[Christian G. Miller, ERG graduate student]

Photo credit: Garima Srivastava

This Life@ERG blog post is... uh, well overdue. I promised I would submit one a year ago. I think the hesitation to write came from the difficulty in deciding which facet of my life I should discuss. And in pure procrastination fashion, instead of facing my roadblocks, I about-faced and marched towards a myopic whirlwind of anime and kicking it with mis amigos.

Now after such and such, here we are. I’ve decided to write about a concept that has grabbed at my consciousness at a couple points of extrospection. One point comes from reflection at the punctuation of my academic career (I graduate this coming May), remembering the fact that I was often one of the few -- or even the only -- black person or person of color in the room. The second comes from observation of the current U.S. Congress and what these midterms election meant for the future of our democracy.

The idea picking at me, as you may have guessed, is that of underrepresentation, or its more underrated co-star, overrepresentation. These may seem like two sides of the same coin. But focusing on underrepresentation breeds tokenism, whereas focusing on overrepresentation highlights the structural, systematic unbalance in society. I'm also an energy nerd, so I can't help but draw an analogy between the two: Is there something we can learn about representation from our energy mix?

An Example

Two years ago, I worked as a summer fellow for a CPUC commissioner. I had tried again and again to get a position with a commissioner who was an ERG alum, and a black woman no less. But that card wasn't in the deck. And through the processes that be, I instead got an offer to work with a commissioner that happened to be a white man. I was no stranger to being a black face working for a white one (I completed high school and college in Iowa... and the US), and jumped at the opportunity. Maybe it seems like I was setting something up here with the introduction, but it was a great experience, and I now look to said commissioner as a mentor and role model.

This experience, however, was something of a unicorn. I realized how rare a situation this was one day when I was sitting in a commissioner voting meeting. I looked up to the dais and saw a satisfying spectrum of diversity: two white men, a black woman, a Latina woman, and a brown woman. Ahh, perfecto (Well, kind of. The department staff was mostly white, and the "front desk and security" staff were mostly POC. But that's a different story, for a different day).

I couldn't help but think that I would have felt differently about my experience if I looked up that day and instead had seen a bench composed of five white men (or even a combination of white men and women, for that matter). But because there was clear and evident diversity, I actually enjoyed my experience working for this man. What a novel idea.

California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) voting meeting on June 15, 2017

The Analogy

Let's talk for a moment about the U.S. energy mix. For the longest time, coal and oil were cheap, and they were easy. But there was a dark secret hidden in the black plumes of exhaust. The black plumes of exhaust were killing the planet. The industry was resistant to change, but eventually, we began to take small steps to change the energy mix. Many want to establish a national carbon tax or California-like cap-and-trade system to account for their negative externalities. This way, we can make room for natural gas and renewables. The goal: a cleaner energy system and thus, less environmental pollution.

One might say that we’ve become enlightened and see the overrepresentation of coal and oil in our energy mix as a negative. But still, progress is slow. We’re three-quarters century in, the planet continues to weep, and those who benefited least from the pollution look to be the ones who will bear the highest costs.

The Thesis

Hopefully, the analogy was apparent. Coal and oil represent our early approach to an energy portfolio, like how a mostly white (man) composition of powerful positions has been our approach to diversity (or lack thereof). The difference is, a lot of the world recognizes this overrepresentation of dirty energy as an issue and is working to correct for their negative externalities. While many of the elected offices, top universities, corporate leadership, etc., however, have not done the same for diversity.

One explanation could be that when the earth weeps, it literally storms, and there's nothing anyone can do to stop it. Whereas it’s sadly much easier for the powers-that-be to disenfranchise people and squash race riots and self-separatist growth when they are weeping.

I believe a more likely explanation could be the persistent conflation of accessibility and efficacy. It's not enough to open doors to diversity and hope that institutions will become diverse. We must account for the negative externalities that got us here in the first place. Some may not remember, but solar panels used to cost a whole heck of a lot. But many government subsidies and cheap manufacturing deals later, we now have solar panel-borne energy out-competing coal. This was/is not a passive process, and neither should be diversity. If diversity is the goal, we must put our money and energy where our mouth is to actively overcome the structural inequalities that have gotten us here: ahistorical policies, disparities in intergenerational human capital and wealth accumulation, and "intrinsic" privilege.

With every iteration, we need to look at our diversity mix and appreciate the signals it sends us. An overrepresentation of coal and oil in our energy generation portfolio mix means we have an environmentally mediocre mix. Likewise, a mostly white (man) composition of our positions of power can be a mediocre one full of untapped potential. In the U.S. context, wherever we see too many white people in positions of power, our Scooby Doo jinkies meter should be at peak. With changing demographics and a growing pipeline of talent, the laws of probability suggest that we are seeing a failure in the market whenever we observe this phenomenon.

That black plume can become clear if we go fishing (read: perform outreach) instead of leave with whatever turns up in our nets, optimize on equity instead of efficiency, and implement a plan to normalize diversity rather than let "the market" figure it out. And over time, we won't even need to subsidize diversity because it will out-compete overrepresentation on its own.

Notes: (1) Positions of power include the rungs on the ladder of mobility to said positions, including higher education. (2) Not everyone agrees on human-caused and/or -accelerated climate change as evidenced by the US's withdrawal from the Paris Climate Agreement. Those people don't see a problem with our divers—I mean, energy mix.


[Peter Fox-Penner, Director, Institute for Sustainable Energy, and Professor of Practice, Questrom School of Business, Boston University; Jennifer Hatch, Research Fellow at the Institute for Sustainable Energy, Boston University; Will Gorman, ERG Graduate Student, and Researcher at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory]

A cleaner future with autonomous vehicles is not a sure thing. AP Photo/Jae C. Hong

The world is on the cusp of dramatic changes in the ways people own, operate and power their means of transportation.

Known as the “three revolutions,” a term coined by UC Davis transportation professor Daniel Sperling, the new trends are: electric vehicles, autonomous vehicles and sharing-oriented business models (think Uber and Lyft). Optimistically, these revolutions could make our cities a dreamscape of walkable urbanism that will reduce accidents to near zero and make more space for bikes, trees, pedestrians and small businesses while emitting no carbon emissions.

However, because these new technologies aim to dramatically reduce transportation costs, many people are concerned that more people will use autos to get around and the future will be filled with worse traffic and congestion. That could mean that consumption of fossil fuels will increase – bad outcomes for society’s sustainability goals.

We’ve analyzed a whole body of literature on autonomous vehicles and found that autonomous vehicles in particular will likely greatly increase overall transportation demand: With more options available, more people will take advantage of these autonomous vehicles and ride services. Whether there is a net increase or decrease in pollution from higher energy consumption, however, is less obvious.

The key factors affecting carbon emissions from these emerging transportation trends are whether vehicles are electric or use conventional internal combustion engine technology, and how quickly the electric grid can “decarbonize,” or generate power with no net carbon emissions.

Powering autos with the electric grid

Since 2016, transportation has been the single largest source of greenhouse gas emissions in the United States. As our electricity mix becomes less carbon-intensive and transportation demand grows, transportation will make up an increasing proportion of our carbon emissions if the U.S. continues to depend upon a system fueled by internal combustion engines and gasoline.

But how does our country realistically plan for a system that both meets the energy demands of our future transportation system and reduces our carbon emissions?

Our recent paper aimed to answer these questions. Our goal was first to incorporate the big but often overlooked trends in transportation to forecast how much transportation demand will grow. Second, we sought to create reasonable estimates for what is required to enable a clean, renewable and dependable electricity system in the years to come.

We reviewed both academic and industry research regarding future personal vehicle sales, energy efficiency improvements and total vehicle miles traveled as more people use autonomous vehicles.

These charts show the impact on emissions from a rapid shift to a less-polluting grid (left) or a more gradual transition based on government forecasts. In both cases, the key to lower emissions is whether light duty vehicles shift to electric and how clean the power grid is. Peter Fox-Penner, Will Gorman, Jennifer Hatch

This research allowed us to build a model that projects the number of electric and autonomous vehicles that could be on U.S. roads in the future and their related energy and emissions.

Our study estimates that by 2050 the net increase in electricity demand from converting the light duty vehicle fleet to electric, autonomous vehicles will be between 13 percent and 26 percent more than today’s total electricity demand. In the best case, where 95 percent of the electric sector decarbonizes by that time, this scenario would result in a reduction in greenhouse gas emissions of up to 80 percent from 2015 light duty vehicle greenhouse gas emissions.

Drilling down

A few interesting implications follow from of our greenhouse gas emission results. The first is that the rise in ride-hailing services and autonomy – assuming it is 100 percent electric – doesn’t drive significant increases in carbon emissions.

In our “stress case,” we assumed dramatic increases in vehicle miles traveled (VMT) due to autonomous vehicles, slow improvements in vehicle energy efficiency and limited transportation redesign. In this scenario, there was virtually no difference in greenhouse gas emissions compared to other cases with more conscientious policy planning, including VMT taxes, increased public transportation and other measures.

With more autonomous cars and ride-hailing services, more people are likely to use them, leading to potentially more combustion and pollution.  AP Photo/Jared Wickerham

This counterintuitive outcome might make a little more sense by diving into the results. In comparing different scenarios, we found that emissions are more than twice as high in a “low EV” scenario of 50 percent EVs in the fleet by 2050, compared to a “high EV” scenario of 86 percent EVs in the fleet by 2050.

This reflects how much more the shift in electric vehicles affects transportation pollution relative to other major trends in transportation. Even if there are more miles driven from autonomous vehicles, if they are electric and the grid becomes increasingly cleaner, then emissions won’t rise dramatically compared to the country’s current course.

Another takeaway that follows from this result is that society can only achieve dramatic cuts in greenhouse gas emissions by making the electric grid dramatically less polluting.

Optimistic scenario

Our study describes what is possible by 2050, and more or less what we believe we need to do in order to ensure the shift to autonomous vehicles and widespread ride-hailing services doesn’t lead to big spikes in pollution.

Of course, transitioning the grid to 95 percent to 100 percent clean energy won’t be easy; currently only 37 percent is from wind, solar, hydropower and nuclear. Nor will ensuring that almost all of our light duty vehicles are electric. That’s partly because EVs are not yet cost-competitive with internal combustion engine vehicles. Also, there are a number of infrastructure challenges to updating the grid for a major shift to electric transportation.

A massive conversion to electric vehicles and low-emissions power generation are needed to slow and lower rising pollution from transportation.  Portland General Electric, CC BY-ND

The good news for utilities is that the increase in electricity demand from electric vehicles will provide a positive, but not overwhelming amount of growth for electric utilities – growth that is welcome given the stagnant or declining revenues for electric utilities the last decade. This should come as a welcome opportunity and could create a strong ally as EV ownership grows.

Though our results represent time frames far out into the future, the policies that will lead us there are being written today. Our study suggests that in the near term, rapid and complete transport electrification and a carbon-free grid should remain the cornerstones of transport decarbonization policy. However, long-term policy should also aim to ensure AVs are electric and mitigate autonomous vehicles’ potential to increase driving mileage, urban and suburban sprawl, and traffic congestion.

And policymakers should not delay. The rise of Uber and Lyft have already dramatically upended business models that have existed for decades, and autonomous vehicle technology, which still has a few years to go before replacing human drivers, is already impacting cities around the country. The question now is whether these trends will reduce or increase our country’s emissions.

This article was originally posted on The Conversation.


[Esther Shears, ERG graduate student]

Three weeks into my trip to Rwanda this summer, I checked in to my last Airbnb. It was a lovely home in Kimihurura, a popular neighborhood for expats in the capital city, Kigali. My host greeted me and invited me to sit out on the back porch of the home as the late afternoon sun streamed through the trees surrounding us. He was a middle-aged French Canadian who worked in security. Once he learned that I was graduate student, here on a scoping trip to study land use and climate finance, he didn’t waste any time in sharing his opinions about the country with me.

“There’s no point to development work; they just won’t ever change.” He shared anecdote after anecdote with me, admitting that he was just glad to have someone to speak to (and swear in) English with.

“I see a guy pushing his old bike up the main road, it’s piled high with bunches of plaintains, and then he pulls a new iPhone out of his back pocket…” 

“[NGOs] want to provide water filters or offer clean water to homes, but families still prefer to collect their water from a common well because that’s where social life happens.”

“I’ve heard street fights break out with tribal slurs being used… you know it’s illegal to use the words Hutu and Tutsi but I still hear it in these cases.”

This went on for a while. I was a guest in his home. I just nodded along, exhausted from the four-hour long, hot and cramped bus ride I’d taken from Gisenyi that morning. If I had met him within my first few days in Rwanda, I might have been a little more surprised by his brazenness. But in just three weeks, I had seen and learned enough to know that my host wasn’t the only one that saw the tensions apparent in a modernizing, post-conflict society.

For a portion of my trip, I stayed in Gisenyi, a city on the north shore of Lake Kivu that sat directly on the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo. I spent most of my time there learning about the work of Inyenyeri, a Rwandan social enterprise seeking to bring clean cooking to both urban and rural communities with efficient fuel-pellet stoves.

The day that we took a field visit to interview rural customers also was the one day of the month that the villages in that region hold community meetings in the afternoon. As we turned off the perfectly paved and well-maintained main road connecting Gisenyi to Kigali onto one of the bumpiest roads I have ever encountered, the Inyenyeri staff jokingly introduced to me to the “African massage”: a ride in the back seat of a tightly-packed truck. On our way up the hillside, passing through several small villages, I could see groups of people congregated for these community meetings. When we finally reached our destination, it seemed to be the highest point around the region. The particular village we visited was selected by the company to start rural sales specifically because of how difficult it is to reach: “If we can make our business model work here, it can work in any rural village.”

I was interested in learning how the land was allocated throughout the community. The decisions were made long ago by the local village council – the best soil went to farming, and then the other areas were split between timber plots and housing. In recent years, more intense rainy seasons have raised concerns about flooding and erosion, and inspired nation-wide efforts to reinforce the terraces. As one of the most population-dense countries in the world, Rwanda has very little land left untouched.

Our interviews extended into dusk, and we had to hurry back to the truck to begin our long journey back to Gisenyi. Sandrine, Inyenyeri’s Communications and Marketing Manager, who served as our translator for the field visit, couldn’t stop gushing about how good the grilled corn was in these hillside villages. The community meetings had ended, and all the villages we passed on our way up had come alive as the sun set (which occurs promptly around 6pm that close to the Equator). Everyone was out and about, congregating around the open fires of crackling corn. I munched delightedly on a cob as Sandrine exclaimed over and over again, “I LOVE maize!

I was back in Kigali for the last few weeks of my stay. I spent the bulk of my time working in coffee shops, along with every other expat and white person, each undoubtedly working for one of the many NGOs sprinkled throughout the capital. You could bet without hesitation that any building in Kigali that stood more than three stories high was housing an NGO office. One of my goals for this trip was to meet with employees of these various development-oriented organizations. Through my conversations, I gleaned a few trends of how this industry operates in Rwanda.

Despite working towards a common mission of social good, a for-profit company isn’t necessarily afforded the same privileges in the development space as a non-profit: “If you were an NGO we would have two cars and staff dedicated to you,” a UNHCR worker reportedly told Inyenyeri while setting up their partnership at the Kigeme Refugee Camp.

Conversely, a One Acre Fund employee talked about how there were long-term opportunities for organizations functioning as social enterprises, but less so for non-profits: “As an NGO, you are aiming to make yourself irrelevant.” Social enterprises also tended to have higher proportions of non-international staff members involved in leadership positions within the organizations, perhaps reflecting an intention to remain integrated with the community.

It is important to build close relationships with local authorities. One employee from the social enterprise Jibu commented, “Since our water filters use WASAC water, we work directly with the water resource management… I would consider them as ‘partners’ – it’s important to have a good relationship with the government.”

Over 85% of the country works in agriculture, and climate change is already increasing instances of drought and flooding. At FONERWA (Rwanda’s climate fund), I spoke with Bright Ntare about the realities to come: “It’s not just energy and land-use work [we do], we’ll need to move people out of high-risk areas, so affordable housing is important to include… we need to consider employment opportunities in the long-term, because agriculture will decline with climate change. It just will. So, we are working on ideas for job trainings in other employment sectors. Finally, we are well aware that outside funds will not always be there.” People within the Rwandan government are already considering long-term strategies for funding climate-resilience.

My last fact-finding mission in Kigali took me out to Question Coffee, a project of the Relationship Coffee Institute. I’d flown past the Sustainable Harvest Rwanda sign while sitting on the back of a motorcycle (“moto”) on my way home one day, and suddenly made the connection between Sustainable Harvest Coffee Importers and the Question Coffee I had been drinking all summer from cafes around the city. The main café and educational center were not far from me, so I hopped on a moto on one of my last days and set out to experience the “best pour-over coffee in Rwanda” for myself. The Relationship Coffee Institute provides training for women-centric coffee cooperatives that promote transparent trading practices, practices for higher-quality coffee production, and higher prices (and therefore higher worker wages).

Just like many of the organizations I encountered during my time in Rwanda, Question Coffee presents a classic development success-story. I know that for every success-story there are many not-so-successful stories of similar projects. The uncertainties and complexities of development efforts are not new to me, having studied this work since my undergraduate years.

What struck me was the presence of a clear ambition for growth amidst a cloud of development fatigue. The positive energy and hope for the future were easy to see: in the recently-opened Kigali Convention Center, in the eagerness of anyone to talk with me about their work, and in the stated objectives of Vision 2020. But my awareness of the fatigue grew slowly, and finally came together during my visit to the Rwandan Genocide Memorial on one of the last days of my stay.

After the Rwandan Genocide, there was a huge influx of foreign aid and direct investment, not just for post-conflict reconstruction, but for broad development efforts in every sector of the country. Now, more than 20 years later, the aid is still coming, growth is still occurring, but for how much longer? In 2011, twenty percent of the country’s gross annual came from foreign aid. Since 2012, foreign direct investment has consistently surpassed 200 million USD annually. Yet, the country also appears to be reconciling with the reality that despite significant amounts of foreign investment, it won’t meet all of its Vision 2020 development goals. An excerpt from a 2018 IMF report on Rwanda’s progress summaries this tension between high growth goals and likely waning foreign development efforts:
“Building on its notable progress toward development objectives, the authorities are crafting a revised medium-term development strategy with the goal of achieving middle income status by 2035. To help achieve this objective, it will be important to regain momentum in mobilizing domestic revenue as a reliable source of financing for development.”
My conversation with Bright Ntare of FONERWA echoed this sentiment. He expressed excitement for all the work the climate fund hopes to achieve, while also acknowledging the significant challenge the country faces: how do we finance green growth when international flows run dry?


[Salma Elmallah, ERG graduate student] 

Photo courtesy of Green 2.0

Every time I encounter an environmental organization, I can’t help but wonder, are they all this overwhelmingly white? I often find myself scanning rooms during talks or workshops and counting the number of minorities. I can usually fit them on one hand. I finally decided to look at the data to see if my firsthand experiences matched the realities of the entire field.

I found a 2014 study by Green 2.0, an initiative focused on racial diversity in environmental organizations, that found that racial minorities constituted less than 16% of boards and general staff of NGOs, government agencies, and grant making foundations, and their positions were concentrated in the lower ranks. As a point of reference, racial minorities made up 38% of the US population at the time of publication. In fact, the only position that minorities were more likely to hold than white people was that of the diversity manager, which only existed at a few organizations.

Photo courtesy of Green 2.0

Organizational leadership often self-reported that the biggest barrier to a more diverse workplace was a lack of minority and low-income applicants. At the same time, only a quarter of organizations in the study offered paid internships, which candidates from low-income backgrounds consistently cite a barrier to entry and advancement. Other minorities interviewed cited barriers like the absence of good mentorship, not being listened to by coworkers, and an institutional attitude that gender diversity - the gains of which primarily went to white women - was an adequate substitute for racial and class diversity.

What does it mean for environmentalism if the people shaping it are mostly white and middle class? For one, an organization’s prioritization of issues stems partly, if not heavily, from the people that compose it. Only 41% of NGOs interviewed in 2014 were likely to support adding issues of interest relevant to low-income or minority communities to their agendas. Employees reported across organizations that attempts to partner with local environmental justice groups were limited. Of the NGOs interviewed, people of colour were especially underrepresented in key decision-making positions, composing less than 5% of board slots and about 12% of leadership positions.

Environmental justice and grassroots organizations often perform better along diversity metrics. Mainstream environmental organizations on the national level benefit from having close ties to industry and government, oversight and monitoring capabilities, and strong, independent research arms. As long as mainstream groups have access to resources and influence that grassroots or environmental justice organizations do not, issues that impact low-income or minority Americans will receive limited attention on a funding and political agenda.

At some point during the long stretch between pitching this blog post idea to one of ERG’s patient and enduring blog editors, Anushah, and actually writing it, I was riding BART and noticed anti-immigrant ads plastered throughout Civic Centre Station. When I see bad things, I like to Google everything about them. So I looked up Progressives for Immigration Reform, the organization that funded the ads, and found out that one of their leaders almost succeeded at a 2004 effort to make anti-immigration candidates compose the majority of the Sierra Club’s board. An interview with a Sierra Club leader conducted around the time of the attempted takeover mentions that no red flags were raised about anti-immigrant candidates until 2004. This is strange because it was publicly known that one of the candidates who already had a Sierra Club board appointment during the takeover had also been sitting on the board of an anti-immigration organization for at least two years.

Photo courtesy of SFGate

I filed this discovery away in my head until I finally got around to writing this blog post, when the Sierra Club’s near-xenophobia resurfaced in my memory. I’m not sure how the Sierra Club came so close to having an anti-immigration majority board. It’s possible that, when your organization is dominated by a singular demographic, it becomes harder to recognize such seemingly obvious red-flags. They may never have had to recognize how racists mask their rhetoric with a resonant political message - like the “war on terror”, or being “tough on crime”, or, even, “the fight against climate change” - so voting for a candidate that relates environmental issues to immigrants and overpopulation doesn’t seem transparently xenophobic (even though discussions of population control have an undeniable racist history). Writing this blog post showed me that mainstream environmental organizations are in fact just as white and upper class as I was seeing. This comes at the expense of opportunities for individual employees, and the issues that are deemed important.

When I started this post, I was thinking about what a career looks like for someone whose demographic isn’t well represented in major environmental organizations. Maybe selfishly, I was thinking about what these statistics mean with regards to my imposter syndrome, or a sense of isolation, or career progression. I realized that the demographics of the environmental field can have implications for me, both as a prospective employee and as someone impacted by the agendas and policies. A discussion of environmentalism in the United States is incomplete if it doesn’t address how a lack of diversity informs how we define environmental causes, and how environmental causes can be mobilized.


[Laney Siegner, ERG graduate student]

Yoga at Grand Central Bridge outside Nome, AK. Photo credit: Ori Chafe

“You’ve been lucky with the weather, that’s for sure,” the woman said. “Last summer it was raining every day this time of year. Follows a low-snow winter. Last winter was a big snow year, so this summer has been nicer weather. Good thing you’re leaving before the rains really set in -- all of October and November will be cold and drenching rains. Used to be we’d have snow by Halloween, but these days it’s more like December that we’re getting the first snows.”

Conversations about the weather fill the small, cozy room in Pingo Bakery and Seafood café. The weather is never far from an Alaskan’s mind. Here in Nome, an outpost of the Seward Peninsula on the Bering Sea, everyone has noticed the striking pace of the weather’s change over the years, from later snows to earlier thaws to more dramatic rains. Climate change is openly acknowledged by many, including Alaska’s Republican senator Lisa Murkowski. But the state is simultaneously lamenting the problem, searching for solutions, and supporting oil and gas drilling, the building blocks of the state’s economy. It is a place that is experiencing the direct impacts of climate change most rapidly and still struggling to implement solutions.

I came up to Nome, a major destination of the Yukon Gold Rush and finish line of the Iditarod dog sled race, to assist with ongoing research into the changing dynamics of the Arctic ecosystem. The project is a collaboration of several academic institutions and national labs and aims to inform climate models with better information about Arctic plant communities, ecosystem processes, and feedbacks. I spent the last week of August traveling out into the tussock tundra landscape to count shrub seedlings and take soil microclimate data from several plots 70 to 80 miles outside of Nome.

Driving down the dirt roads out of town each day afforded ample opportunity to observe and learn about the natural history of Alaska’s North Slope, a land of extremes dominated by shrub and grass plant communities north of the tree line. We observed solifluction lobes, creeping lumps of soil on hillslopes reflecting differential downhill flow rates of glacial deposits, sorted circles of rocks left behind by the last glaciation, and pingos, mounds of earth-covered ice from drained lakebeds. We also witnessed rough-legged hawks swooping across the road, a red fox roaming along a river bank, and a wild musk ox herd grazing on the grasses. The musk ox hair, qiviut, is prized for its strength and water resistance and is incredibly soft, a great source of extra insulation in jacket pockets when found in the field.

The first three days we visited plots near Quartz Creek to count how many birch, alder, and willow seedlings had come up since being seeded in June. We also took soil cores, temperature measurements, soil moisture, and vegetation measurements at each plot. The depth to the permafrost layer, between 50-70 cm in most of my measurements, is growing as permafrost warms. This causes all sorts of problems: pools of water at the surface, soil collapse, changing water flow paths, and release of carbon (primarily methane or CO2, depending on whether the soil is wet or dry). The research team is gathering data in the amount and form of carbon released.

Traversing the tussocks to access the field plots takes some getting used to. You’re either stepping around the tussocks into some mystery sinkhole, or on top of them if they’re large and stable enough to support a boot. Rainboots and rain pants are key to navigating a boggy crossing, with water rising to knee height. It’s a good leg workout, rewarded with ripe alpine blueberries all around us for snacking. Colors are changing already. The birch leaves turn from green to orange, yellow, and red, and the tones of fall grow more pronounced each day. Change happens fast, this far north.

In the evenings in Nome, the days seem endless with light stretching on towards midnight. We had to draw thick curtains over the windows to get some rest. On the flip side, we woke in the dark, as the sunrise didn’t strike the horizon until around 8 am. I read up on the natural history of the region, whaling, and climate change research before bed, appreciative of the context to put all the information into perspective.

The last day in the field, we drove down a different road towards the town of Council, a community of mostly summer homes (there is one year-round resident) situated to the east of Nome. At the end of the road, residents must drive through the riverbed to access the houses across the river, assuming the river level is navigable. Like many communities along the water, boats are increasingly necessary to access the homes. We traveled along the coast of the Bering Sea before turning inland, where hilly tundra terrain replaced the vibrant green wetlands. White spruce trees became occasional as we approached the tree line. There was a last grove of spruce trees in a line right by the field site.

We took greenhouse gas emissions of twenty plots in the area using a portable gas analyzer, a remarkable piece of technology that gives measurements of CO2 and methane in real time. It is still in want of some features, such as reporting of its battery SOC, a shorter warm-up time, and more consistent calibration, but is nevertheless impressive in what it can do. We took CO2 and methane readings within a clear chamber, to measure net flux, and an opaque chamber, to capture soil and plant respiration without photosynthesis. This was a fascinating process to observe as it may also be relevant to my agricultural research and prospective future projects in which I may measure emissions from sites treated with compost, biochar, or both.

I spent my last morning in Nome running along the beach, observing the gold dredging equipment and ships out at sea on a cloudy, cool late summer morning. I went to Pingo to warm up with coffee and the largest cinnamon roll I’ve ever been served. I shared in more conversations about the weather with a waitress who just moved in June to Nome from Mississippi. She seemed sanguine about facing her first winter here and pleased with her new home. She had followed her wife up here who had gotten a job as a nurse, and wasn’t looking back.

As we talked about Alaska, Mississippi, and my home in Washington, D.C., I gained a real appreciation for the cultural and geographic diversity of this country. The range of ecosystems is extreme, from tundra to tropical coastline. Learning firsthand about the human reactions to life in such places motivates me to continue my work as a climate researcher and educator and keep building knowledge about climate narratives and science.

Burned tussock tundra

Sorted Circles left by last glaciation

Wild musk ox on the tussock tundra

Building on Nome's Front Street covered in west-facing solar panels

Nome at 10:30PM

Town of Council across the river

Nome beachfront on the Bering Sea

Views of the Bendlebens in clouds

Rainbow on the way to Quartz Creek

Last train to nowhere


[Samira Siddique, ERG graduate student]

Rohingya Camp
New paradigms

Currently, there are upwards of one million Rohingya refugees living in Cox’s Bazar, Bangladesh. For all the talk of moving the Rohingya elsewhere, such as Bashan Char Island, or repatriating them to Myanmar, it is almost certain that they will remain where they are for an indefinite period of time.

History has shown that the average age of a refugee camp is 12 years. Like most other refugee camp situations, this one will likely last for at least another decade.

Many NGOs and aid agencies that are working on Rohingya issues realize that this is not temporary, and are starting to take a longer-term view of the camps. The shift from emergency relief to development has begun, underscoring the fact that the refugee crisis has huge long-term implications for how development operates beyond state citizenship.

The Rohingya crisis is a useful case study to understand how refugees are slowly being brought into the traditional development framework. The scope of facilities and programs set up by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), and the hundreds of NGOs working in the camps over the past year is remarkable.

They have built camps from the ground up and organized them into zones with basic roads and latrines, tubewells, health facilities, and community centers. However, the separate institutions that are in place to deal with longer-term development and emergency relief are not aligned in their goals. This affects the extent of aid given, the type of facilities that are built, and of course the economic and political rights and social support that the Rohingya have.

A strong indication of the shift toward development in the Rohingya camps is the recent investment from the World Bank and Asian Development Bank (ADB), of $480 million and $100 million respectively. Traditionally, these two institutions have invested in long-term development projects and supported governments in capacity building. In the past few years, they have created a relief fund for emergency situations exactly like the Rohingya crisis.

One of the investments from the World Bank and ADB is in renewable energy in the Rohingya camps. The investment in energy access shows a gradual shift toward longer-term, or at least medium-term, planning in the camps. Compared to international aid funding in every other sector—water and sanitation, health, shelters, etc.—energy had no allocated funding at the beginning of the Rohingya influx.

This is largely because energy is not seen as essential to emergency relief, which is arguably an outdated view from the aid industry, as energy access is linked to more positive health effects and gender safety and equality. Now with the World Bank and ADB’s investment plan, there is a portion allocated to set up some solar mini-grids in 2019, as well as constructing more solar lamps and distributing solar lanterns.

Historically, there has not been a systematic approach to energy supply in conflict settings because they are thought to be shorter term. Most of the energy is supplied ad hoc by individual NGOs or international aid agencies, usually through diesel generators. The move toward renewable energy shows increasing interest in long-term development because it is inherently sustainable and simple to use. A solar mini-grid offers a cleaner and more consistent alternative to diesel generators, and can potentially be used to anchor local mini-grids if the refugee camps are present in the longer term.

Out of all the Rohingya camps, it is striking that the only one that is connected to the national electricity grid, and thus situated for longer term, is a camp in Teknaf, where some Rohingya have been around for many years and have essentially assimilated into the surrounding community. Perhaps the thought here is that there is “value added” if the Rohingya contribute economically, so it makes sense to invest in electricity lines. However, this situation is exceedingly rare, as the vast majority of Rohingya cannot move freely outside the camps and thus are unable to be economically independent

While the notion of development is important for improving livelihoods, the development itself must be done differently for the stateless. Traditional forms of economic development do not work for stateless people who have no means to gain employment. Though there are some cash-for-work programs and recreation facilities set up by aid agencies, the vast majority of Rohingya have nothing to do during the day; their routines are often set around food and aid distribution schedules. They are recovering from unimaginable trauma. The camps will only continue to grow: Rohingya are still crossing the border, though at much lower rates, and there are projected to be 50,000 babies born this year. No amount of aid distribution or traditional notions of development will fix these facts of life for the Rohingya.

Part of the difficulty in streamlining development efforts is the institutional power structure of the camps. Since the exodus began in August 2017, the Bangladesh government has not officially labeled the Rohingya as “refugees.” Without this label, UNHCR could not head the emergency relief operations in the camps, as they normally would when refugees are involved. Thus, IOM took over camp operations. Within a few months, UNHCR was allowed to work in the camps and it started co-leading operations with IOM. The two humanitarian stakeholders now oversee relief operations in about 10 sectors and work alongside the government’s response to the crisis, which includes different government agencies and the Bangladesh army. This web of agencies does not have mutually exclusive goals, but since they do not normally collaborate in this way it has been challenging to settle on long-term goals.

Another challenge is that there is no direct guiding principle globally for how to integrate stateless people, let alone how to develop communities with them in mind. One of the main guiding principles for long-term sustainability planning is the UN Sustainable Development Goals, a set of 17 goals that aim to end poverty with strategies that build economic growth and address a range of social needs including education, health, and environmental protection. None of the goals explicitly address development for stateless persons.

International NGOs and the UN could adopt a more explicitly rights-based approach to development, especially as more refugee crises and mass migrations are projected to occur in the future. This approach would combine different existing concepts of international development, such as capacity building, human rights, participation, and sustainability. The goal would be to empower the group that cannot exercise full rights and to strengthen the capacity of institutions and governments obligated to fill these rights. However, the main criticism against the rights-based approach is that it merely incorporates the language of human rights with development, but does not change the programs being implemented. In order for change to take place, governments must be willing to accept refugees and migrants, and hold other countries accountable for the processes that lead to refugees in the first place. Many governments that receive refugees, whether willingly or not, are not capable of developing long-term communities for the refugees in their own country.

There are currently about six million people in protracted displacement situations globally, and even more migrants, who are not officially given economic and political rights by the state. Crises like this will only continue to happen at varying scales, whether through ethnic cleansing, environmental disaster, economic crisis, or something else. The UN, development agencies, NGOs, and some governments are only just beginning to rethink how we prioritize refugees and migrants and integrate them into existing development frameworks. There will be many lessons to learn from the Rohingya crisis for years to come. A likely one will be how to conceptualize development for those that have been systematically “othered” and persecuted.

This article was originally posted on Dhaka Tribune.


[Gordon Bauer, ERG graduate student]

A Lyft ride-hailing car moves through traffic in Manhattan on July 30, 2018, in New York City.
Photo: Spencer Platt via Getty Images

Last week, New York City passed the nation’s first cap on new licenses for ride-hailing vehicles, like those driving for Uber and Lyft, citing in part concerns over worsening congestion and declining transit ridership. The decision represents the culmination of alarm over app-based ride-hailing companies and could serve as a blueprint for cities across the U.S.

Yes, but: Privately owned vehicles driven for personal use still dominate our transportation system, in large part because using one is cheap, fast and comfortable after the initial investment. Any regulatory solution to congestion must focus on personal vehicles first. Short of that, placing limits on Uber or Lyft will be a mere drop in the gas tank.

Despite rapid ride-hailing growth over the past few years, over 75% of all passenger miles in the U.S. are traveled in personal vehicles, and over 90% when air travel is excluded. By comparison, taxis and ride-hailing vehicles account for less than 0.5% combined, and all public transit less than 5%. Even in the New York City metropolitan area, personal vehicles account for over 75% of all land travel, versus 1.2% for taxis and ride-hailing vehicles.

Meanwhile, with the advent of self-driving cars, many of the reasons people currently take taxis or public transit — such as disability, aversion to driving, and difficulties with parking — might begin to disappear within the next few years. While some have predicted that autonomous vehicles will lead to the end of private ownership as we know it, this is hardly inevitable: No fleet operator will ever provide the same convenience of having a robot chauffeur in your driveway whenever you need it. And any cap on shared vehicles will make personal vehicles even more desirable.

Fixing transportation will require cities to foster alternatives to personal vehicles by incentivizing shared rides and integrating ride-hailing with public transit, and then implementing congestion pricing and eliminating parking in areas where people no longer need to drive. Otherwise, by the time personal automated vehicles develop a constituency, it will be too late.

The big picture: A new age of transportation is dawning, and we have a choice to make: Rethink the necessity of personal vehicles, or let their share of the transportation pie continue to grow larger and larger while public transit and ride-hailing fight over the diminishing crumbs.

This article was originally posted on Axios.


[Kelly Jiang, undergraduate researcher at the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Lab]

金盆村 (Jinpen village) is a spectacularly beautiful place in the lush forested hills of Western China, with freshly paved mountain roads winding through steep terraced fields. The fields are filled with all types of crops – ranging from rice and corn, to radishes, greens, cucumbers, tomatoes, sunflowers, lotus, and even crayfish.

Golden hour from a random spot on the road. The single lane concrete road pictured here goes into the fields and was probably paved very recently (in the last 1-2 years) as the Chinese government is working very hard and putting a lot of money into trying to eliminate absolute poverty by 2020.

Jinpen village is partway up the mountain, and provides spectacular views into the valley several hundred meters below. It’s incredibly remote – the drive to the nearest county seat, Nanjiang, takes about two hours on winding mountain roads – and Nanjiang itself is a four-and-a-half hour drive from Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province. Despite its remoteness, the Chinese government has spent a pretty significant amount of money on building up the village. Twenty or so new houses were constructed a couple years ago in an effort to encourage people to move from the fields into the village center. The houses are extremely large: the one we lived in during our stay had four bedrooms and two full bathrooms, and some houses are even bigger.

However, many of the houses are uninhabited – most people prefer to live in their ancestral homes in their fields, since there’s not much for them to do in the village center anyway. There’s one road that goes through the town, an elementary school, a carpentry shop, a police station, two convenience stores, and… that’s about it. So, although it may appear that the area became more “developed” as the town doubled in size with the construction of these new houses, that appearance of development means nothing if there are no economic activities to partake in.

The owners of the house we stayed in don’t actually live in the house, which is why we were able to live there – like many others, they prefer to be close to their fields where they’ve grown up and subsisted off the fruits of their own labor for decades.

The Project

I was in Jinpen as part of the IEEE Smart Village project, which “integrates sustainable electricity, education, and entrepreneurial solutions to empower off-grid communities.” In places where many communities are incredibly poor and lack even basic electricity, installing renewable energy systems in off-grid areas can have a huge impact on those communities’ quality of life. However, merely providing electricity is not necessarily sufficient to achieve economic development benefits – electricity must be but one part of a holistic sustainable development program. Power for All finds that “[m]any factors are critical to establishing PUE [productive uses of electricity] beyond just energy access itself, including capacity development, business permitting processes, access to finance and transportation infrastructure.” [Source] That’s why the smart village project aims to combine energy access with education and entrepreneurship, so that electricity can be an enabler of different types of economic activities such as internet cafes, barber shops, food processing, and much more that would not have been possible without electricity.

For the IEEE smart village project in Jinpen, a 16.2 kW grid-connected solar system was installed on the rooftop of the school. The solar system sells the power it generates to the power grid, allowing the school to save money on electricity and possibly even use the solar energy as an extra source of income. Any extra money is valuable to the school, which is quite cash strapped and has difficulty retaining its teachers due to its remote location.

The population of Jinpen elementary school keeps shrinking as more and more people move from rural areas to urban areas. The graduating 6th grade class this year had 14 students, down from 20 a few years earlier. There are 7 students in 5th grade, and 5 students in 4th grade – 4 next year, after one of the students moves away. There are 84 total students in the school. And Jinpen elementary school is actually one of the larger elementary schools in the area – another elementary school a couple miles down the road has only 5 students. Yes, FIVE students. Across all grades.

The mass migration of people from rural areas to urban cities is happening all around the world, not just in China. It’s happening in the United States, where small towns have been shrinking for decades. Schools in rural America are shrinking and closing, too. So that begs the question: Is this urbanization trend irreversible and just something that we should accept? If so, does it even make sense to be investing so much money in rural areas’ development if people are all leaving? If not, then what kind of economic activities can be developed in these rural areas? These are difficult questions, and we need to be thinking about them a lot more than we are.

Anyway, back to the project that we were working on – the 16.2 kW solar system installed on top of the school. Funding to build the system was donated by a variety of individuals and organizations, including Sichuan University, various renewable energy companies, etc. The total cost of the system was about US$25,000, or ¥150,000. It was wonderful to see so many people from the public, private, and nonprofit sectors all come together to support the project – it’s been a really long process to raise all the funds and coordinate all the parties who contributed to the construction of the system, and it’s a testament to the generosity and capabilities of the project organizers, especially Xiaofeng Zhang, that this project was able to become a reality.

Since the system is grid-connected, it’s essentially just selling the solar energy it generates to the grid – at a higher price than it costs to buy energy from the grid. Thus, the school is selling (expensive) solar energy to the grid, while buying (cheap) electricity from the grid, resulting in savings.

One of the paths to a family’s home. Yes, this is actually the trail. If you look closely you can kind of see it. That family had electricity.

Since the school is already connected to the electricity grid, as are all of the homes in the area (even the ones that are only accessible by hiking for 1km or more on dirt paths that can be incredibly steep and get super muddy in the rain), putting solar on the school doesn’t really provide a meaningful benefit when it comes to electricity access. It’s worth emphasizing what an incredible accomplishment it is that China has been able to provide electricity access to every household in the country – that’s a huge infrastructure project, and China is probably the only country at this point that could do something on that scale.

(Aside: grid extension is probably not the most cost-effective way of electrifying rural areas, as building out transmission and distribution lines for so many hundreds of miles to carry relatively small amounts of electricity is really, really expensive. A single rural grid connection in Tanzania can cost US$2,300, compared to an off-grid solar system that costs US$240. [Source: Power for All] Thus, in many unelectrified villages, it is far more cost-effective to install solar home systems or microgrids, rather than extend the central grid. Hence, the IEEE smart village project aims to bring solar home systems, irrigation pumps, and microgrids to unelectrified villages, rather than using grid connection.)

Anyway, since the benefit of this system doesn’t come primarily from the fact that it’s providing energy access, it’s all the more important to ensure that the educational benefit to the students is maximized – that the students really understand how solar energy and other forms of renewable energy work, why renewable energy is important, etc. Ideally, the solar panels would also be integrated into the school curriculum on a regular basis.

As part of the focus on education in this program, the solar system was designed specifically to show students some of the different considerations when designing a solar energy system. There were three different kinds of trackers installed on different panels – some were connected to a flat single-axis tracker, others were connected to a tilted single-axis tracker, and others were connected to a tracker that students can adjust to tilt more or less towards the south as the seasons change. There were also, of course, fixed panels tilted towards the south that weren’t attached to trackers. The idea behind this is for students to see firsthand how solar energy is affected by the angle of solar panels throughout the year. Additionally, the students should have a sense of responsibility and ownership of the solar panels that they adjust every two weeks to keep up with the changing angle of the sun.

On the rooftop with the students and solar panels!

Another potential benefit of having solar installed on the school is that it could continue to provide power to the school during power outages. Most unfortunately, the solar system didn’t actually have islanding capability (i.e. the capability to separate itself from the grid during an outage), which pretty much negates the most obvious use case of the solar system for the school. However, if they get a bit more money in the next few years, they can implement the hardware needed for the school to island itself from the grid. That said though, it would have been ideal for the system to be completely designed and built upfront so that the school could have access to all the benefits of the solar system from day one.

But that’s a lesson learned that can be applied to the next smart village project! They’re actually planning to expand the smart village program to 200 schools within the next five years (a “Five Year Plan”), so there are lots of opportunities to improve on the system design for future projects.

It’s also important to keep in mind that sustainable development projects must be maintained over the long term. It’s all too common to do projects like this, put on a show to announce that the project has completed, then walk away without thinking about the long-term impact. Especially as the IEEE smart village program aims to expand to 200 schools in the next five years, I really hope that there’s an emphasis on ensuring that these projects are focused on making the greatest impact in the villages where they are installed. Quality over quantity.

In my discussions about rural development with my advisor at Chongqing University, he commented that many development projects in China are completed to the extent that officials will be able to point to their work and say that they hit whatever target the Five Year Plan had set in place. For instance, China has a target of eliminating absolute poverty by 2020, and the Chinese government is throwing huge amounts of money at this target so that they can say, when 2020 rolls around, that this target has been met. However, the real key, my advisor said, is to see the status of rural development in 2025, in 2030, in 2050. After the attention fades away, have the local communities developed new types of economic activities that can be sustained? Or does the government need to keep spending billions on these communities to keep them afloat while the rest of the world moves on?

Read the rest of this post on Kelly's personal blog, The Procraftination.

[Salma Elmallah, ERG graduate student]

While home in Canada last winter break, a friend asked me, “So how glamorous is California?” My immediate response was that glamour is not a Northern Californian concept, unless your definition somehow includes hiking boots. 

When I returned to Berkeley that January, though, I started noticing hints of glamour amid the usual uniform of Patagonia and Birkenstocks. I began having conversations with the ERG community and gaining appreciation for a distinct look that is tied deeply to their homes, families, and travels. Glamour is hard to achieve in grad school, but our fashion choices can still be thoughtful and personalized, as shown by the stories and looks from some of ERG’s style icons profiled in this post. 

Noah Kittner, freshly minted PhD

I caught up with Noah at the 2018 ERG Talent Show, where he was a guest of honour after having completed his exit talk earlier that afternoon. Noah is always well- and distinctively dressed (ask him about his notorious leather jacket), but this night he had upped his style game for the special occasion. He showed up to Anthony Hall in a suit and white shirt combo sprinkled with subtle details.

Noah and his fans.

Noah’s black leather loafers arrived with him in Berkeley from North Carolina, where they once belonged to his grandpa. His white cotton shirt was woven in Thailand, where Noah had completed a Fulbright fellowship. Here, he’s wearing a wool jacket and pants that he thinks are made from a synthetic blend. He tells me that they’re great for ventilation in the heat, but are “probably not good for the environment.”

Noah’s shoes, passed down from his grandpa.

Isha Ray, core faculty member

A (non-exhaustive) list of well-dressed ERGies would not be complete without Professor Isha Ray, one of ERGs first style icons. I caught up with Isha at the ERG graduation ceremony, but I still have hopes of capturing her everyday-look one day in an office photoshoot. Isha’s confident style underpinned by vibrant colour palettes shone through even in the traditional faculty regalia.

Isha Ray at the ERG graduation ceremony.

Isha had fixed her stole to her robe with a delicate, fanned gold brooch. She had tried the safety pin life at earlier graduations, but decided it was not for her. The ruby in the brooch had belonged to her grandmother and was part of a set that included a now-lost pair of earrings. Isha had the remaining stone set in goldwork in Toledo, Spain. I ask if her earrings also contain her grandmother’s rubies, but she tells me that they’re fake - she’s just committed to red accessories that tie back to Stanford, her alma mater, colours.

Gauthami Penakalapti, incoming twobie

Within her cohort, Gauthami is known as the queen of thrifting and statement accessories. This summer, she’s doing fieldwork in Lucknow, Uttar Pradesh, from where she shares her breezy fashion with us:

“In this photo, I'm about to head to my first day of field work. The kurta --the yellow piece-- has a wonderful history. I stayed with my folks in Atlanta prior to departing for my summer field work, and as I was picking through my Indian clothes, I came across this kurta. There are so many photos of me wearing this as a teenager and a couple of them are even framed. My mother bought the fabric and got it tailored for me in Kurnool, Andhra Pradesh when we were visiting my father's family in 2001. I'm surprised it fits and is in still such great condition after so many years! The pants and kurta are both cotton and loose to keep me cool in this muggy and sweltering Lucknow heat. It rained this particular morning, so I wore my Keens in case we came across mud or puddles during out field visit. These Keens have also seen many miles and countries, and they're basically a staple when I travel. The colorful scarf, or chunni, was originally meant for modesty and is still used in that manner, but I'm using it as a multi-purpose fashion statement, shade-provider, fly swatter, and in extreme circumstances, hand towel.” 

I’ve always been convinced that clothing is both personal and political, and is the most direct, intimate way that we present ourselves to the world. It’s fascinating to talk to people about what they’re wearing (even if that happens to be Patagonia or Birkenstocks, which I have been known to wear myself). Thanks to Noah, Isha, and Gauthami, three of ERG’s many well-dressed, for sharing their outfits and stories of how they connect to their clothes.

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