PSI scholar and doctoral student in the Institute of Resources, Environment and Sustainability, Sandeep Pai was a journalist for years before he decided to return to school to earn his master’s and now PhD degrees. His profession allowed him to study the energy sector very closely in Asia, particularly in India.

“Almost midway through my journalism career I saw how climate change interacts with the energy sector, and how it's very important that we move away from fossil fuel sources.” Unfortunately, moving away from fossil duels is not that simple. “Coal, oil and natural gas, have a huge economic impact on countries where they exist, with entire economies structured around these resources.”

Talks about abandoning fossil fuels altogether especially affects those working in these industries, and who are often in vulnerable conditions. Knowing this inspired Sandeep to want to bridge the gap between environmentalists who advocate for climate action, and those who depend on fossil fuel resources through their work or other means.

“I really wanted to understand and find some solutions to address this livelihood challenge, so people working in the fossil fuel industry become stakeholders and push for this transition instead of opposing this very important and much needed transition,” he said.

Specifically, the doctoral student is focusing on understanding if oil and coal workers can transition to renewable jobs such as solar and wind jobs. According to him, this is important because there will be millions of new jobs in the new renewable energy industries, which means that these new industries have the potential to support people in the coal and oil industry. This can help create social license for renewable energy transitions and climate action in fossil fuel dependent regions.

Sandeep left journalism and returned to school to be able to do science that is meaningful to the public, but his background as a reporter helps inform the research he does today.

“I’ve always known that there are different sides to this story, other than this simple narrative of required climate action or the need to transition away from fossil fuels.” It’s his hope that by acknowledging the complexity of the issue, he might help find a way forward for everyone.

Sandeep Pai is the co-author of Total Transition: The Human Side of the Renewable Energy Revolution

Research Description

In Alberta, Canada, the provincial government has created a climate leadership plan to facilitate a complete transition away from coal-based electricity. Today, almost 50% of the province’s electricity is supplied by coal-fired power plants. By 2030, Alberta aims to produce 30% of its electricity using renewable energy sources, and the rest with natural gas. This switch will have a transformative social impact. Approximately 4000 workers will lose their jobs, along with many community members working in retail and other industries that support coal workers. My research project is the first empirical study that aims to investigate the challenges coal workers in Alberta are facing as they attempt to transition to jobs in other industries. My research has two objectives: 1) to understand the hurdles Albertan coal workers face in making an employment transition; 2) to understand the extent to which federal and provincial policies combine to adequately address these hurdles.

What does being a Public Scholar mean to you?

In my view, being a public scholar is about involving in research that is meaningful and solution oriented for people, nature or communities. The research should of course be conducted in corporation with communities and should be utilizable. In short, public scholarship is about framing and conducting research that is not just relevant for the academic community, but also for people, communities, and policy makers involved.

In what ways do you think the PhD experience can be re-imagined with the Public Scholars Initiative?

Public Scholars Initiative (PSI) has the potential to redefine PhD experience completely. PSI provides a platform and much-needed financial support to foster creative thinking for meaningful research. It enables students to re-imagine their PhD scholarship in ways other than the usual academic approach of researching a topic and publishing in academic journals. Overall, I believe that PSI is helping students by encouraging them to expand the potential scope of the PhD.

How do you envision connecting your PhD work with broader career possibilities?

My PhD research will allow me to further my understanding of the issues workers face during energy transitions and propose tangible solutions. While I have a strong understanding of such issues in the global South due to my past work as a journalist, my PhD research in Alberta will allow me to expand my knowledge regarding energy transition issues in the global North. After graduation, I intend to work as a researcher in the energy transitions field. The connections and knowledge gained during my PhD will allow me to achieve this career goal.

How does your research engage with the larger community and social partners?

My entire research project is designed in collaboration with trade unions such as the United Steel Workers (USW) union—from conceptualizing the idea to conducting field work in Alberta. Apart from the unions, I am also in touch with coal workers with whom I will spend months during my research.

How do you hope your work can make a contribution to the “public good”?

In December 2015, world leaders from nearly 200 nations met at the Paris climate change conference and collectively agreed to end the fossil fuel era and facilitate an energy transition to clean energy. Since then, many countries have decided to move away from coal-based energy and replace it with renewable energy. As the coal industry declines, several coal dependent regions could witness severe economic weakening, which might result in migration, unrest and degradation of the social order. One such region is the coal dependent towns of Alberta, Canada, where the provincial government has created a climate leadership plan to facilitate a complete transition away from coal-based electricity. With my research, I intend to help policy makers in Alberta understand the gaps in their employment transition policies for coal workers. Although my research is focused on Albertan coal workers, my findings will help inform policy makers in other countries faced with similar situations.

Why did you decide to pursue a graduate degree?

Working as a journalist with the national newspapers in India, I have extensively researched and reported on the energy sector. Given my background, I decided to pursue a graduate degree to further expand my knowledge in the energy field, learn new skills, and ultimately become an expert in the field.

Why did you choose to come to British Columbia and study at UBC?

I was interested in pursuing a multidisciplinary PhD in energy transitions. UBC has many faculty members who specialize in this field. I was particularly excited to work with Dr. Hisham Zerriffi’s Energy Resources, Development and Environment Laboratory. Given these reasons, I decided to pursue my PhD at UBC.


Public scholarship is about framing and conducting research that is not just relevant for the academic community, but also for people, communities, and policy makers involved.