PUBPOL 250 - Social Systems, Energy, and Public Policy
Section: 001
Term: FA 2019
Subject: Public Policy (PUBPOL)
Department: SPP: Gerald R. Ford School of Public Policy
Requirements & Distribution:
BS, QR/1
Waitlist Capacity:
This course counts toward the 60 credits of math/science required for a Bachelor of Science degree.
May not be repeated for credit.
Primary Instructor:

Energy is an incredibly complex topic by virtue of the inter-linkages of science, technology, public policy, economics, and human behaviors. This course will examine all aspects of energy: supply and demand, technical and social, with a concerted look at the natural place of social science (behavior, pricing, externalities, social norms) in the energy sphere.

Every aspect of present-day society depends on the continuing availability of clean, affordable, flexible, secure, and safe energy resources. Yet nearly 90% of our current energy needs are met by fossil fuels. Our reliance on fossil fuels has led to declining supplies, rising prices, global climate change, and security concerns. The current global energy economy is not sustainable. The technological challenges are formidable; but they cannot be considered solutions without considering the human and social behavioral side of energy demand.

The quest for solutions to "The Energy Problem" is dominated by technology "fixes". The visions of practical technological fixes, whether electricity energy generation, oil exploration and extraction, pollution mitigation, automobile fuel efficiency and alternatives to combustion engines, etc., necessarily build on what we know today and presume that we can achieve in a couple of decades or so, through sufficient R&D, an energy supply-demand balance that fulfills a wide range of incompatible requirements — cheap, environmentally benign, politically secure, unconstrained supply, convenient, and safe. While we expect technology to come to our energy-rescue and support our established patterns of economic growth and energy-intensive lifestyles, we tend to expect very little from the human and social behavioral side of energy use and demand. In some ways the Energy Problem is yet another version of C.P. Snow's Two Cultures — parallel technology and social cultures with little mutual understanding and rare cross-over exchange.

The Complex Systems view would hold that society and energy technologies have coevolved through the actions of individual agents (inventors, scientists, entrepreneurs, financiers, writers, politicians, kings and queens, dictators, and statesman), learning, adapting, selecting, exchanging information, and interacting through transactions of many kinds. At every stage, the social, economic, and technological systems were tightly coupled. It is not possible to understand Energy Problems without framing them in a systems context.

Course Requirements:

Two midterm exams, a final exam, graded homework assignments, and a term project.

Intended Audience:

Freshmen and sophomores interested in energy and complex systems.

Class Format:

3 hours of lecture per week.

PUBPOL 250 - Social Systems, Energy, and Public Policy
Schedule Listing
001 (LEC)
MW 10:00AM - 11:20AM
Note: The goal of this course is to provide a framework for interpreting public discourse on energy issues. How do energy technologies shape the choices people make as individuals, as members of groups, and as elements of society at large, and how do such choices affect energy technologies? These choices are constrained by fundamental scientific principles that determine how man has harnessed fire, why we depend on fossil-fuels, and why known fossil-fuel alternatives give rise to conflicts between rising energy demands and technological feasibility. These choices are expressed through interactions across social, engineered and natural systems. We will develop general principles by analyzing examples taken from electricity, transportation, natural gas, and communications systems. The history of these energy systems is interconnected, as illustrated by the emergence of the electrical grid from inventions in the 1890s of central electrical power plants and the contemporaneous emergence of automobiles. Today we marvel at the rapid rise and adoption of the internet, but an even more stunning cultural/technological transition occurred during the early 20th century when "electrical energy" moved from a rich-man's toy to its cultural embedding as a public right. In parallel, the growth in demand for energy technologies, in particular electricity and automobiles, was accompanied by financial scandals and unscrupulous practices that set into motion large scale encroachment on environmental welfare and public health. Federal and state governments responded with a dizzying array of regulations and legal strictures. We are still trying to figure out how to integrate competing interests on many scales and how to reconcile our desires with the iron-clad law that Mother Nature cannot be fooled.
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