New Professor Takes Broad View of Energy

[PHOTO]Yu WangIt may seem an unlikely career path, but Yu Wang feels her new position as a political science professor is logical extension of her background in environmental engineering. “If you want to look at energy problems more broadly and you want to look at how people can change their behavior, their consumption behavior, how do you do that?” Wang asked. “That’s how I ended up looking at policy.”

Wang is an assistant professor of global energy policy at Iowa State University. She began in that position in the fall of 2014. It’s a unique role at Iowa State and perhaps even the nation, the result of a collaboration between the Bioeconomy Institute (BEI) and Iowa State’s department of political science. The new position was created with support by Iowa State’s Presidential High Impact Hires Initiative, the State of Iowa’s “Leading the Bioeconomy” program, BEI, and Iowa NSF EPSCoR.

David Peterson, a professor of political science at Iowa State and Wang’s mentor in the department, explained that her appointment presents an exciting opportunity for the political science department.  “Obviously biorenewable energy is one of the biggest challenges facing Iowa, the U.S., and the world,” he said. “The Department of Political Science here at ISU is fortunate to have one of the leading experts on this topic.  Dr. Wang is a valuable addition to the department.”

From Environmental Engineering to Political Science

Wang studied environmental engineering in her native country of China. “I was looking at issues like the health impact from blood mercury and environmental hormones in wastewater and air pollution,” she said. From those studies, Wang came to the conclusion that many of these issues were the result of excessive consumption of fossil fuels, and the solution was to get people to change their behavior when it comes to energy usage.

The contrast in studying policy in the U.S. versus that of China has been interesting to Wang. “When studying policies here in the U.S., I actually get a better sense of how policies are made and how policies can change people’s behavior,” she said. “The purpose of policy is to change people’s behavior.” And now as a political science professor, Wang looks for insight into how these policies impact the economy and society in general.

Wang earned her Ph.D. in Public Policy from Georgia Institute of Technology, and an M.S. in Environmental Science and Engineering and B.S. in Natural Resources & Environment from Shanghai Jiao Tong University in China. While at Georgia Tech, she was named the “Outstanding Ph.D. Student” in the School of Public Policy.

At Iowa State, Wang is team-teaching two classes with Mark Wright, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering. One set of classes (BRT/Pol S 515 and BRT/Pol S 516) are being taught as part of the Biorenewable Resources and Technology graduate program. These classes focus on biorenewables law and policy. “I’m teaching the policies for energy and chemical products from biomass,” Wang said, adding that the course also reviews fuel pathways and nascent technologies. There are two versions of the class, one that focuses on the American states, and another that covers not only policies in the U. S. but also those in European Union countries, Brazil, China and South Africa. “It’s a broad, global perspective of policies,” she said.

Another class, Economics and Policy of Engineered Energy Systems (ME 510X), is a mechanical engineering course and covers some of the same topics, extending to conventional fossil fuel, energy efficiency, renewable energy, and transportation fuels, but more from a U.S. prospective and with an emphasis on connections with engineering.

Wright is impressed with this fellow teacher.  “Dr. Wang brings a unique perspective to our BRT and ME courses by virtue of her background in energy policy.” He adds that her vast knowledge helps students connect the complex relationships between government, industry, and consumer markets. “BRT/POL 516 and ME 510 benefit in particular from Dr. Wang’s understanding of international energy policy. Students praise her ability to explain the energy policy-making process to a broad audience,” he said. Peterson adds, “Dr. Wang is teaching some really cool classes on biorenewable policy. These are great classes and students have responded really well.”

Two Directions in Energy Policy Research

Wang has also begun an ambitious research effort. One area is focused on energy efficiency and policies for energy efficiency. “This is actually an expansion of my dissertation topic,” she said. “I’m looking at policies to decouple utility companies’ revenues from sales. Through decoupling, you can actually motivate utility companies to do more in energy efficiency,” Wang said.

In another research thrust, Wang is studying the current market for biofuels production in China. “I’m looking at the demand, the potential, and the challenges to this emerging market,” Wang said. Ultimately, she wants to see if there’s potential for the U.S. and China to trade biofuels, in particular, for China to import ethanol from the U.S. Midwest. Wang explained that the motivation for China to use more ethanol is to reduce pollution. This project has received seed grant funding, but Wang hopes to get more support for a large-scale research project.

Writing the Book on Energy Efficiency Policy

In addition to teaching and research, Wang is also the author of a book for the first time. “Green Savings – How Policies and Markets Drive Energy Efficiency,” will be published in September. Along with co-author Marilyn Brown of the Georgia Institute of Technology, Wang asserts in the book that reducing energy consumption should be a frontline strategy to address global climate change, threats to energy security, and the challenge of grid reliability. The authors argue that policies motivating greater investment in energy efficiency should be a priority, and that states and countries can learn from their leaders.

[BOOK COVER]Green SavingsYu Wang, a new professor of global energy policy at Iowa State, is the author of “Green Savings,” a book about policy and energy efficiency, slated to be published in September 2015. UPDATE, Oct, 2015: The book has been published and is available from Praeger Press.

The book provides innovative perspectives on energy production, new technology, policymaking, user behavior, and how these features all play critical roles in determining the best plan of action to address the global challenge of climate mitigation. It’s aimed at policy makers, utility planners, practitioners, students —about anyone interested in energy. Brown, a nationally-known expert in energy policy and climate change, was Wang’s advisor at Georgia Tech.

Quick Transition from Student to Faculty

Wang noted that it’s been a quick transition from being a college student to becoming a faculty member. “But I found that ISU provides a very supportive, very friendly environment for junior faculty,” she said. She attended a series of workshops that teach new faculty about managing research, enhancing their teaching ability, and how to balance private life and work. “I found that very helpful,” Wang said. She added that she’s actively searching for interdisciplinary research partners at BEI and throughout the university.

Peterson concurs that Wang is adapting well to her faculty position. “Dr. Wang’s adjustment seems to be going incredibly well,” he said. “The transition is always a bit rough; moving to a new town, teaching new classes, getting a new research agenda started.  Given all of that, she is fitting in the department really well,” he said.

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