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Hoover Tower with SEQ PV panels

Stanford students answer the call of public service for energy and environment

February 28, 2018
Precourt Institute

By Mark Golden

Akua McLeod
Akua McLeod presenting her findings on barriers to renewable energy and 
energy efficiency resources for low-income communities to the California
Energy Commission in August. (Image credit: Kevin Barker, CEC)

Last summer, Stanford sophomore Akua McLeod interned at the California Energy Commission and contributed to breaking down barriers to renewable energy and energy efficiency resources for people with low income. McLeod learned about the complexities of public policy, but far more about public service.

“Many of us have this idea of bureaucrats as indifferent to their work, but in reality they are passionate people who care deeply about their work and getting it right,” McLeod said at a meeting among Stanford students involved in public service and some of Stanford’s most accomplished public servants.

The meeting on Feb. 7 involved students, faculty and staff in the area of energy and environment. George Shultz, who held four cabinet positions including secretary of state, encouraged the students to pursue public service careers beyond Stanford.

“We need your young minds working on this issue. Energy is connected to the environment, the economy and national security,” Shultz said. “Just remember, if you turn your back on any one of these, you’ll get in trouble.”

George Shultz, Dian Grueneich and graduate student Wen Song
From left, Secretary George Shultz, former California Public Utilities Commissioner Dian Grueneich
and graduate student Wen Song at the Stanford meeting last month (Image credit: Mark Golden)

In the shadow of the eclipse

Karen Huynh, who will graduate in June with a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering, got lucky. She interned at California’s grid operator this summer and saw first-hand how the state dealt with a total solar eclipse slashing supplies of solar power. California lost the equivalent of about five nuclear power reactors in 80 minutes. The event was predictable and well-studied. Still, the situation was unprecedented due to the growth of solar power. The state emerged unscathed.

Huynh’s assignment, though, was unrelated to the eclipse. She helped figure out how the grid operator could use a newer technology—home power batteries—manage the common and unpredictable swings in solar and wind electricity production. Her findings about how “dispersive technology” could help do this got not only California’s grid operator exploring the solution, but other states as well, based on a national webcast presentation she gave at summer’s end.

Karen Huyn
Karen Huyn described her summer with the California Independent System
Operator at the Stanford debrief in February. (Image credit: Justin Petty)

The work was compelling, she explained. “The California Independent System Operator is very interested in learning how to transition to a highly decentralized grid,” Huynh said at the February debrief. “And they’re looking at this sort of environment in two to three years.”

Not the “Get Rich U” image

“The reality at Stanford is that almost all students interested in energy major in engineering or Earth sciences—not really fertile fields for public policy, one would think,” said Dian Grueneich, senior research scholar at Stanford’s Precourt Institute for Energy and head of the institute’s relatively new summer internship program with public agencies in California and Colorado.

“To my surprise, we’ve had enormous interest,” said Grueneich, a leading expert on energy efficiency. “Plus, our students recognize that not only international or federal policy matters. State and local energy and environmental laws affect us all greatly, no matter where you are.”

Jonathan Roth
Graduate student Jonathan Roth studies how to improve energy efficiency
in public schools in a project with professor Rishee Jain. (Credit: Justin Petty)

Whether engaged for a summer or in years-long research projects that inform public policy, students learn that decisions involving energy involve a lot of risk, which can be unsettling. The Hoover Institution’s Admiral (ret.) James Ellis advised them that they must learn to live with risk, no matter where their careers take them.

“Ships are totally safe in the harbor,” Ellis said, “but that’s not what ships are for.”

“It’s three M’s,” said the man put in charge of the U.S. response to the Fukushima nuclear disaster. “You measure the risk, and you minimize it. Then you manage the remaining risk as best you can.”

Stanford students seem to be quite interested in public service, especially with a little encouragement. Heading into its third year, the Precourt Institute’s public policy internship program received 110 applications for a dozen spots, though the institute hopes to expand the number of internships.

“The most educational experience I ever had was going to Washington, D.C.,” said Precourt Institute’s co-director, Arun Majumdar, the founding director of the Advanced Research Projects Agency-Energy. “We call it ‘public service,’ but I felt like the experience served me.”