By Vicki Ekstrom High
Photo by Robert Kozloff

We are following UChicago’s tradition of using economics, science, and data to fundamentally alter understanding of the world’s most complex challenges.”
—Prof. Michael Greenstone
On EPIC's mission

Prof. Michael Greenstone has boosted the presence and community at the Energy Policy Institute at the University of Chicago since becoming its director in July 2014.

Over the past year, the five-year-old organization has more than doubled in size and connected with new decision-makers, opinion leaders, energy and environment experts, and students around the world. EPIC has done so while advancing its mission: to conduct frontier interdisciplinary research that discovers solutions to the world’s most complex energy challenges; to impact our future by translating research into real-world results; and to educate the next generation of global leaders to build solutions that work.

This mission has struck a chord with faculty from throughout the University who share Greenstone’s urgency to confront the energy challenge: namely, to ensure energy markets provide access to reliable, affordable energy, while limiting environmental and social damages.

“We are following UChicago’s tradition of using economics, science, and data to fundamentally alter understanding of the world’s most complex challenges,” says Greenstone, the Milton Friedman Professor in Economics. “The global energy challenge is one of the largest problems out there, and we are already making significant contributions to solving it.”

The affiliated faculty and researchers of EPIC, which is leading cross-cutting initiatives across several UChicago departments and schools, are doing just that. Steve Cicala, assistant professor at the Harris School of Public Policy, has put together a first-of-its kind, custom data set containing hourly power dispatch levels for every U.S. power plant over the past decade in order to find out how deregulation of the electricity market has affected the cost of generating power. Koichiro Ito, assistant professor at Chicago Harris, is analyzing demand for air purifiers in China to determine how much people are willing to pay for clean air. Prof. David Archer is using global models to simulate the carbon cycle of the ocean to determine how greenhouse gases contribute to global emissions and impact efforts to stem climate change. 

At the same time, EPIC leverages the insight and innovation its research fosters by working proactively to drive real-world results.

“EPIC research doesn’t just stop at the office door,” says Amir Jina, a postdoctoral scholar in economics, noting that much goes into connecting the dots between research and impact. “It’s not just research for research’s sake.”

Collaborating across disciplines

EPIC faculty and researchers engage with global and national leaders, industry and local decision-makers to determine the obstacles that most urgently need to be overcome, work with these stakeholders to test solutions, and communicate their research in ways that can drive impact. For example, Mark Templeton, who directs the Abrams Environmental Law Clinic at the University of Chicago Law School, and his students are advising state regulators on options for meeting the Clean Power Plan’s requirements to reduce greenhouse gases from existing power plants in their territories. Meanwhile, astrophysicist and Chicago Harris Prof. Bob Rosner has developed a nuclear cost calculator that allows decision-makers to easily break down the costs of nuclear energy and provide rationale to inform their decisions.

EPIC’s staff plays an important role in helping to make this work more accessible to the media and targeted stakeholders, in addition to hosting events that bring together faculty and leading decision-makers to discuss the top issues of the day.  

Underlying all of this work is the organizing principle that interdisciplinary collaboration is key.

“I don’t think any of these problems can be addressed through one field alone,” says Elisabeth Moyer, associate professor in geophysical sciences.

To encourage collaboration within the community, EPIC not only hosts monthly seminars open to the public, but also private weekly lunches for faculty and researchers. The lunches are a time to learn from each other’s research and identify points of intersection.

“It’s a place where the climate scientists can come and ask questions, the economists can come and ask questions, the physical scientists can come and ask questions,” says Thomas Covert, an assistant professor at Chicago Booth. “Having all of that under one organization in a setting where we all get to know each other and our different work is really helpful. I don’t know of any other places out there like that participating in the joint benefits of this kind of collaboration.”

Originally published on May 9, 2016.