Dr. Fred Beach
Assistant Director for Policy Studies, Energy Institute
By Gary Rasp
Signs of China’s welcoming attitude toward the West, and notably the U.S., can literally be seen on every street corner in every major Chinese city. Just ask Dr. Fred Beach, who recently led a contingent of UT Austin graduate students on an energy-themed tour of the world’s most populous and power-starved country.
“Everywhere I’ve been in China, all the street signs, all the subways, all the public transportation, are in English, as well as Chinese,” said Beach, an assistant director of policy studies at the university’s Energy Institute who teaches courses in both the McCombs School of Business and the Cockrell School of Engineering.
“So much of the growth in China has occurred over the last 10 to 20 years,” he observes, “and they’ve kept in mind that they want to be an international nation” that is open to Western visitors.
China already consumes more energy than America, is expected to double its consumption in the next 10-20 years – making it a unique destination for anyone studying energy, Beach says.
In response, the country is taking an ‘everything above approach’ to producing the energy it needs.
“They’re basically doing everything, because the scale of their problem is so large,” Beach adds.
“They’ve got 1.3 billion people – and they all want to live like we do.”
While China has started to build power plants fueled by natural gas, and continues to construct coal-fired and hydroelectric facilities, it now leads the world in wind and solar farm installations, Beach notes. And, China also is building more nuclear power plants than all the other countries in the world combined.
This year’s visit to China is one of several overseas excursions run by the McCombs School as part of its Global Connections Study (GCS) program, which combines an intensive three-credit hour course with a tour of “business powerhouses of the world.”
For the last four years, Beach has taken two dozen or so graduate students – mostly first- or second-year MBA candidates, who are required to participate in an overseas program – on a 10-day, whirlwind visit to mainland China. The GCS course runs half a semester, beginning in mid-January through spring break.
“There’s just so much going on in China, it’s a natural place to do it,” says Beach, who served 25 years as a U.S. Navy officer before coming to UT in 2006 to earn a PhD in energy technology and policy from the LBJ School of Public Affairs.
While MBA students have first shot at the China trip, Beach tries to leave open three or four slots for other graduate students who many want to participate, including a handful enrolled in the Jackson School of Geosciences’ Energy & Earth Resources Graduate Program.
The roster of students participating in the program often includes a few Army or Marine veterans who have completed their military service before returning to school to earn their MBA.
“The students are fantastic,” Beach says. “And the trip is amazing.”
Prior to the trip, Beach breaks the class up into six or seven teams of four students per team and assigns each of them a company – an electronics factory, power plant, or solar manufacturer, for example. Each team presents its research findings to the entire group before the visit, and also manages the leg of the tour highlighting that same company once the group arrives in China.
Students also are required to keep a journal throughout the course of their visit, recording their cultural and business observations and other reflections. Students also complete a pre- and post-tour survey to assess what worked particularly well and how the tour might be improved.
For China, the visits from American scholars present an opportunity to recruit prospective employees who are well-educated and versed in energy technology, policy and economics.
“It’s a chance to show off their company,” Beach says. “And most of them take that very seriously.”
For students, the tour, which overlaps with spring break, offers what could be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to take in such fabled sights as the Great Wall and the Forbidden City – and witness first-hand China’s massive and multi-faceted expansion of energy infrastructure.
Planning for the tours begins nearly a year in advance with the selection of a native Chinese 2nd year MBA student fluent in Mandarin to serve as a Graduate Research Assistant. Working closely with McCombs administrative staff, Beach and his assistant compile a schedule jam-packed with tours, demonstrations, presentations, and other activities.
While the contingent’s itinerary varies from year to year, each trip includes visits to power plants, manufacturing facilities, energy-intensive factories and other businesses.
Typically, each tour begins in Shanghai, the financial capital of China – “a modern city, that’s easy to get in and out of” – Beach notes. From there, the group usually travels inland, to an industrial or manufacturing center, such as Nanjing, Suzhou, Shenzhen, or Xi’an. The group then proceeds to China’s capital, Beijing.
Beach plans each of the stops along the tour carefully, including the mode of travel.
“A flight is quick, so that’s one way to handle one of the transfers, but each year I’ve made sure one of them is by bullet train, so you can actually see the countryside.”
During this spring’s visit, China’s aggressive expansion of domestic energy production, as well as its many energy-intensive industries, were again on full display.
Among other stops, students visited an automobile manufacturer’s electric car assembly line, a coal-fired power plant, the headquarters of a national oil company, and a major electronics business.
“It’s from A to Z,” Beach notes, “from oil and gas and coal to all the renewables, as well as manufacturing, finance – all of it.”
He also understands the need for students to do some exploring on their own, building in a few hours of downtime each day.
“I’ve worked hard to balance the on-script company visits … with free time for the students,” Beach says.
“I try to make sure that most days there is either a free morning or afternoon or evening that they can go out in groups of two or three or more and explore.”
In addition to the GCS, Beach also teaches an Energy Technology & Policy course each fall in in the Cockrell School of Engineering; in the spring semester, he teaches Energy Technology & Finance in the McCombs’ Masters of Science in Finance program.
When arriving at UT in 2006, Beach intended on returning to Washington, D.C. to work as a procurement executive in the Department of Defense.
“I never saw myself teaching … But I enjoyed it, and each year I’m teaching more and more.”
In addition to his PhD, Beach has an undergraduate degree from the University of Oklahoma in chemistry with a minor in nuclear engineering. He earned his master’s degree in physics from the Naval Post Graduate School in Monterey, CA.
As assistant director for policy studies at the Energy Institute, Beach is responsible for developing and supervising campus-wide studies related to the development of energy, environmental, and technology policy. He also conducts his own multi-disciplinary research in all facets of energy technology and policy.
Gary Rasp is communications director for the Energy Institute at UT Austin.