A Peek Inside BU’s Institute for Sustainable Energy with Director Peter Fox-Penner


Peter Fox-Penner is a Professor of Practice in the Questrom School of Business and the Director of Boston University’s Institute for Sustainable Energy. His research and writing interests are in the areas of electric power strategy, regulation, and governance; energy and climate policy; and the relationships between public and private economic activity, including corporate social responsibility. We caught up with him to learn more about the Institute and how it’s igniting change.

How will the Institute for Sustainable Energy at BU inspire change in the community?

That’s easy: By producing world-class research and new ideas on sustainable energy that is adopted by business and policymakers, leaving the world a little better place.

What do the next five, ten, and twenty years look like for the Institute?

We actually have a ten-year plan. Ten years from now we hope to be a fully-endowed permanent part of BU with about $10 million of annual research.

How involved will BU students be in the institute’s initiatives?

Nearly every project we do has at least one graduate student research assistant–often several. Students do other jobs at the ISE, too, such as help maintain the website.

Let’s talk about you. How did you end up becoming interested in energy research and policy?

I was an audio engineering major who needed an elective to round out my schedule. By luck, I signed up for a course with a charismatic physicist named Bob Herendeen (who still teaches at UVM). On the first day of class, he asked us how much energy we used in our lives. None of us had the slightest idea. I was hooked.

What project at the Institute are you particularly excited about?

I’m especially excited about our proposed project to help build a clean energy microgrid in Haiti. This project has all the best attributes we could ask for combined: (1) This would help bring clean power to the poorest country in our hemisphere; (2) It is being built partly by BU students, who will learn about clean energy while they work; (3) the project synergies with our work to pass a state law allowing citizen contribution to the UN Least Developed Countries Climate Change Fund; and (4) It was completely funded by the BU community.

What makes the Institute for Sustainable Energy different from similar energy research centers like, Sustainability@BU?

We’re the only university-wide center devoted solely to clean energy research and education. Other centers and departments do excellent energy research, but it isn’t their full-time job. Also, our focus is on research that engages industry and policy makers – we are a “think and do” tank. This is also unique in BU.

How can Alumni and friends of the University get involved?

We’re starting to have alumni events related to sustainable energy – contact us to participate. We’re forming an Advisory Board for those who really want to dig in. And please come to one of our many BU seminars or events.

Are there plans for a “grand opening” type launch for the Institute? If so, what will that look like?

We aren’t doing a single grand launch, but our calendar is packed with interesting events: This fall we’re hosting the Environmental Film Festival at BU on Friday, Oct. 13th, and our first global Economic Briefing October 19–20th, alumni dinners in New York, LA, San Francisco, San Diego, and London; and our seminar series at www.bu.edu/ise.

If you could describe the current state of sustainable energy in three words, what would they be?

Will succeed, needs work (that’s four).

Is there a research center, BU related or not, that you admire or pull inspiration from?

There are more than fifty BU faculty members, from well over a dozen departments and research centers within BU, who are affiliated with the ISE. Most of them come to our annual retreat each November. It is an amazing, highly inspirational sight to see all this energy and talent in one room together, raising new ideas and searching for new synergies.