It’s not the rat race that keeps sustainability expert Peter Fox-Penner up at night.
Rather it’s the race to decarbonization, or deep reduction of greenhouse gas emissions, before the world faces “very severe climate impacts, even bigger than the ones we have locked in,” says Fox-Penner, an expert in energy policy, sustainability, and business strategy, who joined the Boston University Questrom School of Business as a professor of the practice in the markets, public policy, and law department, in January 2016. But always the optimist, he sees it as a challenge to “adapt and change,” which is distinct from “not going to happen.”
“We can do it,” he says. “I truly believe that.”
Fox-Penner is heading up the new University-wide Institute for Sustainable Energy, where he will lead initiatives to expand the school’s education programs in the field of sustainability. On March 3, 2016, he hosted the seminar BU Research on a Sustainable Energy Future, part of the Research on Tap series. The series, sponsored by the Office of the Vice President and Associate Provost for Research, and open to faculty, graduate students, and postdocs, brings together groups of BU researchers focused on a specific topic. Each participant presents a five-minute talk on his or her work.
“Dr. Fox-Penner brings to Questrom School of Business and Boston University a unique blend of industry, government, and academic experience that will be invaluable in accelerating our progress toward being recognized as a global leader in the sustainability community,” says Kenneth W. Freeman, Allen Questrom Professor and Dean of the Questrom School.
An engineer by training, Fox-Penner became interested in the sustainability field after taking an elective on energy policy as an undergrad at the University of Illinois. He is the author of Smart Power: Climate Change, the Smart Grid, and the Future of Electric Utilities (Island Press, 2010). His research has been widely cited, including in a Supreme Court decision, and he lectures frequently on energy topics.
Speaking from experience—before coming to BU, he was a principal and chair of the Brattle Group, where he advised major US power companies and grid operators, government agencies, and international clients on electric power and environmental policy issues—Fox-Penner says that the utilities industry is currently undergoing a giant transformation.
“Some call it a disruption, similar in nature to the way that bookstores were disrupted by Amazon, and other industries have been changed by the advent of distributed intelligence,” he says. “In addition to digitizing the grid and making it smarter, the power industry has to shift its fuel mix away from coal and oil and ultimately natural gas into zero carbon sources. It has to switch its underlying production sources and strategies, and it has to do that at a time when there isn’t a lot of growth in electricity use because technology is becoming more and more efficient. So it faces four or five challenges, all hitting it at the same time. That is a gigantic existential challenge for utilities, but also very exciting.”
Fox-Penner says he has heard from longtime employees of the electric power industry who are energized by this transformation. “The challenges are big and important,” he says. “Everyone thinks of it as a stodgy industry, and it has been for decades, but it’s not stodgy today.”
During the Clinton administration, Fox-Penner was a senior advisor to the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and principal deputy assistant secretary for energy efficiency and renewable energy at the US Department of Energy (DOE). He also advises Energy Impact Partners, a collaborative platform that provides capital to companies improving sustainable energy generation, and is on the board of directors of the Solar Foundation and LRI, Inc., a prominent energy efficiency contractor.
At the Institute for Sustainable Energy, which is based at Questrom, Fox-Penner and his team will focus on increasing energy research initiatives throughout the University, deepening connections among science, engineering, and management scholars with policy makers and corporations, and advancing the curriculum at Questrom and BU’s other schools and colleges. The institute’s three research focus areas are electric industry transformation, global climate change, and smart, sustainable cities. Currently comprising 26 faculty members from 6 colleges, the institute strives to be a think and do tank, bringing together academic, regulatory, and industry resources to address important global economic, social, and technological challenges.
Every four years, the DOE reviews the country’s energy policy, and at present the institute is assisting the department’s Quadrennial Energy Review. Fox-Penner says his group plans to hold workshops and write white papers about changes in the electric policy industry.
One obvious challenge facing us today, he says, is retrofitting or improving more than 100 million US homes and buildings with updated energy systems. But even more pressing is the country’s income inequity and power access. “It’s very important, as we change the energy systems, that we make economic equality better and not worse,” he says. “We need to contribute to the solutions in the energy transformation. That’s even more true in the world, where we have to increase energy access to the 1.3 billion people who either have inadequate or no access to any electric power. They need to get that affordably, without upsetting the climate.”
He describes that challenge as a lifetime task, not only for himself, but for the BU community in general. “The Institute for Sustainable Energy exists in large measure to work on that challenge,” says Fox-Penner.