At UNC Kenan-Flagler, Asking The Right Questions About Energy

Stephen Arbogast, director of UNC Kenan-Flagler’s Energy Center, whose mission is to teach the whole spectrum of the energy chain. UNC photo

Professor Stephen Arbogast of University of North Carolina Kenan-Flagler Business School says it’s hard to imagine a more consequential career than the business of energy.

Energy is fundamental to everything we use, he says, including our quality of life and, of course, our planet’s life. Moreover, the energy industry is undergoing dramatic change around the globe, as mega-corporations transition to more sustainable sources. The key question: How to make money from alternative energy sources like solar and wind without relying on government subsidies?

Arbogast, a professor of the practice in finance who served as the treasurer of Exxon Chemical and ExxonMobil Chemical Company from 1997-2004, says Kenan-Flagler’s approach to the myriad of complex questions comes through varied coursework, an experienced teaching staff, and input from industry leaders — making UNC’s B-school, not often associated with the energy industry, a “hidden gem” for students considering a career there.


Stephen Arbogast: “We try to ask the right questions, and we pursue the research where it takes us – often to unusual conclusions”

Arbogast leads Kenan-Flagler’s  Energy Center as not only its director but also as instructor and a generous donor. He teaches a course on the energy value chain that provides an overview of the energy business in all segments, from oil and gas to power, petrochemicals and renewables. Arbogast credits the B-school with offering the “deepest” curriculum, providing 13 courses in energy studies ranging from core subjects to a suite of electives on energy tax, consulting, and others. Students must take six of the 13 courses to consider energy a concentration. Debuting this spring is a laboratory course, Fossil Fuel Firms and the Challenge of Carbon, designed to address a set of questions that have no definitive answers.

Kenan-Flagler’s MBA programming in energy is primarily focused on two aspects: the business of energy and the energy transition. Arbogast says the school offers a well-rounded approach to discussing the market now, which he thinks is unique among business schools. The dialogue, he says, necessarily begins with fossil fuels.

“When you have a realistic discussion about the energy transition, it’s hard to start with the fact 80% of energy comes from fossil fuels,” Arbogast says. “If you look around to business school programs, a lot of them don’t want any part of that discussion.”


Nicholas Buczacki: “You don’t need to be an engineer or energy professional coming in to get a good outcome in this field”

MBA student Nicholas Buczacki says Arbogast’s classes begin with a short story or an observation about the state of the world. “Energy is so important in global markets and there’s plenty to talk about,” he says.

The spring graduate Buczacki has a job lined up after school with the development team of NextEra Energy, one of the leading developers of renewable energy that’s working on the transition. He also serves as the president of Kenan-Flagler’s Energy Club.

“When it comes looking at the old energy structure and where we want to go, we want to decarbonize, but we want to make money while doing it. That’s the challenge, figuring out this new technology to make money and make sustainable investments,” he says.

Buczacki completed his bachelor’s degree at Pennsylvania State University and held various jobs before applying to Kenan-Flagler’s MBA program, including getting work in a coal mine. He desired a job that had a tangible impact, and he saw the energy industry’s drastic transition from hydrocarbons to renewables as no better opportunity to do something rewarding.

“You don’t need to be an engineer or energy professional coming in to get a good outcome in this field,” Buczacki says. “People think about energy and see traditional energy companies. We certainly have good relationships with those companies: Chevron, Exxon, Shell, BP … and utilities and renewables companies, like Duke Energy and NextEra, recruit here.”

He adds that it’s incredible to see career paths transpire from the Energy Center that isn’t so obvious, such as people getting jobs in startups, corporate strategy, software, and hardware companies, and the financial sector for energy investment, renewable finance or banking.

“You are not limited to gas and utilities. It’s something I really did not expect when I was applying to business schools, I didn’t know all these opportunities existed,” Buczacki says.


Arbogast says one of the real challenges in the energy education is that “you need to keep evolving with everything that is happening out in the world.” He says faculty in Kenan-Flagler’s program are either current executives or have practiced in the energy industry for decades, which allows classes to engage in dialogue as new issues emerge.

“The faculty member who teaches the energy tax course is Jordan Mintz, he’s the chief tax counsel at Kinder Morgan. He became our carbon tax expert in the curriculum and through his contacts,” Arbogast says.

To add more perspective, the B-school hosts conferences using “Chatham House Rule” with executives and industry leaders. They cover questions even the energy studies faculty don’t know how to answer. A conference with six CEOs from nuclear utilities and three environmental organizations asked whether next-gen nuclear power would help in the energy transition to achieve climate goals. The answer it produced was as complex as the question.

“What an interesting dialogue it was. We try to ask the right questions, and we pursue the research where it takes us – often to unusual conclusions – but I think it is going to lead to better policy,” Arbogast says.


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