sussman squires ’21 explores energy policy at columbia

Grayson Sussman Squires ’21 graduated from Wes with majors in environmental studies and CSS. He is currently attending Columbia’s Climate School. More about his post-Wes journey, below!

Hello, Grayson! Would you share a bit about yourself, and some of the highlights of your time at Wesleyan? 
I am originally from New York State. I grew up in a pretty small town called Chester in Orange County, between Albany and New York City. I never actually visited Wesleyan until after I was accepted. I decided to come in blind, and it ended up being a great decision. I knew because of some of the projects I had done in high school that I wanted to study environmental policy. Environmental policy is not a specific major, but I thought I would double major in environmental studies and government. After speaking with Professor Chernoff and Professor Poulos, I was very interested in their approach to studying the environment. I ended up going to the College of Social Studies info session, and felt that I had to pursue a CSS major. 

What was the focus of your thesis?
My thesis work started when I was on study abroad junior year at Trinity College Dublin. At Trinity you had to pick a major to take your classes under, and I chose history. I ended up writing an environmental history thesis centered on the American West. I was really fascinated by this political movement in the 1880s and 1890s among farmers in the American West and the American South. They were pinched simultaneously by an economic crisis and an environmental crisis. They had a series of terrible harvests and really bad blizzards and winters that destroyed their farms. At the same time, this was when the global grain market was opening up. So they were starting to compete not just with other farmers in the US., but farmers in Argentina and Brazil and India and Egypt. They were at this moment of globalization and there was this furor, an uproar of anger amongst these farmers, and they organized the most successful third party political movement in American history. It’s been subsequently kind of appropriated both on the left and the right. My thesis had to be something in CSS, so it had to be something in history, politics, government, economics, as well as something connected to the environment. I worked on my thesis with Courtney Fullilove, associate professor of history, who specializes in research on grain, seeds, and the evolution of farming on the Great Plains.

How do you think your time at Wesleyan has impacted your career now?
I think the work I did at Wesleyan grounds everything I do in terms of the climate and the energy transition. This is what I mainly focus on both professionally and in school. My thesis taught me to think about how individual people are affected by the very large, macro-scale trends, because the farmers were impacted by a larger picture of globalization and settler colonialism that was destroying one environment. Remembering the lessons from my thesis is hugely important as I think about how communities are going to be at the whim of the energy transition, which we have outsourced from a public process that the government is leading to a process that is solely driven by market forces.

Would you tell me about your current research position? 
Yes! I hold a research position through Columbia’s Climate School, and am working for Professor Virginia Page Fortna, a Wesleyan graduate. She is an international relations scholar, and she’s done a lot of work around conflict and civil war, especially in the Middle East and North Africa. This research follows how decarbonization is going to change how states relate to each other. It’s looking at broad macro-scale data in areas like economics, public health, and migration. Diving into the academic literature in this area has been fun, and a great learning opportunity. It’s really interesting to see how decarbonization creates these new openings and opportunities for different countries and different groups of people to gain power. For instance, I’ll bring up Indonesia as an example, because it has many rare earth and critical minerals that are hugely important to the energy transition. Indonesia is very strategically placed to capitalize on that. They have joint partnerships with China, but the US and Western nations are trying to get involved in Indonesia, too. Indonesia is now a fairly developed country with 280 million people, so they can stand on their own. They can dictate which kinds of international partnerships they would like to enter into. These changes lead to a much more multipolar world. If the energy transition goes a certain way, we could end up in a global landscape where Brazil is a huge power, along with Southeastern Asian countries and current global powers. 

What has your career journey looked like since graduation?  Do you have any advice for students considering their next steps after college?
My early career was a bit disorganized, and I didn’t have a clear plan. However, I had the chance to work in different fields, and ultimately learned a lot about what I wanted out of a career. I worked on a political campaign during my sophomore year, which was a lot of fun, but I decided that working in politics wasn’t for me. I then worked in legal research and for a law firm during my junior and senior years. I had an internship lined up for the summer between junior and senior year at a large company working in consulting, which I thought would set me up for a full-time role, however, it didn’t happen because of the pandemic. Many of my friends who graduated in 2020 had their careers upended. I wanted a job with more certainty, so I decided to work for a big company or corporation to gain exposure to the commercial landscape I had avoided while working in law and public interest law and politics.

I ended up at AlphaSights, where I got an offer in October of my senior year. However, I didn’t start until a year later, taking a September start date to take some time off. AlphaSights is a dynamic, fast-paced workplace where you work for clients who have very rapid timelines for their projects. I conducted equity research for investment clients across various industries, which was very different from my previous experiences. I worked on projects for hedge fund investors across every industry. It was a great place to see the wide world of opportunities and industries out there. My experience in CSS at Wesleyan had made me think that my career options were limited to management consulting, investment banking, working in government, or going to law school. However, working at AlphaSights showed me there was much more out there. I worked on some exciting energy projects, especially after the Inflation Reduction Act passed. I worked on wind, solar, energy storage, EV batteries, critical mineral supply chains, and software used in the grid or in batteries for greenhouse gas accounting. This experience made me realize that I wanted to be more involved in the energy transition.

At AlphaSights, I was several steps removed from anything actually getting built or hooked up to the grid. I was more of a consultant for the investor who was investing in the company buying or purchasing these technologies. I wanted to work in energy in a more direct way.

Why did you apply to Columbia’s Climate School? 
I was infatuated with wind power, and it is still my favorite type of renewable energy. I wanted to get an entry-level job at a wind company, but there is a high barrier to entry. In the energy industry in general, you need a lot of hard skills regarding business, finance, data analysis, and engineering skills, at least to a point of literacy and communication. I felt that I didn’t have skills in finance, I could only contribute in broad terms. I thought I would pursue an environmentally focused degree and work my way into the energy industry. I spoke to Jolie Villegas ’21, another Wesleyan graduate who went to Colombia’s Climate School, and she convinced me to apply. Columbia’s Climate School also has a center for Global Energy Policy, and lots of people who are committed to global energy transition. 

What is your area of focus at Columbia’s Climate School?
I’ve had the opportunity to take lots of classes that I am interested in. I’ve learned the systems analysis and finance skills, and developed the ability to speak on energy topics from a climate perspective. I don’t have a formal specialization. When I describe what I study, I would say, broadly, that I work on energy policy or energy transition. I am focused on steps that we have to take to go from a highly emitting energy system to one that doesn’t emit. I think about it like this: If you make a pie chart of all emissions globally, 73 percent of those are energy-related. That’s broken down between electricity, transportation, buildings, and industry. So that includes all the emissions from coal and gas-fired power plants. Then there are transportation emissions from when we fill up our gas tanks and we drive, or take the bus or take a flight. It includes emissions from the energy we use when we heat our buildings, light them, or use hot water. And then you have industry that requires a tremendous amount of energy, either through thermal energy for chemicals or metals or in electricity to power factories, etc. The first step is to decarbonize the power sector and eliminate emissions from the electricity grid. If we have a fully clean grid, we can electrify transportation almost 100 percent of the way (planes and large boats are a question mark, but we’ll set those aside because in the aggregate they’re a pretty small percentage). We could also do that for buildings. We’re going to install heat pumps in buildings instead of furnaces or natural gas heating. We’re going to electrify our appliances. We’re going to put in insulation to reduce the amount of electricity we use. This change can cascade, and although industry is harder to decarbonize, we still have a lot of the answers there. We may have to use gasses like hydrogen, but the good thing about hydrogen is you can make it with 100 percent clean energy. If you have water and an electron you can do electrolysis and you can break it into hydrogen and oxygen. You can release the oxygen with no harm. Then you have hydrogen: it’s an energy carrier, it’s a gas, and we can use that to make fuel, for instance. 

Are there any classes you have especially enjoyed at Columbia?
I’m taking a class right now called Practicing Clean Energy Policy in the US with John Rhodes, a former special assistant for climate policy in the Biden White House and also the CEO of NYSERDA, which is the New York State Energy Development Authority agency. He negotiated the Inflation Reduction Act and was essential to building out a lot of the clean energy policy that Biden’s Administration was successful in promulgating. I am also taking a Climate Change Law and Policy class this semester, which is less energy focused and more climate focused. A lot of it is focused on NEPA, National Environmental Policy and the Clean Air Act. Those two pieces of legislation have a large impact on energy and energy projects because oftentimes major energy projects have federal funding or are at the behest of federal agencies. I’ve also taken some very energy business classes. I took a Financing and Energy Economy class, which was with Leslie Rich from the Department of Energy’s loan program office. Before that, she was a banker on Wall Street and she covered the utility sector.  That was a heavily financed modeling class. Another class is also similar, but has a little bit of engineering, called Energy Markets and Innovation.

Would you share a bit about your new blog?
The blog is an assignment for class, and a mandatory one at that. So I can’t take too much credit in ideating the blog as this new creative outlet.  However, I am glad that it is an assignment because it’s a good place for me to rant and rave about what I’ve been thinking about. When I’m done with the class, I think I’ll keep the blog and I’ll focus more on areas I have more interest in. I thought that it needed to be quasi-engaging to people who aren’t super climate literate or super climate focused so I started using an AI image generator tool.  I wrote the first blog post as if it was related to Dante, and decided to make a picture of Dante in front of a wind farm.  I just did that the first time and then I thought, you know what, this can be the gimmick. This can be the thing that makes this blog fun! This week I used JFK because I was writing about how individuals can take climate action. I was thinking about JFK because he established the Peace Corps, and that was a model for what AOC and the Green New Dealers were talking about with a Civilian Conservation Corps. My point is you can take climate action in your purchasing decisions and you can do in your voting decisions, but the best way is to take action in your community. I’m on this advisory committee for my hometown, and I’m the interim chair right now. We are undergoing some changes, but I’m also coordinating this task force where we’re going through the process of becoming what’s called a climate smart community in New York. It’s been really fun. 

Is there anything that stands out when you look back on your time with the Bailey College of Environment?
I think I’d be remiss if I didn’t praise Wesleyan and the Bailey College of the Environment. It was a valuable place for me to start because it’s a skeptical environment. We’re not just presented with market-driven solutions as the only right way. It was an imaginative environment where peers and professors explored how to fundamentally do things differently. People asked deeper, more radical questions. 

I took a class at Wesleyan called Radical Sustainability, with Brian Stewart, which was my introduction to systems thinking, which is a very valuable framework for thinking about the environment and climate and energy. We started with no presumptions about how to make our world more sustainable, only the end goals in mind of reducing our emissions. We broke the problem into smaller pieces, designing the system without considering the market, government, or any incumbent players. The result looked vastly different from what we have today.  That class made me realize the power of being the person in the room making decisions about how a system can adapt or change. It requires a lot of work to get there, but if you carry your commitment to the climate along with you, and you’re in a position to make these decisions, make the right decision. My journey has been a long one to realize that I just want to be a person in a room making a decision. For me, the climate is always in the back of my mind, so I know whatever I do, it’s going to be, if not the biggest factor, one of the largest factors in how I make decisions.