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Gabe Chan, an assistant professor at the University of Minnesota, seeks to connect research with public policy.
Gabe Chan wants Minnesota to get it right.
Since arriving in the state five years ago, the assistant professor at the University of Minnesota has become a persistent presence as state leaders refine rules and rates around its nation-leading community solar program.
Armed with research from a public policy center he founded, Chan has testified to lawmakers, submitted comments to regulators, and written papers and editorials in an effort to help improve clean energy policy in the state, particularly related to community solar and the state’s “value of solar” rate.
The work has been rewarding and significant, Chan says, because other states are looking to Minnesota as a potential model for both policy areas.
“That had been really both rewarding from a practical standpoint and an academic standpoint,” he said. “A lot of other states are trying to figure out if this is the right policy for them.”
Chan grew up in San Francisco, the only child of a Taiwanese-born father who works as a visual artist and a mother who just retired as an instructor of English as a second language. The spark for his clean energy career came as a sophomore at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where he reluctantly attended a screening of Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth.”
The film was followed by a panel discussion featuring Ernest Moniz, who would later become President Barack Obama’s energy secretary. Moniz challenged students to think about the big role they could play in combating climate change.
“I’m sitting there as a college sophomore with no major declared thinking this could be me,” Chan said. “And that night I pulled an all-nighter. I read everything I could read about the science of climate change and the next day, I had declared earth sciences and political science as my double major and then went from there.”
After graduating from MIT, Chan earned a doctorate in public policy at Harvard University before ultimately landing an assistant professor job at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs in 2015.
Chan wanted a place where he could combine the disciplines he absorbed at MIT and Harvard. “The Humphrey has a science, technology, and environmental policy program, and it’s very rare to see that combination,” he said. It’s also a public policy school where faculty members often speak to the media, pen editorials and participate in public debates.
It was a propitious time to arrive for an energy scholar. Minnesota’s nation-leading community solar program had just begun to hit a stride. A new way to pay solar energy producers, known as the value of solar, had created major implications for utility Xcel Energy and developers. Both would become central to his research in Minnesota, assisted by a dozen staffers in a public policy center he created called the Chan Lab.
His research brought him into a close-knit community of clean energy stakeholders and a collaborative setting he did not experience in Massachusetts. “There’s a nice ecosystem of where folks actually know one another and things happen on a personal level,” Chan said.
Chan said he believes that studying policies and offering research in Minnesota can refine and improve programs and statutes in the state and serve as a model for other states considering the same policies.
Chan and his research team wrote an analysis of how Minnesota’s community solar program worked for the first 300 megawatts. Later, Chan Lab members would testify at the Public Utilities Commission and the Legislature concerning potential improvements to the community solar program based on their research.
The strategy of deep analysis would become a hallmark of Chan and the Chan Lab. He is comfortable burrowing into oceans of data and weighty regulatory dockets before sharing the results with groups ranging from clean energy advocates to rural cooperative and utility executives.
Allies in the clean energy space say the Chan Lab has had an impact. John Farrell, director of the Energy Democracy Initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, applauded Chan for offering graduate students an opportunity to research ongoing energy policy and then advocate for their findings.
The Chan Lab, which includes two former employees of Farrell, brings thoroughly researched expertise to state regulators that not many other organizations can bring to an issue. “It’s nice to have someone else in the game with additional resources and a different angle,” Farrell said.
Ellen Anderson, a senior energy researcher at the university’s Energy Transition Lab, said Chan “has been really digging into the community solar docket in a way that hasn’t been done before. It’s a big deal, and it’s a new way to look at it.”
Nick Stumo-Langer, a Chan Lab researcher, said Chan is “intensely smart, to the point that it feels like you’re always sprinting behind him to keep up.” In conversation and presentations, though, Chan is able to explain his research in an engaging way. “This field can be a bit dry, and Gabe is not boring or dull,” Stumo-Langer said. “He has a natural curiosity that people find appealing.”
State regulatory staff often cites the Chan Lab’s research when laying out options for utility commissioners in cases.
The Humphrey School awarded Chan the chair of Science, Technology, and Environmental Policy program. This year the university gave Chan one of its 10 annual McKnight Land Grant Professorships, which brings with it a $50,000 research award.
Chan said he believes research and advocacy are more likely to change minds, move legislation, and have a greater impact on climate change than peer-reviewed papers. He and his colleagues still write those papers, but a greater opportunity for influence lies with presenting research to regulators, utilities and other interested parties, he says.
Other states, most recently Texas, have also tapped him and his colleagues to speak about community solar. They are working with a national laboratory on a community solar database and continuing studies on barriers to low-income community solar access in Minnesota.
“These direct connections are the biggest impacts we’re having with our work,” Chan said. “We’re working directly with implementers and bringing the research to implementation by partnering rather than just handing over the report. We’re working with them. This is engaged scholarship.”