After taking a class in the environmental studies department, Marc Gonzalez DC ’23, a history major from New Haven, started to see new dimensions of the landscapes they encountered. While driving along the Houston Ship Channel in Texas, Gonzalez saw the clouds of black smoke billowing from the petroleum refineries as more than pollution from fossil fuels; they were also a stark example of energy injustice. The lower-income and minority communities nearby rely on the refineries for jobs, but they are more exposed to health risks associated with the pollutants than wealthier communities downtown, which consume disproportionately larger shares of energy.
The highway in Houston proved to be a road to Damascus for Gonzalez. They switched their major to environmental studies, with a concentration on environmental justice. This past summer, thanks to a new Yale program, Gonzalez and seven other students had the chance to learn first-hand what it takes to lead society to a sustainable clean energy economy.
Toward a cleaner future
Established with a gift from a generous family, the Planetary Solutions in Clean Energy (PSiCE) Summer Internship and Research Fellowship Program is part of the university’s broad Planetary Solutions Project. PSiCE places students from across Yale in internships and research fellowships at nonprofit, low-profit, and governmental organizations focused on the transition to clean energy. Each student receives a stipend, making these opportunities available to those who may not otherwise be able to spend their summer in a low-paid or unpaid position.
The inaugural cohort included five Yale College students and three graduate students pursuing degrees at the Yale School for the Environment and the Jackson School of Global Affairs. Though their academic interests vary, all eight students share a commitment to advancing clean energy and come from backgrounds that are underrepresented in the energy sector.
“I am so grateful to the donors who have made it possible for us to establish PSiCE and connect incredibly talented students with partner organizations that are innovating to deploy clean energy at scale,” says Stuart DeCew ’11 MBA, ’11 MEM, executive director at the Yale Center for Business and the Environment (CBEY), which administers the program.
“By helping these organizations to solve meaningful challenges across communities, the students who participate are actively taking part in the economy-wide transformation of how we produce and consume energy,” says DeCew. “Ultimately, the program is preparing them to be future leaders in the clean energy field.”
All in this together
While each student works with a different host organization for the summer, the program cultivates a sense of community and interdisciplinary problem-solving within the cohort. The glue holding them together is the mentorship of Robert Klee ’99 MES, ’04 JD, ’05 PhD, the program’s faculty adviser. Formerly the commissioner of Connecticut’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, Klee now lectures at the School of the Environment and directs clean energy programming at CBEY. “What I particularly love about the PSiCE program is that it brings the enormous challenge of the energy transition down to a real, tightly focused project that students can wrap their heads around in one summer,” says Klee.
“In addition to providing an amazing learning experience,” Klee continues, “the program facilitates a clearer pathway for entry into this line of work and will help us grow Yale’s clean energy collaborative network for the future.”
Throughout the ten weeks of the internships and fellowships, Klee and the cohort of graduate and undergraduate students met regularly to exchange ideas and share their experiences. Representatives from the host organizations also participated in weekly lunches with the group to discuss how they’re driving the clean energy agenda forward and talk about what each student is helping to accomplish—from developing a strawman proposal for the assignment of solar interconnection costs at Connecticut’s Public Utilities Regulatory Authority to working on a fuel-switch strategy for low-income housing in Ithaca, New York, as part of a citywide building decarbonization initiative.
Gonzalez’s summer fellowship was with the Chicago-based nonprofit Elevate Energy. Their research produced an in-depth study of the Climate and Equitable Jobs Act, a progressive and sweeping bill signed into law in Illinois in 2021. The legislation puts the state on track for one-hundred-percent clean energy and contains comprehensive measures to ensure a just transition away from fossil fuels for workers and communities that have historically been last to reap the health and economic benefits of clean energy.
Gonzalez studied the 900-page bill and conducted interviews with representatives from various caucuses to document how such groundbreaking legislation passed and how its policies and reforms account for the needs of different communities. Their findings will help Elevate Energy’s sister organizations advocate for similar clean energy legislation in other states across the nation.
“I’ve done a lot of things during my summers at Yale. This research fellowship was easily my favorite,” says Gonzalez. “Thanks to the camaraderie within the cohort, the chance to connect with YSE graduate students, and Robert Klee’s counsel and guidance, it turned out to be so much more than a research fellowship. It gave me clarity on what I want to do after I graduate: work at an environmental nonprofit on policy at the local level.”