Unique lab at York University focuses on the power of community in transitioning to low-carbon energy

Wind turbines

The Social Exergy & Energy Lab, based in the Robarts Centre at York University, is focused on the future of carbon energy and mitigating the effects of climate change.

Participation in this innovative lab is open to graduate students in the Faculty of Environmental Studies (FES). Within the lab, students research a broad range of topics such as renewable energy, community energy, gender and energy, Indigenous energy, energy justice, and participation and innovation in low-carbon energy transitions.

Christina E. Hoicka
Christina E. Hoicka

Founded by FES Professor Christina Hoicka in 2016 with the goal of creating a space for meaningful interactions with students through a focus on research and in-person meetings, the lab is grounded in a recognition that independent research can feel isolating. Lab members meet on campus once a week for two hours to discuss their research with the group. In this setting, students learn from one another regardless of their stages in the FES graduate program. For example, incoming students gain insights from later-stage MES and PhD students, while later-stage students learn from the discussion of their research and through mentorship.

This approach benefits students academically, through a sense of both structure and autonomy over their work, and personally, through a chance to see that the challenges encountered along an academic journey are often universally shared. Students in the lab stress that while communicating one’s research to a group may seem intimidating, the lab’s sense of community facilitates a welcoming atmosphere, where shared learning opportunities have become a supportive and strengthening activity rather than a source of discomfort. A uniquely diverse group of lab members contributes to this community –predominantly women, people of colour and Indigenous students. This stands in contrast with the typical demographics among energy researchers and the energy sector more broadly, where there is a lack of both gender and racial diversity.

Past and current members of the Social Exergy & Energy lab

The transition to low-carbon energy is already ongoing, yet critical questions remain concerning how and at what speed the transition will occur, as well as the justness of the transition. To address these issues, the lab’s focus is empirical research. Students analyze data on topics that tend to be overlooked and understudied. They have access to previously collected data to conduct research and contribute their findings to augment this growing repository of energy data and understanding of low-carbon energy. This process, and the emphasis on empirical research methodologies, is ideal for highly motivated students who wish to take on a well-defined and rigorous research project that has important social implications.

Lab participants are emerging with numerous professional accomplishments, thanks to the new skills and networking opportunities the lab offers. One student-led manuscript has received publication in a peer-reviewed journal, another has been submitted and two are currently in progress. Lab members have also presented to international and Canadian audiences and have obtained exciting employment opportunities within the energy sector. Such student accomplishments reflect the culture of research in the Social Exergy & Energy Lab, where students are creating quality outputs with tangible social and environmental policy impacts in this critical research area.

By Susan Morrissey with input from members of the Social Exergy & Energy Lab