Jan. 12, 2022

SEDV researcher focuses on the economics of energy and the issues around public policy and the transition to sustainable energy.

SEDV welcomes Blake Schaffer to their academic team
Blake Shaffer

Late one night in 2014, Blake Shaffer was on his hands and knees sorting through student quizzes. Only a few months before he had been head of trading at Calgary's Transalta Corp., with 75 people reporting to him, a support staff, and a comfortable salary. Now he was a PhD student studying Economics at the University of Calgary, and also a teaching assistant with a stack of quizzes that needed to be alphabetized.

"And I was thrilled," Shaffer says now. "It could have backfired, I suppose. It could have not worked out. But I relished going back to school. I really, really enjoy the university environment."

Today Shaffer is an assistant professor in the Department of Economics and School of Public Policy, and an instructor in the Sustainable Energy Development (SEDV) MSc program. He's interested in the economics of energy, especially issues around public policy and the transition to sustainable energy.

"I worked for a company, where the motivation is trying to add to the company's bottom line. There's a feeling of satisfaction in being successful and doing a good job. But at some point I felt like there was something more I wanted to do. A lot of that related to climate change, and feeling like I could do more in terms of helping shape Canadian policy," Shaffer says.

In his work, Shaffer is interested in looking at data to determine the effects that the changing climate and energy realities are creating. For instance, in a paper he wrote with Nicholas Rivers of the University of Ottawa, he looked at how rising temperatures will shape electricity demand in Canada.

By analyzing records of hourly electricity usage from across Canada over 14 years, Shaffer showed in detail how temperatures affect demand, and projected what would happen as temperatures continue to rise.

Overall, increasing temperatures through the end of the century will increase electricity use in Canada by only about 4 percent. That's because increased demand for air conditioning in the summers will be offset by less need for heating in the winters. But that's not the end of the story.

As summers get hotter, not only will more people use their air conditioners more, but more people will decide to get air conditioners. Seasonal peak energy demand will actually switch from winter to summer in most provinces. Peak demand in the summer will increase so much Canada will have to invest about $13 billion in extra generating capacity.

The hotter summers will also increase "ramping requirements" -- the difference between the lowest demand and the highest demand throughout the day. That's an important issue for energy suppliers, who have to match supply with demand on a minute-by-minute basis.

"We're trying to truly understand what the future looks like in a world with changed temperatures, to try to inform policy makers when they're thinking about how to structure, say, electricity rates to deal with these extreme peaks in the middle of a summer day. To maintain the reliability of the electric systems, they need to understand what sort of world we're heading into," he says.

Shaffer did his undergraduate work at Queens University in Environmental Science. He had a job one summer working for BC Hydro, and the next year asked if they had any summer jobs in the department responsible for trading electricity on the market. They didn't, but created one for him doing data analysis, and offered him a full-time job when he graduated.

"And when I came back they said, 'Blake, you're going to be a trader.' And I wasn't sure I wanted that. I really liked doing analysis. And they said, 'No, you really want to be a trader. It's a fun job!' And it really was an amazing way to learn about electricity markets, and about how electricity systems work. And to be honest, it was just a lot of fun. Every day was a puzzle and a mental game of how to be successful."

He was an energy trader for the next 15 years in Canada and the US. He also earned a master's degree from Cambridge University, and was a Fulbright Scholar at Stanford University.

"Now that I'm a researcher and a teacher, I've come to realize that having that in-depth, institutional knowledge is a real asset, one that is hard to develop. What I'm trying to do is really give people a lot of the benefits of that knowledge."

Although the shift to sustainable energy is creating challenges, it's also opening up new possibilities for entrepreneurship in an industry that was previously dominated by large companies, Shaffer says. "And that's an exciting opportunity for smart folks coming out of university."

Shaffer says that the SEDV program attracts professionals who are interested in transitioning to careers in clean energy. Students come into the program with a range of experience, end up learning from one another as well as from their instructors, he says.

"And I learn a ton from the students," Shaffer says.