Training future policymakers for the fast-changing energy world

Lion Hirth’s teaching aims to help students understand the technology, economics and politics of energy.

“I try to teach that it’s not good public policy to prescribe detailed solutions in the energy sector,” says Lion Hirth, Assistant Professor of Governance of Digitalisation and Energy Policy at the Hertie School. “But, of course, prescribing solutions is what students at a governance school often intuitively favour – and many people in the public debate as well, in particular in Germany.”

In the fast-changing energy world, policymakers must deftly balance present and future needs. In recent years, Germany decided to exit both nuclear and coal power, relying more on weather-dependent windmills and solar panels to decarbonize the economy. In 2020, the traditionally coal-dependent Germany reached a record-breaking 44% share of renewable energy in its total electricity consumption.

Such change is a huge challenge for power systems and economies that depend on them. Policymakers need deep knowledge of these complex and interdependent systems, particularly as countries around the world are under pressure to cut greenhouse gas emissions and meet targets pledged in the Paris Agreement on climate change.  

Students who aspire to careers in energy policy need an excellent grasp of the technological and economic basics so they can make decisions that are sustainable in environmental, economic, and political terms. “It’s certainly impossible to design an energy system that will be perfect 40 years ahead,” says Lion Hirth. “Problems that are keeping us busy today weren’t on anyone’s horizon just five years ago.”

It is precisely this challenge that Hirth prepares students to face when they graduate from the Hertie School’s two-year Master of Public Policy or Master of International Affairs – or the soon-to-be-launched Master of Data Science for Public Policy programme.  They learn about different market models and regulatory philosophies and about retail and wholesale electricity markets in Europe compared to other countries. They study the economics of renewable energy sources that are sometimes available, and sometimes not.

The school offers a number of courses in the field of energy and climate policy – and is committing more resources to the subject with the launch of its Centre for Sustainability in the Fall Semester 2021. Professor of Sustainability Christian Flachsland will be the centre’s new Director. Hirth has worked closely with Flachsland on research – currently, for example, on the German education and research ministry (BMBF)-funded ARIADNE project, which develops policy advice for the European energy transition and Germany’s 2050 climate-neutrality ambitions.

Top marks for teaching

Hirth’s spring 2021 class, “Electricity Economics”, focuses on the fundamental physics and economics underpinning good energy policy, as well as the institutional and legal framework that shapes power systems and markets. Due to the pandemic, the course is largely being taught online this spring, and Hirth recorded 12 lectures, ranging from 1-1.5 hours that students can watch outside class. That leaves 100 minutes of class time entirely for discussion, much more than students would have in a regular lecture.

Consistently earning top marks from students for his insightful teaching and hands-on engagement, Hirth won a faculty Excellence Award from the Hertie School Academic Senate after his first year at the school in 2017. Students have praised his “exhaustive knowledge”, “inspiring and motivating” lectures, and “clear structure and useful slides”, in their evaluations at the end of each course.

He joined the faculty after completing his PhD in Energy Economics and a post-doc at the Technical University of Berlin under the renowned climate policy expert Ottmar Edenhofer. With its strong emphasis on teaching, Hirth says the Hertie School was a natural fit. “Teaching is something I really enjoy and also something this institution takes seriously. So I felt Hertie was a good match in terms of what I can do well and what is appreciated here,” he says.

“Teaching is something I really enjoy and also something this institution takes seriously.”

While working on his PhD, Hirth also spent five years at the Berlin headquarters of the big Swedish power company Vattenfall, honing his expertise in the system integration of renewable energy. His main research interests lie in the economics of wind and solar power, energy policy instruments, and electricity market design, as well as open data and open-source modelling. In 2021, Hirth was named one of Germany’s “Top 40 under 40” in academia by the business magazine Capital.

A real asset for his students is that he routinely sits down with policymakers to discuss their problems and conducts research that helps inform their work. He also straddles the business and research worlds through his consulting firm, Neon Neue Energieökonomik GmbH. As a result, Hirth has a steady stream of real-life insights to bring into his lectures. “This gives the discussion in class a lot of credibility,” he says.

Geared for future policymakers from around the globe

Hertie School graduates have also found his courses to be a stepping-stone to their careers. Kimberly Liu, a 2017 graduate of the MPP programme, now works at the US. Environmental Protection Agency. After earning her degree, she worked at the consultancy Aurora Energy Research in Berlin, following an internship that she organized through the Hertie School network. “Lion Hirth’s class definitely helped me land my first job. It provided me with a solid understanding of the background and fundamentals,” she says.

Because Hertie School students come from around the globe, it’s important they understand how policymaking tools can be applied in vastly different contexts. “People will end up working in different systems,” Hirth explains. But most aspects of all of these systems are universal and do not depend on whether they are in the US, Germany or Colombia. “The fundamental economic actions and principles – how incentives work and how they don’t, how market prices are formed, and how people behave strategically in certain situations – are 95% the same everywhere.”

He also offers something students don’t usually find at a public policy school – a course on energy system modelling, essentially programming computer simulations of electricity markets. The students aren’t likely to become computer geeks (even though some might), but the idea is to “let them develop an intuition about how difficult the technique is as a guiding tool for policymaking, and how easily you can fudge,” Hirth says.

“Hertie School students are really engaged, they like to learn, and they are willing to invest. That’s why I really enjoy teaching them.”

Among the things Hirth says he values the most at the Hertie School are its students. “Initially, I thought I wanted to teach students who already knew something about the topic – teaching economists about energy systems, or engineers about energy markets,” he says. But many of the students he now teaches are sociologists, political scientists, or lawyers. “I think my classes are challenging in terms of methods and they don't always relate closely to what the students already know,” he admits. “But Hertie School students are really engaged, they like to learn, and they are willing to invest. That’s why I really enjoy teaching them.”