Gilbert Michaud speaks to community stakeholders at an event.
Gilbert Michaud speaks to community stakeholders at an event. Credit: Environment America / Courtesy

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Correction: The Loyola University School of Environmental Sustainability has hired about 10 new faculty members. An editing error inserted an incorrect figure in a previous version of this article.

It’s one thing to have the technology to fix climate change, but technology alone is not sufficient. A solid policy structure is also needed for effective implementation.

To rise to the challenge, the former Institute of Environmental Sustainability at Loyola University in Chicago, established in 2002, completed its transition last year to its new status as the School of Environmental Sustainability. There are approximately 75 master’s degree students training for work in the nonprofit sector or for further research, with a total enrollment of 400 to 500 undergraduates and graduate students in the program. 

Along with nearly doubling its budget, the new school has continued to add academic programming and has hired nearly 10 new faculty members, including Gilbert Michaud, Ph.D., recently hired as an assistant professor of environmental policy. Michaud was previously a faculty member at Ohio University.

For Loyola and Michaud, the larger mission is taking public policy education to a higher level. Michaud is prepared to use his background in public policy research  — along with extensive experience working with policymakers and stakeholders on the ground — to raise Loyola’s profile academically while increasing the abilities of its students to influence environmental policy in their respective communities.

Michaud recently spoke with the Energy News Network about how he hopes to use his new position to advance solutions to climate change. The following exchange has been edited for clarity and length.

Q: What drew you to Loyola?

A: What was really exciting about Loyola was that all of the students are basically studying energy, environment and sustainability, which was what my background and my research address. And so being able to just very pointedly hone in on environmental policy impacts to electricity rates, pollution, mitigation, business demand for renewables, entrepreneurship, sustainable transportation — all of these fun things — was exciting to me. 

I think being in Chicago will open up a lot of opportunities. I have a faculty affiliation at the University of Michigan. I’ve been in Ohio for the past four or five years. But being in Chicago is sort of the de facto capital of the Midwest, if you will. I think it will allow me to take my work even further, to a regional Midwestern level.

Q: What role do you want to play in the development of this program, or your students, or your work to implement policy changes or other changes related to energy?

A: I think that we have amazing chemists and engineers and material scientists and others that are making a lot of progress from a material science perspective, developing new forms of photovoltaics and the like. But what really was driving renewable energy deployment across the U.S — there’s a supportive public policy. That’s why there’s so much community solar in Minnesota, even despite the fact that the northern states are relatively less sunny compared to states like Texas. But it had a really progressive, really supportive policy mechanism to encourage that. 

So, what I’m studying is how governments are, or are not, adopting things like wind and solar energy and what we can learn from each other. As we think about ways to support clean energy and develop new jobs and protect the environment and all those things that we care about.

Q: Your background is in public policy research, energy policy and urban planning. How does that experience align with the mission of the program at Loyola?

A: The history of the school has been rooted in the natural sciences. There’s a lot of ecologists and biologists doing things like sustainable agriculture and biology and such. But they didn’t have a lot of economists and policy scholars. And so that’s where I fit in, both in the classroom and also on the research side. I think that the goal of the school is to create agents of social change. Like I was saying, we’re already at the point where students are passionate about sustainability and climate change and the environment. How can we educate them and equip them with the tools that they need to actually implement change? 

Q: You’ve stated that your specialty is applied research. How does that manifest itself for you?

A: A lot of the work that we’re doing is trying to analyze stakeholders, trying to understand the political and implementation feasibility of policies. You can have a really grandiose vision or a really wonderful idea for a change, but you have to be cognizant of who’s in the statehouse and the role of large electric utilities and the lobbyists that they have, in trying to understand how we can actually implement change. And so, a lot of the work that I’ve done historically is working with industry, working with environmental NGOs (non-governmental organizations), working with state and local governments to be this independent academic voice.

Q: What classes will you be teaching?

A: I am teaching environmental law and policy, and I’m also going to probably be teaching energy studies. There are three policy courses in the spring. I don’t know my schedule yet. But what I want to see and learn is how can my students be good policy analysts? And a very fundamental exercise that we do as a tangible example is like writing a policy brief.

Q:  How much interaction do you expect to have with stakeholders in the community, with policymakers in Springfield, or even in Chicago?

A: Hopefully a lot. Again, like I said, I sort of hung my hat on doing engaged scholarship, applied policy research. And so, I’ve done a lot of work with electric utilities. I’ve done a lot of emission studies with NRDC (the Natural Resources Defense Council) and the Ohio Environmental Council. And we have the Illinois Environmental Council and folks like state and local public utilities or public service commissions.

I think that I’ll probably be out to Springfield quite a bit. I actually used to live in Athens, Ohio, which is where my former university was, but I ended up moving to Columbus because I found myself at the statehouse and at the public utilities commission so often. Before that I was in Richmond, Virginia; I was involved with the state Capitol. And so, they did a lot of work with the Department of Environmental Quality and other state agencies. And my mission is to develop my research group of students. We’re going to be doing a lot of applied work in the city of Chicago with the sustainability folks of the city and county level in the state of Illinois. And even more broadly across the Midwest.

Q: What major projects are you working on now?

A: The biggest project that we have is a new grant from the Solar Energy Technologies Office at the U.S. Department of Energy, which will be investigating the growth and community impacts of utility-scale solar energy across the entire Midwest. I brought the grant with me from Ohio University. This is a project that I am a co-principal investigator on alongside colleagues that I have at the University of Michigan, Michigan State and Iowa State. What we’re looking at is the growth of utility-scale solar across the entire Midwest.  

Q: What are some of the questions you are investigating with this project?

A: The Midwest is this really interesting place when it comes to utility-scale renewable energy projects. A lot of these developers building these projects are very rural. They’re not really prepared for the discussion with maybe they’re not even zoned for solar, or they don’t really know how to interact with the developer and across different states, there’s different sort of regulatory and approval processes to basically accept or approve a project to be built or not. Some of this happens at the local level. Some states handle this more at the state level. There’s the public utilities commission, there’s some sort of power siting board or something.

And so, what we’re doing over the course of the three-year, $1 million project is basically trying to study these impacts of what utility-scale solar is bringing to rural communities in the Midwest. I’m going to be conducting interviews with a lot of diverse stakeholders, including the developers, including landowners, farmers, local elected officials, county commissioners, even media folks, just the broader citizenry to understand how they’re learning about his project and what it means in terms of local decision-making processes.

We want to be able to disseminate our findings and offer solutions to rural communities that might be seeing these large solar project proposals as they can be better equipped to handle and navigate the waters. 

Q: What does success look like for you at Loyola?

A:  I think success to me is within the university, helping grow the school and our recognition regionally in Chicago and also in the Midwest and nationally as a top-notch school. And guiding students as agents of social and environmental change, and then pushing them to get jobs or in grad school, and then having them actually go out to communities and implement that change.

Audrey Henderson

Audrey Henderson is an independent writer and researcher based in the greater Chicago area with advanced degrees in sociology and law from Northwestern University. She specializes in sustainability in the built environment, culture and arts related to policy and related topics. Her work has been featured in Wallpaper magazine, the Chicago Reader, Chicago Architect magazine, Next City, Transitions Abroad, Belt Magazine and other consumer and trade publications.