Securing clean energy through policy: Spotlighting ASU’s Energy Policy Innovation Council


The Energy Policy Innovation Council (EPIC) is a leading-edge initiative developed by Arizona State University’s Program on Law and Sustainability. This fast-acting think tank is designed to inform and educate policymakers on current and complex issues in energy policy to advance Arizona’s energy industry potential. EPIC stands to solve one of the most pressing legal questions of sustainability today—securing clean energy laws and regulations for the future.

An important aspect of EPIC is the student researchers that work hard to develop fact-based summaries on energy policy issues. Student researchers write brief sheets of the latest existing and pending policy information that is published on the initiative's website. Student researchers also have the opportunity to attend relevant public hearings and work on customized projects for municipalities and state government. Below is an interview with Michael O’Boyle, a law student and EPIC student researcher who plans on graduating next May.

Note: all opinions expressed by those interviewed are held by the individual and should not be considered endorsements.

How does the knowledge that you gain in your law courses help you out as a student researcher for EPIC?

I suppose there are two main ways that law school has prepared me as a student researcher at EPIC. I write a lot for EPIC and law school is all about communicating complex subjects in a clear and concise manner. Second, energy policy is extremely complicated. It implicates federal, state, and local laws that are often written in technical language. Law school has not only helped me understand how those laws all fit together, it has given me a frame of reference to read and interpret statutes and administrative regulations that I otherwise would not have. Legal issues I discuss in class also help me to come up with new ideas for research topics in the brief sheets I draft for EPIC.

What is your concept or definition of sustainability law?

I think sustainability law is the study of how to use the law to incentivize sustainable living. Without laws, we end up with all kinds of environmental problems, including overuse of fossil fuels and overconsumption. I think that the rational way to act as a society is often different than what’s rational as an individual, or at least that’s our common perception. In other words, we’re really bad at making smart day-to-day decisions about protecting the environment. Sometimes walking an extra 50 feet to recycle a plastic bottle seems like an insurmountable obstacle. Coal power is cheaper than solar power, by a factor of three to five, and we like cheap power. But there are so many negative externalities associated with improper waste disposal and dirty power production that we are just now becoming aware of. Sustainability law helps to incentivize people to act in their own best interest, or in the best interest of their children, when they otherwise wouldn’t.

How did you become interested in clean energy policy?

I’ve always been an environmentally conscious person, but I’m not sure exactly where it came from. As I grew up I heard more and more about the climate change problem as the “problem of our generation,” and at some point I felt like it was a call to action, rather than just something I thought about sometimes. I first became interested in clean energy policy specifically sometime in college, but it sharpened and intensified in 2009-2010. In 2009 I studied abroad in Shanghai, China, and the pollution was staggering. China, if you’ve never been, is one big environmental disaster. I figured out that China’s rapidly expanding economy was being powered by cheap, dirty coal power, and it was clear that clean energy would have to be a part of the solution there. I got idealistic as you might expect from a 21 year-old, and I decided to write my senior thesis on environmental ethics. Then I interned at the office of Al Gore in Nashville in my final year at Vanderbilt, and my interest in energy policy kind of took off from there. My first, admittedly horrible, job out of college was selling solar power systems for a shady sell-first-ask-questions-later type of door-to-door sales company. After that flopped I knew I wanted to do something with my life that involved being a part of the solution to climate change, and clean energy policy at ASU law seemed like the best place to start, especially as a resident of Arizona.

What are your plans for after you graduate? Are you working on any research/projects that you are particularly interested in?

I don’t have a definitive career in mind after I graduate. As you know, law school is expensive, and it comes with a heavy debt burden for almost all graduates. While I’d like to work on climate and/or energy policy, I know that entry-level policy jobs, if they exist at all, can sometimes mean a pay cut for a recent graduate. I currently work for an environmental compliance and litigation firm here in town that has provided great education and interesting work so far, so I may take my chances working for large industrial clients to start, and see how that goes. I’m really looking for the right mix of hands-on experience, difference making, and work-life balance.
As for research, I’m working on a couple of interesting projects. Last summer, I went to the International Climate Change Conference in Bonn, Germany as part of a law school-related project funded by the Lincoln Center for Applied Ethics at ASU. I’m now working on finishing a paper on what lessons the climate regime can learn from the evolution of the human rights regime. It’s kind of an applied comparative international law paper, and I love the project. I’m also working on an article for the Arizona State Law Journal at the law school on national renewable energy policy, but that’s all I can say at this point, it’s kind of an undeveloped project right now.

What do you hope to see in the future in terms of clean energy policy in Arizona?

I’d like to see Arizona become a model for other states that are trying to go sustainable, especially when it comes to solar power and water conservation. I think that people are still not sold that we can afford a transition to renewable energy, especially because of the recession, but I think we can’t afford not to. It’s so clear to me that big industry, utilities and fossil fuel producers, are so scared of the impending change that they’re throwing absurd amounts of money at stalling and reversing the transition. So, I figure, we must be doing something right. If as a state we can continue to show that economic prosperity and renewable energy are synergistic (no pun intended) rather than antagonistic, I think we can make converts out of people. In arguably one of the most conservative states in the country, we’ve managed to buck partisan politics when it comes to renewable energy and achieve the highest per capita solar power production in the nation. We’re in that sweet spot where libertarianism meets tree-hugging. I think if that trend continues and we add to it some in-state solar manufacturing jobs, we can create a model that is contagious for the rest of the country.

End of interview.

Ideally, law and ethics should go hand in hand. The EPIC initiative is unique in that it not only aims to further the best practices for clean energy policy, but it encourages students to form opinions and strategies around what it means to lawfully embody a clean energy future. Securing clean energy through policy is one step closer toward a sustainable world. Below is a video interview of Kristen Mayes, Faculty Director of the Program on Law and Sustainability and Executive Director of EPIC.

Written by Gabrielle Olson, ASU LightWorks

Photo by Michael Arellano, ASU State Press.

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