Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs
Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Stalpes uses analysis skills to advise utility commissioners

Sean Stalpes

For Sean Stalpes, much of his job satisfaction comes from helping parties with different points of view reach consensus.

The 2009 grad is an energy technologies specialist with the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission. He prepares reports that compile testimony, provides analysis and technical expertise, and advises the commission on energy-related matters. "I am fortunate to be able to work on a broad range of energy policy issues," he says. "I have worked on rate structures for electric vehicles, power plant emissions reduction projects, renewable energy purchase power agreements and electric generation planning."

Commission dockets include involvement from many stakeholders, such as other government agencies, business groups or environmental groups, Stalpes says. "If, for example, an electric utility files a petition to construct a wind farm, my job could include summarizing the project itself, summarizing testimony filed in the record, providing my own analysis of the project and its applicability to rules and statutes, and developing decision options for our commissioners."

Stalpes says he regularly encounters different perspectives about energy policy and how to enact it. "If parties with very different points of view can start far apart and I can help get their positions closer together, that is a public service, more than any quantitative analysis I provide," he says. "Most everybody embraces rationality, so acknowledging that everybody might be right to some degree, and using that understanding to arrive at a reasonable and meaningful end is important to me."

Stalpes came to the La Follette School after completing a bachelor's degree in environment and natural resources at the University of Minnesota in 2007. In Wisconsin, he earned a Master of Public Affairs degree and a certificate in energy policy and analysis.

"It was a great program to get a lot of exposure to a lot of different skill sets," he says. "The balance of technical and quantitative courses with those that emphasize writing and communication has enabled me to be more versatile. La Follette was a great opportunity to become better at writing, communicating, and understanding and interpreting data for policy and economic analysis. At my job, this versatility has sort of made me the agency's utility infielder. I'm not the best person to ask about finance, engineering or legal analysis, but I can play multiple positions effectively."

His training gave him the skills he uses regularly in working with forecasts, cost allocation, externalities or economic analysis of some kind. "While I can't build econometric models at the level of a Ph.D. economist, the La Follette courses did enable me to productively engage with people who do," Stalpes says. "Typically, many of our agency's commissioners do not have predominantly quantitative backgrounds. Therefore, they rely heavily on staff—including me—to translate the esoteric quant language into normal-person-speak. The courses I took at La Follette and the Nelson Institute helped me not only to understand complex economic and statistical analyses and arguments, but to write about them clearly and concisely."

The 48-hour exercise for the Workshop in Public Affairs taught by professor Karen Holden's course best illustrates the La Follette School skills Stalpes uses at the Public Utilities Commission. For the exercise, students are each given a policy topic to research, analyze and make recommendations on within 48 hours. Stalpes had to learn about the alternative minimum tax.

"To some degree, I still apply what I learned during that 48-hour exercise," he says. "Occasionally, I'll get a request from a commissioner asking me to prepare a presentation, to help draft a policy paper or to answer a question on something I know nothing about. More often than not, these are drop-everything exercises because requests directly from our commissioners usually get a higher priority. Problem is, the time allocated for turnaround is generally very short. Being able to break down a complex issue in a succinct and clear way and to do it promptly have been extremely valuable skills."

Positive teacher a bonus

In the classroom, the most a student can usually hope for is to either learn something useful or to gain a new perspective, Sean Stalpes says, but La Follette School professor Bob Haveman always provided both.

Stalpes, a 2009 alum, took the microeconomics course from Haveman and heard a few guest lectures in other courses. "Bob Haveman—the man, the myth, the legend," Stalpes says. "He always has a really contagious positivity about him, which in my mind is at least as an important form of mentorship as the academic side of things."

"I still remember his Halloween costume in which he dressed up—in full regalia—as Arlo Guthrie," Stalpes says. "At least I think it was Halloween. And I think it was a costume. Could've just been a Tuesday."

Bob Haveman in costume as Arlo Guthrie at La Follette School 2002 Halloween party.

Bob Haveman as his alter musical ego in 2002.

While a graduate student, Stalpes interned with a legislator at the Wisconsin Capitol and with an environmental nonprofit organization. He then joined the staff of Wisconsin's Public Service Commission and worked there full time after completing his master's degree. He returned home to Minnesota in 2010.

"I've always been attracted to public service, to contributing to something beyond my own academic or financial interests," Stalpes says, "and my career could have been several different things. Becoming a doctor or lawyer or Batman can be a form of public service. Policy analysis just ended up grabbing me. My workload involves the implementation of state and federal energy policies. This scope fits certainly qualifies as public service, but I'm very fortunate I can fit academic interests into my professional life."

His courses and internship experiences at La Follette all let him explore different areas related to energy policy, which was always a strong interest. "I've never really had a five-, 10- or 15-year plan, but the types of courses I liked, complemented by my work experiences, calibrated my post-graduation interests to government," he says.

A bonus is the somewhat informal work environment. "I do hate wearing suits — they're uncomfortable," Stalpes says. "I rarely wear a suit to work, so it makes sense that I'm in a job that doesn't require it."

More importantly, Stalpes wants to be happy with his work. "Giving 100 percent to everything is often a balancing act, and good time management only comes with a level of experience that I am just beginning to accumulate. My job generally has very strict deadlines, and I'm never assigned to just one project at a time. I'm proud of those projects in which I feel good about my effort, all intervening parties have their positions put across in a fair way and our commission has a full menu of reasonable options."

"For me, the most important takeaway from La Follette was learning how to identify, frame and articulate what is most important about the issue at hand," he adds. "Being able to read 500 pages of a docket record and break it down into 20-30 pages (with my own analysis) is a fundamental aspect of my job. Simply condensing it has little value, but distilling a lot down to a little without losing much substance is probably the single most valuable skill I learned at La Follette."

The La Follette School's emphasis on impartial, nonpartisan public service also resonates with Stalpes. "I place significant importance on organizational values," he says. "Our organization is a regulatory agency, and the commissioners are appointed by the governor. While this system could easily lend itself to political activism, our commissioners take their responsibility to consider all viewpoints very seriously when deliberating in the public interest. My fellow staff members, too, are mindful of leaving their political persuasions at home. I really embrace the culture within our organization to be apolitical about policy issues."