Sustainable Energy Policy Insights From JHU Students

5 May, 2021

Powering a cleaner, more environmentally friendly future requires advanced problem solving and rigorous data analysis. The Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) community is dedicated to building up renewable energy infrastructure and proactively confronting the effects of climate change. Our faculty not only engage in groundbreaking research and advise policy makers, but also connect our students with the resources to start making a difference.

We developed the Master of Arts in Sustainable Energy (online) to prepare the next generation of leaders in the field with quantitative and qualitative insights from economics, finance, and public policy. The research that comes out of the rigorous coursework in this program can yield valuable data, innovative projects, and proposals for regulatory changes. Two of our students produced exceptional analyses that were spotlighted by the Initiative for Sustainable Energy Policy, a Johns Hopkins research group focused on finding practical solutions to fulfill both environmental and economic objectives:

Rethinking Hydropower Regulations

MA in Sustainable Energy student Hannah Cohen presented evidence that the U.S. federal government should reform a hydropower permitting and licensing process that can currently stretch out for as long as 10 years. For her project, Cohen examined how the regulatory situation and outcomes have evolved since the passage of the Hydropower Regulatory Efficiency Act in 2013. That law set out to encourage more small-scale hydropower projects through measures such as doubling the capacity eligibility requirement for a license exemption.

Cohen gathered data from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to reveal that the changes made by the 2013 law were not sufficient to expand development. In fact, the number of new license exemptions actually went down over the following seven years.

A major reason why developments have been slow is that the exemptions mainly serve to help existing license holders avoid the requirement to undergo relicensing after 50 years. For the most part, developers undertaking new projects must still go through a long and often prohibitively expensive administrative process.

“In the end, my research supports that idea that regulatory inefficiencies of the existing hydropower licensing process must be addressed through more comprehensive reform,” Cohen explained. “Policies that skirt around these core issues – such as HREA’s expansion of the qualifying capacity for conventional license exemptions – will likely continue to fall short of spurring the small hydropower development needed to support a sustainable U.S. energy future.”

Promoting the Value of Geothermal Energy

In addition to attending the Johns Hopkins SAIS as a MA in Sustainable Energy degree candidate, Audrey Vinant-Tang manages energy procurement and sustainability at ViacomCBS. She applied her knowledge of renewable power to evaluate how the U.S. is incorporating geothermal resources into efforts to achieve a carbon-free grid.

By examining figures from the Department of Energy, Vinant-Tang found that geothermal energy is being vastly underutilized for electricity generation. Her research demonstrated several reasons why this form of sustainable power has not been more widely adopted.

As in the case of hydropower, one key factor is the time required to obtain a permit, a process that can take seven to 10 years. Additionally, developers have insufficient information about the locations of resources due to outdated mapping data. Perhaps most importantly, investments in geothermal energy are expensive.

“Cost tends to be the primary barrier for most technology adoption, including geothermal, and the additional barriers of long permitting times, lack of resource certainty, and underfunding of R&D contribute further to the inflated cost of geothermal,” Vinant-Tang wrote.

One solution may lie in leveraging the lobbying power that’s been cultivated by the oil and gas industries. Vinant-Tang suggested that advocacy from these firms could result in expediting the environmental review process for geothermal developers through categorical exclusions, rigorous new surveys of the available resources, and research into economies of scale that could make drilling more cost-effective.

It takes leadership to develop strategies for making full use of renewable resources and establish public policies that will usher in a world of carbon-free power. Students who complete the MA in Sustainable Energy program from Johns Hopkins graduate with the advanced knowledge and skills they need to confront these issues while working at government agencies, nonprofits, private businesses, or a variety of other settings. By learning from our faculty of world-class experts, our students find opportunities to make an impact on the world’s energy challenges.

About the MA in Sustainable Energy (online) Program at Johns Hopkins SAIS

Created by Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies faculty with input from industry experts and employers, the sustainable energy master’s program is tailored for the demands of this rapidly evolving sector. We face international challenges in the transition to renewable energy, and, as a top-11 global university, Johns Hopkins is uniquely positioned to help graduates develop the skills they need to thrive.

The MA in Sustainable Energy curriculum is designed to build expertise in finance, economics, and policy. Our faculty of highly experienced researchers and practitioners help graduates prepare to excel in professional environments including government agencies, utility companies, energy trade organizations, global energy governance organizations, and more. Students in the Johns Hopkins SAIS benefit from industry connections, a highly engaged network of 230,000+ alumni, and high-touch career services.

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