Photo by Jean Dixon
Weaving together the policy and technology of renewable energy
At first glance, engineering and political science operate in separate worlds. But at the University of Nevada, Reno the two disciplines intersect in the course, “Introduction to Renewable Energy,” cross listed as Political Science 110 and Engineering 110.
Political Science Professor Chris Simon has team-taught the introductory class for the renewable energy minor with Electrical Engineering Professor Ted Batchman since its inception in spring 2008. The class is popular: it filled up well in advance of the Fall 2009 semester and there is a waiting list of students trying to get into the class.
Renewable energy and political science might seem like an odd pairing, but addressing policy issues is necessary in any successful renewable energy implementation. Simon feels that his role from the policy side is to explain how institutions work, because institutions—particularly political institutions—don’t always operate at a speed the public finds necessary or desirable.
Simon’s expertise is in public policy, a background that helps students understand how to deal with organizations that influence the development of alternative energy—organizations like the federal government. In the class, students learn how to communicate effectively with large policymaking and implementing institutions in a way that indicates the importance of the issue and the action that needs to be taken. Simon believes that the topic resonates with students because energy is an important issue in their daily lives.
“It affects every aspect of the way we live,” he says, “how our houses are built, how they are lit, how they are heated and cooled and in many other ways.”
“The future of energy policy is going to change our lives,” Simon explains. “It’s going to change the way we live in cities and it’s also going to change the way we live in rural areas. It’s an issue that has to be further explored. How are local communities—especially small communities—going to understand how they fit into all of this? How can they make their lives and communities more sustainable?”
Students need to understand how behaviors drive the success of renewable energy projects. In order to be successful in the long-term, consumption behaviors will have to change and some of those changes will be shaped by public policy.
“People’s lives are changing—in part because of energy—and they are interested in knowing more about current energy issues,” Simon explains.
Simon’s foray into renewable energy was a research project for the Reno Transportation Commission (RTC) in 2003. After presenting findings at a political science conference, Simon was approached by a publisher. The result was his book, Alternative Energy: Political, Economic, and Social Feasibility (Rowman & Littlefield, 2007).
Simon says that the students know the renewable energy minor is a rapidly evolving innovation and this makes them receptive to innovations in the course content, as well as the teaching methods used in the classroom. Simon and Batchman have tweaked the class content and structure over time to include current books about renewable energy. Current readings include Cape Wind by Wendy Williams and Robert Whitcomb and Power to Save the World by Gwyneth Cravens. Small group discussions give this introductory class a seminar feel.
Simon explains that the class combines these small group discussions with lectures by guest speakers—professionals from the energy industry and highly-regarded researchers at University of Nevada. “Students get a sense that there are jobs out there that they can do —whether they are engineers, social scientists, business and/or economics, or from any one of the university’s several other areas of study—there are a lot of jobs out there,” he says.
“I think students today are pretty pragmatic. They understand that at the end of the educational process there has to be a job for them. There is tremendous opportunity for students who want to stay in Nevada and work in Nevada. This is a great opportunity for them to gain employment. I think renewable energy could be a big part of our economic base in the future.”
The renewable energy minor provides a way for students to personalize their undergraduate education. What’s next in curriculum development? An interdisciplinary certificate program at the master’s level would appeal to students who want to update their knowledge base or for graduate students enrolled in other programs. Given the interest in—and the importance of—renewable and alternative energy, an undergraduate major probably isn’t far away.
“With every issue, there’s an opportunity for industry and there’s an opportunity, therefore, to create jobs,” Simon explains. Renewable energy is no exception.