Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs
Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Molzahn applies engineering skills to energy policy

Public policy is one of the variables that makes engineering needs for the electrical power system nearly impossible to forecast, but Dan Molzahn has a little more insight than some electrical engineers.

Dan Molzahn


After his graduation from the University of Wisconsin–Madison in 2013, Dan Molzahn is joining the University of Michigan–Ann Arbor's Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science as a postdoctoral researcher supported by a Dow Sustainability Fellowship.


A project for a public affairs course is the basis of an article written by student Dan Molzahn and an alum that appears The Electricity Journal. Read more

"Electric power systems are among the most complex engineering systems in the world, and they have particularly strong interactions with other disciplines, such as policy, environmental science and economics," says Molzahn, who is pursuing a Master of Public Affairs degree and a doctorate in electrical engineering. "Public policies on carbon taxes, cap-and-trade systems to reduce emissions, improved solar panels and wind turbines, and nuclear power all can affect predictions about how the U.S. power system will need to be engineered."

Molzahn came to the La Follette School of Public Affairs by way of the energy analysis and policy certificate graduate students can earn in a joint program with the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies. Molzahn's doctoral advisor, professor Bernard Lesieutre of the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department, studies electricity markets and public policy. "Although my main path throughout high school and undergrad was primarily technical, I always had a strong secondary interest in the social sciences," Molzahn says. "My advisor encouraged and supported me as I pursued the EAP certificate, which was my first formal exposure to policy. After substantial work in energy policy in both my coursework and my research during my first year of graduate study, I decided that further policy studies would be an ideal complement to my technical work in the electrical engineering program."

The inter-disciplinary and flexible nature of the La Follette School is a great asset to students and the wider campus, Molzahn says. "In addition to the excellent general knowledge I have received in policy analysis, statistical methods, economics, etc., I have had the opportunity to work in many cross-disciplinary areas. The EAP certificate, for instance, provides an excellent opportunity to meet future leaders in engineering, environmental science, business and policy."
"The strong relationships between La Follette and the other disciplines (Nelson, the College of Engineering, etc.) really set the University of Wisconsin–Madison apart from other universities," Molzahn says. "I did not see similarly strong cross-disciplinary relationships at the other universities I investigated before starting my graduate studies."

Molzahn had a fellowship from the Electrical and Computer Engineering Department during his first year, then won the three-year National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship that is awarded to the top science and engineering students across the country. "Given the fellowship allows for relatively open ended, flexible research activities, I am working on a technical project related to the stability and reliability of the electric power grid," Molzahn says.

Since January 2010, Molzahn has also held a research assistantship from the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission to work on devising a method for determining whether an individual transmission line is part of the bulk power system, which came under the commission's jurisdiction in the Energy Policy Act of 2005.

"Transmission owners of areas under the commission's jurisdiction face increased regulatory oversight regarding reliability and maintenance rules, including the possibility of fines for noncompliance," Molzahn says, "so we needed to define who must comply, which was not spelled out in the law. We designed a metric to rank each transmission line with regard to how important that line is to the system as a whole. This metric will provide an impartial and defensible method of determining the extent of FERC's jurisdiction. We published and presented the work at the Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences earlier this year."

Molzahn continues to work on FERC projects. He also is looking at transmission cost allocation. "New transmission lines, particularly those intended to deliver renewable energy over long distances, have numerous reliability and economic benefits," he says. "However, these benefits are not distributed evenly to all stakeholders in the electric system."

After completing his doctorate in about 2013, Molzahn hopes to get a fellowship or post-doctorate position then work as a professor, continuing to research and share ideas with policymakers about energy systems and how to manage the world's energy challenges.

"The energy challenges facing our world due to climate change, energy security and economics have substantial cross-disciplinary components," Molzahn says. "It is therefore crucial to have people skilled in multiple disciplines. Public service from technically adept people is more important now than ever before. To ensure that our leaders are well informed when making decisions about engineering-related topics, policy advisors must understand science and engineering as well as public policy."

—  updated June 7, 2013