Energy Week at Duke 2023 Centers People and Communities in Energy Transition
By Katie Maxwell
At the eighth annual Energy Week at Duke in November 2023, experts across diverse sectors shared insights on the global transition to clean energy. Hundreds of students, faculty, professionals and community members took part in the event series, which included a one-day conference in addition to panel discussions, a field trip, a business case competition and more.
The event series was organized by students from numerous Duke undergraduate and graduate degree programs.
During the Duke University Energy Conference at the Fuqua School of Business, industry thought leaders engaged in dialogue around technological innovations and the significance of public and private sector investment in the clean energy transition. Keynote speakers included Mark Hickson (NextEra Energy Resources), Audrey Lee (Microsoft) and Eric Toone (Breakthrough Energy Ventures). This year’s conference also included a company expo, where students interested in energy careers could engage with firms implementing many of the projects and solutions discussed on the main stage.
Several of this year’s events centered people and communities via discussions of energy justice—and of how the energy transition is taking shape in North Carolina.
For example, at an event focused on the impacts of the Inflation Reduction Act and Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, speakers addressed the tension between the recent federal funding windfall and capacity limitations experienced by local governments and nonprofits, as well as tribal and indigenous communities. These two pieces of legislation provide historically marginalized communities with opportunities to benefit from the ongoing energy transition, yet many struggle to apply for these federal grants on very tight timelines.
The panel discussion “Bringing the Transition Home: Energy Justice in NC” focused on the impacts of energy decisions on families and communities, particularly those who have been historically marginalized. Speakers called for reducing the energy burden on the poorest North Carolinians and improving how policymakers and industry engage with communities in the development and implementation of clean energy solutions. Ren Martin (NC Interfaith Power & Light) emphasized how “harnessing the power of the people” in this energy transition protects those who have been harmed most by pollution.
Later that evening, around 60 people gathered at the Sarah P. Duke Gardens for a community dinner to trade ideas about advancing an equitable clean energy transition in small facilitated discussions.
The Energy in Emerging Case Competition also elevated the importance of energy justice—but on a global scale. Five finalist teams of graduate students from universities around the world competed for $15,000 in prizes as they presented business solutions supporting off-grid electricity access in Nigeria—a real-life challenge for this year’s case partner, Okra Solar. A team from York University in Canada took first prize in this year’s competition, which was sponsored by the James E. Rogers Energy Access Project at Duke.
A field trip to a campus geothermal energy research site and an energy trivia night rounded out the week’s agenda.
Timothy Johnson, senior associate dean for academic initiatives at the Nicholas School of the Environment, described the value of Energy Week for students. “It connects people to the outside world, giving them the chance to hear from and interact with professionals informally,” Johnson said. “And it’s an opportunity for the Duke community to intentionally reflect with others around campus on the significance of energy issues.”
Many speakers exhorted Duke students to pursue careers related to energy, noting that the sector is hungry for innovative thinkers from diverse academic backgrounds. Audrey Lee, senior director of energy strategy at Microsoft, encouraged emerging professionals to lean into their curiosity and imagination: “Why can’t we try things? You know, why can’t we have a different business model? Why can't we have a different approach to solving our problems?”
Ceci de la Guardia, a senior economics and public policy major, said the people and ideas she encountered throughout the week underscored her confidence in what she’ll be doing after graduating this December: working for a solar developer in the Triangle area.
“I heard from several speakers that they hope Duke students will stay in North Carolina and contribute here,” said de la Guardia, who was part of the Energy Week planning team. “A couple of events touched on energy justice and solar development, and that got my wheels turning … how can I keep these things in mind as I’m carrying out solar work from day to day?”
This year’s Energy Week organizing team was led by Ian Hitchcock, who is pursuing a master’s degree in public policy, and Carley Tucker, who is pursuing concurrent master’s degrees in environmental management and business administration.
“Having listened to almost all of the conversations that took place across Energy Week, one of the main takeaways for me would be the importance of building authentic relationships with local communities,” said Hitchcock. “When trying to enact positive change, having a sense of humility and a willingness to listen and learn in the places where you hope to do work—whatever form that takes—is to my mind a critical and often overlooked aspect of community development work.”
The Duke University Nicholas Institute for Energy, Environment & Sustainability and the Center for Energy, Development, and the Global Environment (EDGE) at the Fuqua School of Business advise and support the Energy Week student organizers, and many other Duke schools and units assist with promotion of the event series. Energy Week at Duke is funded in part by corporate sponsorships.
Katie Maxwell is a first-year student in the master of environmental management program at the Nicholas School of the Environment and a communications graduate assistant at the Nicholas Institute.