Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs
Monday, August 18, 2014

Nemet explores links between energy technology, public policy

Greg Nemet Greg Nemet

Greg Nemet is predicting the future.

By interviewing energy experts, the La Follette School professor is learning about their expectations of what solar, and carbon capture and storage will look like in 2040 and beyond. “The aim with this work is to aggregate the results in a way that makes them useful for informing public decisions about funding research on environmentally beneficial technologies,” Nemet says.

He and fellow researchers, including La Follette School project assistants, are talking to experts around the United States and Europe to get a sense of how different policy scenarios will affect how the new technologies develop. The project, funded by a $183,000 National Science Foundation grant, evaluates combinations of three policy instruments: government funded research and development, subsidies for demand and carbon prices.

“We are developing a model to estimate the cost reductions expected from economies of scale and learning-by-doing as carbon-capture-and-storage technology is further deployed,” Nemet says. “We will combine this new carbon model with our early model on solar photovoltaic cells into a new way of designing public policies that will reduce the costs of climate change mitigation.”

Understanding the confluence of technology and public policy is at the core of Nemet’s research. In another project, he is exploring why the price of solar systems are so different across the United States. “I am also working on understanding the reasons for the big decline in the cost of solar power since 2009,” Nemet says. “In both scenarios, there may be an information asymmetry and maybe a government role, given the extent of externalities in energy production.”

A look at the past 40 years of U.S. energy policy provides ample evidence of volatility, including rapidly changing budgets, moving targets and shifting incentives, Nemet notes. “Changing policy to address energy concerns has its pros and cons.”

A recent article in the journal Wiley Interdisciplinary Reviews: Energy and Environment captures some of those benefits, including adaptive management, experimentation, policy learning, and assimilation of new information. “Assembling data on the effectiveness, duration, and ambition of 63 energy policy initiatives with targets of more than five years, we found that targets were met 64–77 percent of the time,” says Nemet, who wrote the article with his former project assistants, La Follette School alumni Peter Braden, Ed Cubero and Bickey Rimal. “Significant predictors of success in meeting targets are enforcement, duration and ambition.”

Nemet shares his research with policymakers and analysts through public talks, research conferences and media interviews — in addition to public research papers. He has been a contributor to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the Global Energy Assessment.

His public affairs students are another channel for sharing his research. In addition to a Master of Public Affairs or Master of International Public Affairs, many students earn a certificate in energy analysis and policy. “Students with whom I work often become employees of public organizations like the Wisconsin Public Service Commission,” says Nemet, who chairs the certificate program.

The courses Nemet teaches all focus on applying tools and analysis to real-world social problems. “In the international section of the policy analysis course, each student in the class completes a policy memo addressed to a real client for an actual current policy issue,” Nemet says. “Recent projects involved regulation of unmanned aerial vehicles and labeling of genetically engineered foods. In the international environmental policy course, students work on problems that span borders. Much of the emphasis is on identifying opportunities for cooperation.”