Earlier this year, CEU Associate Professor Michael LaBelle completed his tenure as the Jean Monnet Chair, during which he led the joint Energy Policy Research Group (ERPG) and Jean Monnet Chair activities. The Jean Monnet Chair supports professors specializing in European Studies. LaBelle, who examined company and government strategies around energy technologies and policy innovation in the EU, published the book, “Energy Cultures: Technology, Justice, and Geopolitics in Eastern Europe” (Edward Elgar Publishing, 2020), during the term.
In addition to the publication, the three year post yielded specialized teaching on EU energy market and policy issues, as well as more than thirty events around EU energy themes, from storage, gas to poverty, attracting over 700 attendees. LaBelle additionally developed the Energy and Innovation podcast (now called My Energy 2050). His forthcoming journal article, “Radical Energy Justice” incorporates one of two case studies conducted during the term.
We spoke with LaBelle, who teaches in both the Department of Environmental Sciences and Policy and Department of Economics and Business, to reflect upon the EPRG/John Monnet Chair partnership. Below is an edited version of the May 19 conversation.
What were some of the personal highlights from your term as the John Monnet Chair?
A major personal highlight was publishing my book, “Energy Cultures”. Having the Chair really helped me work with focus and a deadline to complete it and examine an area where I have done a lot of research - former communist countries in Central and Eastern Europe. It was a lot of work but publishing was a real highlight.
Another highlight was a particular event on nuclear power, which evolved into a really heated discussion, and was a great example of when people really know their subject field and carry a passion to educate about it. The students feel that and benefit. They were amazed by the discussion that we had, witnessing the strong viewpoints. These were really top international experts speaking about nuclear power and there was a huge disagreement between them and their positions, looking at the facts but from different perspectives. It really struck a chord with me because the conversation rose to such a high level based on the intensity, and really explained the topic in depth.
What have you learned about balance and collaboration as someone teaching in both the Department of Environmental Sciences and Policy and Department of Economics and Business and at the Masters and PhD level?
In the class it is beneficial to have students with a range of levels and backgrounds on a topic like energy, which is multidisciplinary. I think the mix is good for our discussion also one of the reasons I like teaching energy at CEU. People come from so many different countries, which can mean discussing solar power in relation to markets where people may not even have electricity. This goes to the topic of my book, which demonstrates that each country is different in their energy systems and how they see these systems differently. It's a definite pleasure to teach about energy and I always try to keep on my courses open to as many students as possible because it brings such diverse perspectives.
The other thing about balancing teaching in the two departments is that I'm really pushed to think from these different disciplinary perspectives. When I'm engaging with students in business, I need to have an awareness of a company’s return on investment, and with those working on environmental policy and not considering business as much, we work with the same topics intellectually from different theoretical frameworks. I think I benefit from being at the crossroads of the energy transition knowing that you can't create a more sustainable energy system without bringing business along. This somehow leads me to more radical thinking about how to address these topics, and I think that as a result I end up being more provocative in my ideas.
What is often misunderstood about energy justice?
I think one misunderstanding is that everyone wants the same thing. With energy justice, it’s important to understand that there are different interpretations. One is that we have universal values and ideas about what's right and wrong. For example, we may think that everyone has the same right to access electricity.
Then we start to discuss what that means in practice for some countries, evolving into a more localized interpretation. When we get down to the individual and community level there are different ways that lead to context specific considerations, which include the impact on the environment. Countries with access to energy through gasoline have a lot of cars are hugely overburdening the planet, while there is another section of the world’s population that has a very small energy footprint. Somehow these things need to be balanced out.
Can you talk about the podcast, My Energy 2050?
I love the podcast because it’s a platform that makes knowledge more widely available and doesn’t take as long to get the information to the public as a journal article which can take 2-3 years to publish. CEU and their support for the podcast studio has been really helpful. It’s also a way to stay connected with MESPOM alumni, who are some of our listeners.
ERPG activities like the online talks and the podcast are really important because they allow people to attend and learn about energy issues so that they can be informed as economists and have some knowledge of the energy sector. That can help with interviews when students are pursuing jobs related to energy.
What else would you like to share with CEU’s community?
People need mentoring, internships and opportunities, no matter how small. Having graduates all over the world and maintaining those connections can help students with their research and development. When students leave CEU and become alumni, my suggestion is to stay in contact with faculty and staff to help foster more connections with present students. Past students are now employed in jobs related to the energy and sustainability sector and present students are well on their way.