Student Spotlight

Schar’s Inaugural Graduate Students in Energy and Climate Policy

Connor Nelson sitting and smiling.
Connor Nelson

In 2022, Schar’s Center for Energy Science and Policy introduced an individualized emphasis area in “Energy and Climate Policy.” This new emphasis area was supported by a Mason Curriculum Impact Grant. Graduate students can pursue their own individualized emphasis area within their academic program with a focus on energy and climate policy. The curriculum offers classes in law, policy, national security, geopolitics, GHG modeling, energy equity, and community resiliency.  

This year, we are happy to announce the first three graduate students in this curriculum.

Why are you interested in the energy and climate policy emphasis area?

My interest in energy and climate policy emphasis began after an internship experience with the Department of Transportation. In the Summer of 2022, I was selected by the Partnership for Public Service to join an inaugural cohort of interns that were assigned positions at DOT. I worked in the Assistant Secretary’s office in a small team dedicated to energy and resource efficiency, mostly helping implement internal sustainability goals and reach emissions reduction targets.

This experience helped me realize the massive opportunity provided by the Inflation Reduction Act and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. With so much federal money now available to decarbonize the energy sector, I felt it was smart to capitalize on this growing momentum and rebrand myself as an energy specialist. I had yet to declare concentration in my MPA program and was rapidly approaching graduation with little subject-matter expertise. Soon after I finished my work at DOT, I received an email from the Schar School about the new energy and climate policy emphasis area. This student individualized approach worked well with my graduation schedule, as I had only a few electives left in my program and had already completed all core coursework. I decided to reach out and eventually began taking courses.

What did you enjoy most about the courses you took?

I most enjoyed how relevant these courses were to new and evolving laws and technology. We were part of a vibrant and evolving discussion, analyzing day-by-day changes in policy implementation, regulatory rulemaking, global trade, and market innovation. From Inflation Reduction Act tax codes to solar financing tools to greenhouse gas modeling, our courses exposed us to valuable concepts across government, business, and science. This cross-disciplinary approach also introduced me to colleagues with entirely different academic backgrounds than myself. This diversity of perspectives enriched class discussions and group projects. This is another major strength of the emphasis area. Finally, I really enjoyed the faculty themselves. Their practitioner’s perspectives and industry connections provided for great insight and interesting anecdotes. This really brought the material to life. Beyond that, they’re personable and humorous, which helps for late night classes.

Why should other students consider this academic curriculum?

The climate and energy emphasis helps students develop subject-level knowledge that is both academically enriching and professionally valuable, with direct applications in the public and private sectors. If you know you want to work on climate change, these courses can help you discover your niche within the energy or sustainability sectors. If you are pursuing a generalized administration or management degree, like an MPA, this curriculum will give you a technical foundation upon which to frame your other achievements and skills. Finally, this curriculum is easy to accommodate into your existing schedule. It allows you to choose a path that is most complimentary to your existing major.

Where are you working now? Or where do you hope to work in the future?

This program has directly prepared me for my current career. I recently began working for the National Hydropower Association, a nonprofit trade association that represents the interests of hydropower asset owners across the country. I work under the Director of Regulatory and Market Affairs as a specialist, analyzing federal and state regulation as well as RTO/ITO wholesale market characteristics. Much of what I learned in my energy law class directly pertains to this work and helped me pass my technical interview for the position. Thanks to the energy and climate policy emphasis, I knew enough about the Federal Power Act, the National Environmental Policy Act, the Clean Water Act, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission and hydropower technology to get the job. Frankly, before pursuing this emphasis area, I had very little understanding of what I wanted to do with my degree. Now, I have a clear and exciting career path ahead of me.