? That’s something the CPUC is going to be looking at more, going forward.

In 2019, California adopted AB 1054, which, in part, created the Wildfire Safety Division, where I am a Program Manager. The Wildfire Safety Division is tasked with evaluating the Wildfire Mitigation Plans from 2020 on. The Plans will no longer be evaluated through a formal proceeding. For 2020, we have relased templates and metrics, including a maturity assessment, to take evaluation of the plans to the next level. The Division will also be tasked with assessing compliance with the plans, in essence creating a feedback loop for plans in future years.

What factors have caused PG&E to be so heavily impacted by the intensifying wildfire season? Has it been management issues, equipment problems, or just bad luck?

PG&E is the state’s largest utility, and it has a very large territory.

It also has aging infrastructure. There has been deferred maintenance, but this is, in my mind, an issue facing more than just PG&E. It’s something all the utilities in the country need to confront and is an issue that goes beyond only utility infrastructure.

And then with climate change, the duration, severity, and intensity of our wildfire season has increased. Northern California’s equivalent of the Santa Anas involved wind gusts of up to 108 miles per hour on top of some of the hills. That’s not normal. And the fuel load is heightened because we’re having these intense rains over a shorter period of time. It’s really dry later in the year, and with all this dead vegetation, it really only takes seconds for something to just blow up when it ignites.

So there’s a lot of things coming together.

There has been a lot of criticism that these emergency power shutoffs are disproportionately affecting vulnerable populations, like those with disabilities or hourly workers whose employers are forced to close during shutoffs. How can utilities and/or the CPUC better ensure that these people are either less severely impacted or indemnified for their losses?

There’s a term that California’s Office of Emergency Services uses that we’ve adopted: Access and Functional Needs Populations. Those groups include low-income people, non-native English speakers, people relying on medical equipment, and others. We’ve identified that those populations are impacted more severely and are going to need assistance in various ways.

There’s a number of factors that make them harder hit by the fires and power shutoffs. With rising costs, lower-income residents are often having to move further out into what we call Wildland Urban Interfaces, which are at higher risk for fire. Then you have elderly populations as well. So for example, in Paradise, many of the 86 people that were killed were elderly.

It’s possible that people could die not just from fires but from power shutoffs themselves. As I was writing the guidelines, this was on the forefront of my mind. To my knowledge, there have been no deaths associated with the shutoffs. But that could change.

There are several components of mitigation for these populations.

One is preparation in advance: making sure that they have a plan, including emergency contacts and people to help them. That means working with the local governments and also the utilities—which is where some of the information sharing gets challenging. The utilities have Medical Baseline tariffs that you can be on, if you’re reliant on medical equipment. It’s elective, but before a shutoff event they can’t share that information with the local government. The minute the shutoff event is called, they can start sharing information because it’s now an emergency situation.

There’s also the question of whether these populations should be getting backup generation provided by the utility, and if so, who? Utilities have generally come from the standpoint that they should focus backup generation efforts on the people for whom electricity is a lifesaving measure. But advocates for disabled and low-income people argue that a low-income person losing all of their refrigerated food can be a make-or-break situation.

And there’s how people are notified of the events. Right now, the utilities are sending out text messages, using the radio, news, all these broadcast methods. But there is also what we call positive notification, which requires the utility to confirm that you got the notification, even if that means going to your door to check. And we’re figuring out which groups should get that—right now, in-person notification is required for power shutoffs for people with Medical Baseline status.

There’s also cooling centers and charging centers being set up, places where people can go that are run by generators. At this point, those are only open during the day. I think there’s a question of, should these people have a place to go for 24/7 shelter? All of these are open questions being considered, but the answers not yet determined.

It’s a lot to consider. And it takes time to think it through. We don’t want to have any more shutoffs where people are impacted, but it’s going to happen. We’ll definitely be working to get more safeguards in place for next season.

You mentioned California’s increasingly lengthy and dangerous wildfire seasons. Is the current solution of requiring Wildfire Mitigation Plans sustainable? How would you want to see it improved?

The Wildfire Mitigation Plan requirement is just a framework. I think that some kind of framework is imperative to have. But, getting people to the table and having ongoing conversations and strategy sessions is the most important thing we can do.

The plans could be more sustainable solutions in the sense that we could require different things over time. More than anything, it’s about how do we get where we need to go? And then how do we prioritize? Because the utilities need to make a lot of investments in their grids. Simultaneously, these shutoffs are having really big impacts. You have to create policies around shutoffs, and you also want to make it so that shutoffs aren’t necessary in the future. But it’s hard to divide your attention at this point and achieve both goals right now.

San Francisco and San Jose have come out in favor of public ownership of PG&E’s infrastructure. While PG&E doesn’t seem inclined to sell off their infrastructure any time soon, I’m hoping you could discuss what public ownership might mean in the context of wildfire risk and the need for resiliency.

You could have a debate about whether utilities should be private, whether there should be shareholder gain, etc. And when we’re talking about microgrids, you could start to ask the question, “do we need utilities as monopolies anymore?” While there’s good reason to have utilities as monopolies or single providers, the changing grid... changes things.

For me, the biggest question is just, can you  safely and effectively provide the service? PG&E is a huge company, for better or worse. It also provides gas, and it has a massive territory. That is a challenge, I don’t care who you are.

As far as what public ownership would mean, I’m not sure exactly how it would go. But I imagine it would mean essentially having a board, having public rather than private compensation, getting rid of the whole shareholder process. But the question remains: is the state better equipped to run the infrastructure? If so, then who from the state would do that, to take over such a large entity?

So speaking personally, I don’t know what the right outcome is. I can say the state is thinking about all outcomes. It really comes down to, how do you get this massive infrastructure to work and to be safe and reliable? That’s Public Utility Code 451: safe and reliable provision of power.

California has made a commitment to go to 100% carbon-free power by 2045. But the state also needs reliable and safe energy delivery in the face of these wildfires. Could you comment on the the tension among these priorities?

To me, climate change speaks to safety too. If we think of it as a public health issue, then it’s a safety issue. With the Camp Fire, I’m pretty sure the amount of CO2 released negated everything that was reduced that year in California, if not more. And most backup generators are diesel generators.

So we have this tension of meeting our goals and stepping backwards from our goals. The Air Resources Board had to waive its standards during these events, because otherwise local air quality standards would be violated with all the generators being used. But we don’t have the technology right now to solely use storage and batteries—it’s getting there but it’s not far enough along to be reliable for long periods of time. So you need diesel. If this is our new normal, then we’re basically creating standards and solutions for climate change and then wiping them away with wildfires and all these reactions to public safety shutoffs.

To me, we’re in this messy period where we have this interim solution that is not going to work for the long haul. We’ve got to get a better solution, a more long-term trajectory. I don’t want to call this a blip, because that makes it sound insignificant, but until we get it figured out, we’re going to be in this two steps forward, one step back (or maybe even two steps back) pathway.

What lessons do you think other utilities and regulatory commissions can learn from California’s experience?

The main lesson is two-pronged: invest in your infrastructure but also think about your infrastructure for the future. Is the current configuration of the infrastructure the right configuration for later?

Another lesson is around seeing your utilities as part of a greater emergency management system and making sure that it’s interfacing with your counties and that all your relationships are established.

For example, in the guidelines, I required that utilities integrate with all existing emergency management systems—in California it’s called SEMS, Statewide Emergency Management System. Right now, the utilities are required to have liaisons in each county if the county requests it for a shutoff event.

So it’s starting to see your utility as a mutual partner in emergencies and as being a lead entity. And that’s the difference. Usually the utilities are assisting during an emergency, for example an earthquake but here they’re responsible for causing the emergency, so to speak. So utilities need to be considered as a partner, and they need to know their customers in a different way than before. That sounds really basic, but utilities need to know who’s where and what matters to them. Agricultural customers are going to have different concerns about losing power than urban customers will.

Another lesson is to be solutions-focused. One of the things I always want to do is bring everybody to the table and say, “Okay, what went wrong?” “What can we do better?”

Oh, and don’t think that some kind of crisis won’t happen to you. It will.

Interviewer Ian Reichardt, a graduate student assistant at the Duke University Energy Initiative, is pursuing a master’s degree in environmental management at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment.  

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Story+ summer program will engage students in energy humanities projects

Story+ is a 6-week paid summer research experience for Duke students—undergraduates and graduates—interested in exploring humanities research approaches (archival research, oral histories, narrative analysis, visual analysis, and more). The program combines research with an emphasis on storytelling for different public audiences. In Story+, students are organized into small project teams and have the opportunity to participate in a flexible mini “curriculum” on research methods and storytelling strategies. Want more information? See the Story+ booth at the Bass Connections Fair on January 24, 2020

Applications open January 24, 2020 and are due by February 14, 2020. Applications will be evaluated on a rolling basis, so students should apply ASAP. 

This year, two of the Story+ projects focus on energy topics:

Body Work: Reanimating Policy Responses to Coal Mining Disasters

Illustrated coal miner holding up an anthromorphised coal mine
Image from Coal Age (July 1947), pg. 80.

During this collision of artistic and academic energies, students will examine U.S. policy responses to significant coal mining disasters during the 20th Century and experiment with methods of processing their research through dance. Drawing on evidence such as transcripts of Congressional hearings, federal reports explaining the causes of disasters, and oral histories with coal miners and their families, students will employ content analysis methods to answer two primary questions: how were the narratives used to explain each disaster constructed? And how did those narratives influence policy that aimed to prevent similar catastrophes in the future?

At the same time, dance artist, educator, and researcher Justin Tornow will introduce the students to embodiment methods, which will include an introduction to somatic practices, structured improvisations for movement and spatial orientation, and the use of chance operations. By the end of the six-week term, students will draw on these tools to compose a post-modern movement performance that communicates both their research and the results of including embodiment as one of their methodological cornerstones. Through this unique research experience, students will investigate themes such as the politics of expertise, the role of focusing events and class and gender-based power dynamics in policymaking, the impact of embodiment on academic inquiry and communication, and the alienation of human bodies from processes of energy production in fossil-fueled societies like the modern U.S.
Project Sponsors: Dr. Jonathon Free (Duke University Energy Initiative and Justin Tornow (Dance Department)

Joining the electric circus: rural electrification and gender in the papers of Louisan Mamer

Copy of page
From Louisan E. Mamer Rural Electrification Administration Papers,
Archives Center, National Museum of American History

Between 1939 and 1941, representatives from the Rural Electrification Agency organized a carnivalesque roadshow designed to encourage families to purchase and use electrical appliances and other equipment in their homes and on their farms. A key audience of the roadshow was rural farm women, who were seen as equal partners in the effort of electrification -- and who, the REA reasoned, needed to be shown the way to modernity through electricity. This Story+ project will draw on the Louisan E. Mamer Rural Electrification Administration Papers located at the Smithsonian National Museum for American History to examine how officials’ understanding of the gendered division of labor on American farms informed the tactics they used to encourage utilization of electricity. The overall goal of the project is to understand and share how assumptions about gendered labor influenced the electric circus’s programming, as well as collate any lessons learned for similar programs happening today.

Students will be asked to (at minimum) compile a report on their findings for the Duke University Energy Access Project, and there is also scope to create a podcast episode, or a brief documentary-style video. There may also be an opportunity to contribute to a collaboration with the Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.. The Data+ project entitled, “Taking electrification on the road: Exploring the impact of the Electric Farm Equipment roadshow (1939-1941),” is a partner project to this one and may offer opportunity for collaboration with a data-driven team.
Project Sponsors: Dr. Victoria Plutshack (Energy Access Project), Dr. Rob Fetter (Energy Access Project), Dr. Ashley Rose Young (Smithsonian National Museum of American History)

Curious about previous energy-related Story+ projects?

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