15.031J | Spring 2012 | Undergraduate

Energy Decisions, Markets, and Policies


Course Meeting Times

Lectures: 2 sessions / week, 1.5 hours / session

Recitations: 1 session / week, 1.5 hours / session


A required subject for the energy studies minor, this class introduces students to basic concepts and methods of analysis used across the social sciences to understand how the production, distribution and consumption of energy are determined and experienced. The readings and discussion materials illustrate and analyze both the choices and constraints regarding sources and uses of energy, introducing students to diverse frameworks, theories, and conceptual tools (e.g. economic, organizational and managerial, political, social, and cultural) for describing and explaining behavior at various levels of aggregation (e.g. individuals, households, firms, social movements, and governments). As a survey of social science perspectives and analytic tools, the course is not intended to prepare you to be an expert in any particular area, but rather to prepare you to use the tools of the social sciences to understand and shape real energy decisions, markets, and policies.

The central insights of the course will include the importance of recognizing and taking account interdependencies among actors and systems; the need to make explicit what are often tacit assumptions and taken-for-granted habits of thought, behavior and practice; the unanticipated consequences of purposive social action; the heterogeneity in human conditions, cultures and societies; and the iterative reflexivity (volatile feedback loops) characteristic of contemporary social action.

We will show that what sometimes seem to be purely technical issues often have massive human, individual and collective/social components that must be dealt with to direct changes. There is no one solution to the energy problem, which is a, if not the, central piece of our environmental conundrum. Too often, however, we do not pay sufficient attention to the organizational, economic, distributional and cultural components of problems that have important technical dimensions.

The course will include examples of cost-benefit, organizational, and institutional analyses of energy production, transformation, and use as well as public policy choices affecting distribution and consumption. More specific topics include the role of markets and prices, financial analysis of new energy-related technologies; institutional path dependence; economic and political determinants of government regulation; the impact of regulation on decisions and feedback into the political/regulatory/energy system. Examples will be drawn from various countries and settings.

This course is one of many OCW Energy Courses, and it is a core subject in MIT’s undergraduate Energy Studies Minor. This Institute-wide program complements the deep expertise obtained in any major with a broad understanding of the interlinked realms of science, technology, and social sciences as they relate to energy and associated environmental challenges.


14.01 Principles of Microeconomics is a prerequisite for taking this course.


There will be an individual paper addressing the negotiations from the Climate Game (a role-playing exercise that is run through C-Learn Climate Simulation), and a final team paper that is to be worked on throughout the length of the course. The deliverables for the paper include a detailed outline, the paper itself, and an in-class oral presentation of the paper.


Individual paper 10%
Two quizzes 40%
Team project 40%
Class participation 10%


When approaching the reading assignments, it is recommended that you take notes when reading to help you learn the material and develop your own communication skills. The following guide covers how to tackle the readings most efficiently and effectively:

A Guide to Reading Social Science: How to work through long reading assignments (PDF), prepared by Prof. Schmalensee.

For written work, you may wish to consult the following resources on writing social science papers and on the mechanics of good writing, respectively:

Cuba, Lee J. A Short Guide to Writing about Social Science. 4th ed. Longman, 2001. ISBN: 9780321078421.

Strunk, William, and E. B. White. The Elements of Style. 4th ed. Longman, 1999. ISBN: 9780205313426.

Learning Resource Types
Lecture Videos
Lecture Notes
Written Assignments
Instructor Insights