By Nancy Bronstein
It was a muggy spring day in Washington, D.C. when 15 Berkeley Law and UC graduate students in the Renewable Energy and Other Clean Fuels class settled into their seats at the Department of Energy’s headquarters weeks ago. At the head of the large conference table sat U.S. Secretary of Energy and Nobel Laureate Steven Chu. To his left sat former Under Secretary of Energy nominee and Environmental Energy Technologies Director at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory Arun Majumdar.
The high-powered setting sparked a nervous tension all its own that day—until Secretary Chu commented on how impressed he was that the students were wearing suits.
“I sat right next to Secretary Chu,” said Nathan Damweber, a rising 3L at Berkeley Law. “Although he is one of the most powerful political figures in the country, he was very down to earth.”
The students soon launched into presentations of renewable energy portfolios that they’d designed for different regions of the country, as part of a class assignment. A total of six students student spoke for three minutes each, just enough time to lay out the critical ideas, general goals and overall strategies.
Damweber said Chu “remained totally engaged” throughout the presentations, “asking us difficult questions and drawing on his encyclopedic knowledge to fill in any gaps in our projects.” Chu spent more time talking with students than was slotted in his packed schedule.
“The way we were measuring energy consumption was extremely complex. It took us months to figure out,” added Cody Lonning, a rising 2L Berkeley Law student, who represented the state of Washington for the western regional team. “He understood it immediately.”
The interdisciplinary course that landed the students in the nation’s capitol is co-taught by two-term Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm, who currently holds dual teaching appointments at Berkeley Law and the Goldman School of Public Policy; and Berkeley Law’s Steven Weissman, former administrative law judge with the California Public Utilities Commission and director of the energy program at the Center for Law, Energy & the Environment.
Weissman said teaming up with Governor Granholm, newly arrived in the fall of 2011, added an essential policy-making component to the course.
“The governor spent eight years in Michigan developing a keen perspective of the types of analytical tools that help make better decisions, and she was able to give the students a realistic sense of what it meant to communicate effectively with government decision makers,” he said. “She came into this class with a vision. She saw an opportunity for individual states to develop clearly expressed policies and recognized the advantages of working within a region.”
Course draws students from a range of disciplines
The 40-student class, which was co-listed in the law and public policy schools, drew a near-even mix from both disciplines, combined with students from the Haas Business School, the Energy Resources Group in the College of Engineering, and the College of Natural Resources. This was the cross pollination of disciplines that Weissman and Granholm were after.
“We live in a multi-disciplinary world when it comes to public policy. In this class we needed to understand the business aspect of the utility and energy worlds, the economics of resource management, and the mechanics of the electric grid. Our intent was to draw students from a variety of disciplines and skill sets, because that’s how Washington operates,” said Weissman.
That interdisciplinary approach paid off, said Damweber, a candidate for Berkeley Law’s Certificate of Specialization in Clean Technology Law.
“We read many cases highlighting the jurisdictional and constitutional issues that arise in the realm of energy law,” he said. “The law students focused on a legal perspective, while the public policy students took a visionary approach. Working together expanded our ideas.”
At the outset, Weissman and Granholm set the bar high with an ambitious challenge: If the federal government initiated a Clean Energy Race to the Top program seeking innovative but realistic solutions to developing a renewable energy policy, and if they put up $5 billion to fund it, what could the regions in our country come up with to compete for the funds?
The semester clock, set for a 14-week countdown, started ticking immediately. The final project, the multi-layered answer to the course’s singular challenge, entailed a series of concise and comprehensive presentations to federal policymakers in Washington.
The class was divided into five teams to represent different regions of the country, each student representing a state. Throughout the semester, students had access to some of the finest minds working on the applied side of the issue, including manufacturers, venture capitalists, engineers, and a very pragmatic former governor devoted to using clean energy as an economic engine to create jobs and achieve energy independence.
“Everyone that I’ve spoken with about this project thinks it’s precisely the way to get a comprehensive national clean energy policy, a strategy that’s focused on the bottom-up, respecting the states and their unique resources and histories,” said Governor Granholm, a passionate advocate for clean and renewable energy.
And then there was former Vice President Al Gore, who talked with the class at length via Skype.
“Al Gore gave us the 10,000-foot view, the big picture,” said Lonning. “He talked about the narrative of energy policy and the attitude shifts that need to happen beyond the technology. This course was a great balance between aspirational energy policies and very specific and detailed policy and technology realities.”
The final project
The student teams set out reviewing existing laws and policies from specific regions. They analyzed the states’ renewable energy goals, or lack thereof, identified existing regulatory barriers to the proliferation of renewable energy, formulated strategies to overcome those barriers, and figured out ways to share or barter resources across state lines. And, they aggressively competed for the hypothetical $5 billion pot.
At their D.C. presentations, the students demonstrated what might happen if each state asked how best it could promote renewable energy and clean tech development. The students were able to show how states within a particular region could benefit by working together and sharing resources. In fact, every state could raise its renewable portfolio standard if they adopted the students’ policy initiatives.
The feedback from Washington, according to all involved in the D.C. trip, was overwhelmingly positive. At the very least, said Weissman, a “fruitful dialogue on renewable energy” had been opened, and the ideas generated by students could “inform the national debate” on how to promote renewable energy development in the absence of federal legislation.
Secretary Chu, said Lonning, applauded the “state-up” rather than a federal “top-down” approach, and asked for a copy of the students’ presentations.
After a similar presentation to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, Chairman Jon Wellinghoff said it was some of the best work he’d seen on the subject. “He encouraged us to take it up to the Hill, where he felt the proposals would have an impact,” said Damweber. Granholm agreed wholeheartedly.
“I presented this idea at a private meeting with President Obama, and he expressed great interest,” said Granholm. “I strongly believe that a version of this class project is a likely contender as a jobs strategy for a second Obama term. These students can feel enormously proud that their work has the potential to have deep impact.”
Photo: Nathan Damweber ’13, U.S. Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, and UC Berkeley classmates Eileen Hayes and Sydney Glassman.