University lab aims to lead energy transition efforts

Researchers and local leaders will discuss alternative energy resources.

by Christopher Aadland

As concerns regarding climate change encourage the use of alternative energy sources, policymakers, businesses and nonprofits will look to industry leaders for ways to become more energy-efficient.

The University of Minnesota hopes to be considered one of those leaders with its new Energy Transition Lab.

The lab, established earlier this year,  is housed in the Law School and includes faculty, staff and students who work on projects across University units to help community leaders make the transition to new energy sources, said law professor Hari Osofsky, the lab’s faculty director.

“Our energy system is transforming very rapidly,” said Ellen Anderson, the lab’s executive director. “It’s important to make sure we figure out the best tools, strategies, policies and regulatory framework to help guide that transition.”

Osofsky said the Office of the Vice President for Research and the Institute on the Environment provided $300,000 in annual base funding, which will fund the lab for two years. It’s also looking for outside funding, she said.

Law student Jenny Monson-Miller, a research assistant in the lab, said she hopes the lab becomes a “one-stop shop” for energy-related information.

Monson-Miller said she’s worked on gathering energy and environmental research conducted at the University since the summer.

Anderson said the lab will collaborate with researchers across the University to include all possible perspectives.

“These challenges are so interdisciplinary,” she said. “We need some of the other experts of the University to help these cities figure out … what kinds of energy systems would work best in their communities.”

Anderson’s experience in the field –– which includes stints as a state senator, chair of the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission and an energy and environmental policy adviser to Gov. Mark Dayton –– makes her the perfect person to lead the lab, Osofsky said.

“[Anderson] brings her tremendous knowledge and relationships she’s built over the years,” Osofsky said.

Osofsky said agreeing on an approach to new energy-use strategies is a debate that can get bogged down in political squabbling.

But lab workers don’t have to concern themselves with partisan issues, Anderson said.

“One of the great things about being at a university is that we can step outside of [politics],” she said. “We can be more flexible to try to present ideas that are based on research, which hopefully can gather more consensus because they’re not being put out there for political purpose.”

Although the lab will work on policy issues at all levels, Anderson said, it’s mainly poised to help drive policy change at the local level.

Next semester, Osofsky said she’ll teach a capstone course that will work with students from the College of Design to help define some of the legal and policy issues surrounding freeway capping.

Students in the college’s School of Architecture recently helped  design a proposed lid for the I-35W bridge.

The lab has also met with the Metropolitan Council and other local community leaders to discuss ways they can constructively encourage cities in the area to function more efficiently.

The Great Plains Institute, a Minneapolis-based nonprofit that works on energy policy, has worked with Osofsky and her classes in the past. Amir Nadav, program manager for the institute, said he’s excited to be able to work with the lab in the future.

Having the help of a large institution like the University is a valuable resource for nonprofits, he said, because it has a larger workforce and more financial resources.

“As a nonprofit organization, we only have so much capacity,” Nadav said.