A Cross-Field Collaboration to Tackle Thorny Environmental and Energy Issues

“Students who want to work in environmental and energy fields need exposure and training in all three disciplines of law, policy and business,” says Gabe Chan, an assistant professor at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs who focuses on the science, technology, and the environment.

Chan, who became an affiliated faculty member at the Law School last year, is working with Professor Alexandra Klass, who heads the Law School’s Environmental and Energy Law concentration, on a new Law, Policy and Business Collaborative on Energy and Environment. The collaborative brings together students from the University of Minnesota’s Law School, Humphrey School, and Carlson School of Management to better understand the complex arena of environment and energy.

“Most careers in energy and environment expect you to understand or influence policy,” says Chan. “But it is hard to influence if you don’t understand law or finance in this highly regulated industry. Similarly, where social justice intersects with energy, you can’t invest without understanding the broader political context. [Professor Klass] and I thought this collaborative was an important way to create and share opportunities and information.”

Chan and Klass have been working together for several years. Many of Chan’s students enroll in Klass’s energy law class, and many of her students take his climate change policy course.

“There is so much interdisciplinary work going on in our areas that it’s natural we would want to build connections,” says Klass. “Issues that are of significant importance to law students who will work with utilities or in government positions are similar to issues people who get jobs in the policy arena will face. Our students’ successes will be influenced significantly by the cross-sector connections they make during their time here.”

Chan researches policies that stimulate innovation in energy technologies and mitigate global climate. He received a 2019 McKnight Land-Grant Professorship, recognizing him as one of the University of Minnesota’s most exceptional junior faculty members. His Chan Lab examines how to change global energy and climate policies to be more equitable—from promoting community solar gardens to researching sustainable energy systems in hurricane-prone areas.

Beyond the new collaborative, Chan and Klass and their students are working on several key issues, including community solar gardens.

“The policy framework for these gardens has been established but agencies and regulatory bodies now have to fill in the details,” says Chan. While the public is invited to comment on policy dockets related to energy and environment, most who participate are lawyers, he says. “When my students take [Professor Klass's] energy law class, they learn how to participate meaningfully. This whole area of community solar has resulted in interesting legal and policy battles that makes commenting much more interdisciplinary. I’m really invigorated by a cross-disciplinary approach to address these complex questions.”

In the coming months, Chan hopes to expand collaborative efforts to include the topic of electric co-ops that serve mostly rural areas. While he says co-ops are under tremendous pressure to move to more clean energy platforms, the contracts that drive the industry are complicated and little understood. “Our goal is to apply a business-policy-law lens to better understand how these power supply contracts work.”

Chan notes that the rapidly changing energy system in the U.S. is driving a more interdisciplinary approach across the board. “One of the hardest things about working in energy is that the policy is complex, the technical aspects are complex, the law is complex. Technology, business, law, and policy all need to work together to transition to this new energy system. This is a real grand challenge that requires us to work differently than we have in the past.”

—By Kathy Graves, a Twin Cities-based freelance writer

Alexandra Klass