[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.


[Laney Siegner, ERG graduate student]

The Case for Living Tiny
For years now, the Tiny House movement has been a Big Deal. It’s captured the imaginations of residential homeowners, city planners, international development agencies, homeless and affordable housing advocates, and the renewable energy/sustainable living community. It sparked the interest of a group of Energy and Resources Group (ERG) students back in 2014 when the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD) announced the first-ever Tiny House Competition, soliciting applications from colleges and universities in California to design and build off-grid tiny houses for any specified end-use. This group, THIMBY 1, worked for two years to fundraise, research, design, and construct the first UC Berkeley tiny house, which won top awards at the SMUD competition for Water Conservation, Sustainability, Craftsmanship, and Home Life. Other teams in the competition included Laney College (which has a well-respected carpentry training program), Santa Clara University, and several Cal State campuses.

In the intervening years, the Laney College team has gone on to build several additional tiny houses to address the affordable housing crisis for the City of Oakland. A Berkeley project in the works from Youth Spirit Artworks (YSA) proposes to build a Tiny House Village for homeless youth, with onsite resident advisors, social workers and jobs training, but is seeking Berkeley city government support with siting and permitting. The initial budget proposal to Berkeley City Council attaches an article published in the Richmond Confidential about THIMBY during the project planning phases, addressing the issue of tiny house legality and homeless housing. It remains unclear if such villages can take advantage of emergency housing policies, or if the residential period of intended users qualifies them for “traditional” residential permits and zoning. Despite lack of legal clarity, tiny houses for homeless and affordable housing are gaining momentum as a promising strategy favored by alliances of city governments, non-profits, and city planning researchers forming to address the housing crisis pummeling regions such as the San Francisco Bay Area. The ease and speed of assembly (especially when modular) combined with low cost and community-building benefits of tiny house villages make them an attractive alternative to larger apartment or condo complexes. Onsite energy generation and composting toilets, where permissible, further decrease the strain on existing city infrastructure.

Inside THIMBY 1
The design of THIMBY 1, built around the SMUD Tiny House Competition requirements, does not make this particular unit well suited for homeless housing. The combination of new energy technologies and off-grid water systems have required a fair bit of experimentation, energy expertise, and physical labor from the residents above and beyond what average housing residents would consider desirable. The cost of the energy systems alone would make this too expensive to build for scalable homeless housing. The tiny, sustainable, affordable housing challenge is something that the THIMBY 2 project will take on as part of its mission, as I discuss below.

I’ve had the good fortune of living in THIMBY 1 for the past several months. It’s been a series of up-and-down hurdles and learning experiences— perhaps ideal for a graduate student researcher passionate about experimenting with sustainable-living behavior changes, but a few kinks remain to be worked out in order to garner widespread appeal. The maintenance alone is significant even in such a small living space. This owes in part to the suite of innovative technologies integrated in the house, for which there is not yet a well-developed pipeline of customer support. The hours we’ve spent on the phone with SolarEdge and Tesla trying to get the inverter and battery to communicate to each other and function in both off-grid and on-grid settings, or tinkering with the Sanden CO2 heat pump to prevent it from thermo-siphoning could constitute several Master’s-level theses.

Our team continues to expand and evolve around tiny-house-related research. We’re developing a prototype of a Home Energy Management Systems (HEMS) that will optimize solar generation, battery state of charge (SOC), and certain controllable loads to keep the house comfortable while using energy at optimal times (determined from weather forecasts and battery SOC). This new offshoot project, EMPOWER (Energy Management Producing Opportunities for Widespread Emissions Reduction), aims to launch a commercial product that will integrate with solar home systems and provide grid services by taking advantage of dynamic pricing and times of peak solar generation to use that energy directly for flexible loads within the home. The product is intended to save money for both electricity customers and utilities, and be affordable to low-income households.

Living in THIMBY 1 allows me to participate in both the renewable energy and data science worlds. From piloting off-grid technologies and lifestyle, to gathering data every 5 minutes on energy consumption and generation, we really are residents of a “living lab.” Tapping into the latest social media hashtag #reviewforscience, we joke about the common objects we’ve repurposed in the house for off-grid systems. Look out for a review on Hamilton Beach slow cookers that reads: “great for heating poop to the right temperature to deactivate pathogens after 30 minutes for safe composting. #ReviewforScience.”

Moving Forward with THIMBY 2

The THIMBY 1 pilot has generated a valuable set of lessons learned and experience with new technologies that will be useful in future implementations, whether on- or off-grid. Meanwhile, a whole new team of graduate and undergraduate students is forging ahead on the second iteration of the THIMBY project. From initial meetings and email blasts to departments soliciting student interest, almost 100 students replied, enough to form several side-by-side teams of student tiny house designers.  THIMBY 2 is partnered with the City of Richmond and Richmond BUILD to design and construct tiny houses to serve transitional homeless housing needs. Richmond BUILD is a construction training organization that works with minority populations and formerly incarcerated individuals to provide job training and placement in carpentry, contracting, and renewable energy positions. They will provide the building space and expertise for UC Berkeley students working alongside trainees on the design and construction elements. The Richmond Housing and Community Development department will provide connection to transitional housing groups that will also contribute to the design specifications, ultimate siting location and selection of residents for the future tiny house(s).

Partnerships like this are extremely promising examples of universities, city governments, and social organizations coming together to tackle pressing economic, social, and environmental challenges. Solving affordable housing dilemmas in a way that reduces residential energy footprints, advances the building energy transition needed to reverse climate change, and provides social and economic services to residents achieves a triple bottom line of social, economic and environmental benefit. While every location-specific context requires different considerations in terms of affordability and sustainability of tiny house construction, the sky’s the limit to the number of viable applications for tiny housing. From addressing homeless housing in Richmond to building for international contexts in Nairobi, students from the UC Berkeley/RAEL THIMBY team are thinking big about tiny living.

If you are interested in getting involved with the THIMBY 2 or future THIMBY projects, contact Shane Wright (shanebwright@berkeley.edu) and Laney Siegner (asiegner@berkeley.edu). 


[Jack Chang, ERG graduate student]

 Spherical Cows on SurvivERG (Photo by E. Panzer) 

What do ERGies get up to when they’re not changing the world?

Believe it or not, they make the time amid research, classes and internships to perform contemporary dance, play the bassoon in the UC Berkeley campus orchestra and choreograph full-tilt Bollywood performances.

That’s at least what I gleaned from the Energy & Resources Group’s annual talent show, which filled Anthony Hall on April 18 with music and ERG alumni. The show also raised $1,740 for ERG’s Spherical Cow Funds in a silent auction that took bids for wine tastings, “insane” workout routines and Icelandic wool sweaters, among other prizes.

Highlights of the night included: Christopher Hyun’s hilarious karaoke-backed recap of his cohort’s research (Think “Chill those nuts” i.e. Kripa Jagannathan’s agriculture-themed quals subject to the tune of Katy Perry’s “California Girls”); Emeritus Professor Gene Rochlin’s moving poetry; John Dees’ set of, as he put it, variations of Dylan’s “A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall”; Will Gorman’s bassoon chops; contemporary dance by Samira Siddique, Alex Dolginow and Niklas Lollo; and the running SuvivERG skit featuring nearly the entire 2017 entering class.

With so many folks pitching in on food, auction items and performance planning, Yours Truly’s only line in the show, repeated about half a dozen time - “We’re all in it together” - captured the spirit both of the night and of the work everyone at ERG is committed to.

The night ended to the galloping strains of the Bollywood tune “Cutiepie,” matched by a 14-person ERG dance line led by Chris Hyun and Kripa Jagnnathan. On an otherwise chilly spring night, this annual ERG tradition kept the interdisciplinary flame burning another year.

ERG Talent Show 2018 Part 1: 
The audience meets the cast of SurvivERG

ERG Talent Show 2018 Part 2:
 John Dees plays guitar.

ERG Talent Show 2018 Part 3
: John Dees plays guitar,
 and the SurvivERG contestants face their first challenge.

ERG Talent Show 2018 Part 4:
 Gene Rochlin performs spoken word,
 and the SurvivERG contestants grapple
 with an island crisis.

ERG Talent Show 2018 Part 5: 
Alex Dolginow, Nik Lollo, and Samira Siddique
 perform a modern art piece before the
 talent show enters an intermission.

ERG Talent Show 2018 Part 6:
 We return from intermission to see
 the SurvivERG contestants face another challenge
 and Chris Hyun leads a sing-along.

ERG Talent Show 2018 Part 7: 
Will Gorman plays bassoon, and the newbies
 come together to reflect on their island challenges.

ERG Talent Show 2018 Part 8:
 The Bollywood Dance!!

Thank you ERGies for yet another incredible year of the ERG Talent Show!

Related Posts

The views expressed here belong solely to the author of each entry and are not representative of the position of the Energy and Resources Group, UC Berkeley.


[Peter Worley, ERG graduate student]

Many of us at ERG wonder why there continues to be electricity waste and resource waste, despite available solutions. You can hear the aghast complaints around the lunch table: "Why don't people set back their thermostats?!", or "Why don't restaurants compost?!"

Design Thinking (or Design Innovation) is a helpful framework to assess the possible barriers to the solution. It inspects whether the solution is desirable, feasible, and viable. Failed 'solutions' often lack one of these attributes. It gets a different name when it is applied to different domains. When creating physical products, it is called Product Design; developing services - Service Design, presenting information - Visual Design, and shaping organizations - Enterprise Design.
Source: Capterra

This framework can also be helpful for tasks in graduate school less formidable than global sustainability, like applying for a grant, shaping a student organization, or teaching a class. We apply a type of Design Thinking when writing an NSF proposal. We apply Visual Design to tailor our essays for the end-user: the tired, overworked reviewer traveling on airplane.

But what is Design Thinking? Let's break this buzzword down. Design Thinking is an over-arching method for innovating or problem solving. The idea is to simultaneously consider an idea's desirability, feasibility, and viability. Desirability is the human desire for the solution because of its aesthetics, functionality, or ergonomics. Feasibility is that the idea is possible with current technology and regulations. Viability is that the solution can be implemented economically.  The focus on all three distinguishes this strategy from other approaches like 'technical solutions' or 'continuous improvement', which focus on just feasibility or miss desirability.

I've found that Design Thinking leads to more effective and elegant solutions. I first witnessed it when I took a capstone course in Product Design, manufacturing a bee hive monitoring device that was proposed to Shark Tank's initial screening. (Spoiler alert, we didn't get on the show.) I further saw Design Thinking's benefits during consulting when I helped create a custom rebate program for a utility and helping launch a website and digital tools for an energy efficiency start up.

Now, a primer on the actual methodology. I like to put it into three steps:

  1. Problem Framing  
  2. Divergent Thinking  
  3. Convergent Thinking

We'll use programmable thermostats as an example of how to use each step. It seems that until recent smart thermostats, even the most conscientious and skilled of us would rather keep our house heated constantly at 80 degrees than dare interface with that mean robot box that seemed to taunt any attempt at a change in temperature schedule.  

Problem Framing: 

First, the designer or problem solver must frame the problem that is to be solved. There are three sub-steps to framing the problem.

Identify and Empathize with End User 
The first and most fundamental step is identifying who the end-user is that has a need for a problem to be solved and putting yourself in her shoes. Hint, it is usually a human (though there is plenty of product design for cats). This is where you'll hear the term "Human Centered Design." This is the distinction that Design Thinking puts the problem in the frame of reference of the human end-user not in the frame of reference of the designer, the engineer, or the piece of technology.  
*Heads-Up* The end-user is not always the customer (e.g. kid's toys, dentist device) 
In our case, the end-user is the everyday inhabitant, Gertrude. She is not a dedicated environmentalist and not a computer coder. To empathize you think about the long days she has at work or the frustrating spontaneous errand days and the last thing she wants is for her house to be cold just to save a couple bucks on energy. Setting a thermostat schedule is so low on the chore list. 

Define the Problem
This is also known as "The Need." This is a very difficult step. It is the classic of identifying the disease not the symptom. In our case it is rather simple, Gertrude wants a comfortable house whenever she is home and to save energy when she is not, even with a capricious schedule.  

Establish Constraints
These are often broken down into the technological, the economical, the ergonomical, and the cultural. What is physically possible with current technology? We don't have technology yet that can read our minds and determine exactly when the temperature is too low or too high. What are the cost or lead time thresholds for the product? Most people aren't willing to spend $1,000 on a thermostat. What human physical limitations must we work within? It must be comfortable (physically or cognitively) to adjust temperature settings. And finally, what taboos or traditions should we be cognizant of? Design should probably avoid a fire-engine red to fit into the typical interior design of a house. 
*Heads Up* It seems counter-intuitive, but often we are more innovative when we are forced to work within constraints.

Divergent Thinking: create choices. 

This is where the classic brainstorming comes in. No thought showers. Serious, heavy brain storming.
*Heads Up* This step is ripe for a common mistake: shooting down brainstorm ideas. 
This is not the time for critique. We need to generate as many ideas as possible. Weird ones, too. Out-there ideas bring in aspects or relationship we wouldn't have otherwise imagined. The 'quality idea' at the end is a function of the quantity of ideas earlier.

When teammate Randy suggests the thermostat that should be a big lever that comes out of the wall with a stress ball at the end, hold back the giggle or sigh and write it down. On to the next idea. Randy's idea might inspire others to consider other ideas that only have one interface point.

Source: Astrid Baumgardner

Convergent Thinking: make choices.  

This is where you start paring down ideas.

You can use mind maps, decision matrices, and prototypes. The key here is to fail early and often. This is where you'll hear the term "rapid prototyping." *Heads Up* A common mistake is to invest too much into a prototype. First prototypes should look stupid - cardboard, pipe cleaners… childish. Often people pour too much time and resources into a prototype, which detracts from materializing other ideas. This makes the creator personally invested in that single prototype, often making them more defensive and less willing to consider other options.
Maybe to appease Randy you take a dowel rod and stuff a stress ball on the end and hold it next to the wall and show how this really won't fit well behind a couch or below a family painting.
In the end, if executed well, the Design Thinking process can lead to elegant and effective products like the new smart thermostats we see that can be adjusted by a smart phone app or have few minimal physical buttons to get confused over.

If you want to learn more about Design Thinking, the umbrella group on campus for Design Thinking is the Jacobs Institute. You can find info on student groups, classes, seminars, and tools there.  Another main resource is the D School at Stanford where much of Design Thinking originated from. You might even apply Design Thinking to your life! (Yep, you can take a class at Berkeley on it. Some ERGies are doing it this semester.)

Additional images from iMindMap and Alam and Shakil (2014).


[Nick Depsky, ERG graduate student]

Welcome back for the second in a three part series about divestment from fossil fuels. To learn about divestiture in personal banking, check out the first installment here.

Besides personal banking, one of the most common ways in which people are invested in fossil fuels is via funds in retirement savings accounts (e.g. IRAs, 401k, 403b). I currently have a 403b account with Vanguard to which I accrued a small sum in my three years working in the non-profit sector following undergrad. I was disappointed to learn that many of the funds tied to my account were heavily invested in fossil fuel companies.  Large mutual funds and index funds are invested in everything, from big tobacco to Monsanto to fossil fuels. Their objective is to encapsulate and track the entire economy, using benchmarks like the S&P 500. However, recent research shows that performance of such fossil fuel-invested portfolios do not outperform those that are fully divested (Trinks et al 2018).

So, how does one find out where their money is invested?

  1. Find out which financial asset company manages your retirement account and the name of your plan
  2. Determine which funds comprise your plan. Mine was a blend of four different Vanguard index funds
  3. Review the fossil fuel holdings associated with each of these funds. You can look through huge, cluttered annual reports online or check out this beautiful tool built by the Oakland non-profit, As You Sow: Fossil Free Funds

Here’s a snapshot from FossilFreeFunds.org of one of the Vanguard funds from my retirement account:

We can see that 10.51% ($33bn) of the portfolio is in shares of companies in the global top 200 carbon-emitters, coal-fired utilities, the coal industry, fossil-fired utilities, or the oil/gas industry. You can filter by these categories individually to see the more detailed breakdown.

Alternative Mutual and Index Funds for Retirement

While many funds are tied up in fossil fuel holdings, there is an increasing number of companies that are offering sustainable funds as an option to investors and some that offer exclusively fossil-fuel free funds. One such example is Green Century Funds.

Green Century Funds has three funds it operates, totaling roughly $500m in holdings. Compare this to over $300bn in the single Vanguard fund above.  Another popular socially responsible fund is the Portfolio 21 Global Equity Fund (also ~$500m in holdings), which you can invest in via Trillium Mutual Funds.

A potential concern with these smaller index funds is greater volatility and slower growth compared to traditional index funds. However, both the Portfolio 21 Fund and Green Century Equity Fund have generally tracked their economy-wide benchmarks well.  Another consideration is that many of these funds do tend to have higher operating fees, known as ‘expense ratios.’ In the case of Green Century, this is due to their concerted efforts to be active shareholder advocates. Their non-profit structure also means that any accrued profit is distributed to the consortium of non-profit groups by which they were funded back in 1991.  Most of these groups are Public Interest Research Groups, including our state chapter, CALPIRG.

Here are five-year snapshots of growth for both the Vanguard Total International Stock Index Fund shown above and the Green Century Equity Fund:

Vanguard Total International Stock Index Fund

Green Century Equity Fund

How to Switch to these Alternatives

Transferring funds from an existing 401k or 403b account into a traditional or Roth Individual Retirement Account (IRA) is called a “rollover.” For tax and income reasons, the Roth IRA may be a better retirement investment option for younger, early-career individuals.

Here’s how you would initiate a rollover:
  1. Identify your IRA of choice
  2. Contact* the financial institution that currently manages your retirement account about their rollover policies and get the appropriate forms. Here's an example from Green Century.
  3. Go down the rabbit hole of the transfer process…
*code for calling and being put on hold for 5-300 minutes

In all seriousness, the transfer process can be completed in an afternoon. I hope this post shows that there are good long-term investment options available that don’t sacrifice your financial future nor the health of the planet by supporting fossil fuels. For a big breakdown of socially responsible funds across metrics than beyond fossil fuels, check out the Wikipedia page on Socially Responsible Investing. Remember to supplement these tips with your own research or conversations with a financial advisor.

Stay tuned for the third and final installment in this series where Nick will discuss stocks, institutional divestment and community activism.


[Nick Depsky, ERG graduate student]

Do you feel powerless in the face of climate change? Do you have money in a major bank? Do you own any stocks? What about that retirement account you forgot about from a previous employer? Are you confused by the massive, opaque financial world but acknowledge the need to save for boba tea and multiple pairs of socks? Maybe you want to know how your money can be used to take a tiny bit of power away from the fossil fuel industry and reinvested in better alternatives.

If you answered “YES” to any of the above questions, I encourage you to read this post. You may become inspired, as I have, to personally divest from fossil fuels and reinvest in better alternatives.

Why Divest?

It’s true that the most impactful acts of divestment would be from large institutions and corporations, rather than from starving grad students paying a million dollars a month for a leaky little apartment room in the Bay Area. But this doesn’t mean that you can’t still wield what money you have to cast a real financial vote of indignation against the fossil fuel industry, symbolic though it may feel.

Maybe you’ve had the same thought that I’ve had in the past: “I don’t have enough money to make any kind of a difference to Chase Bank or Wells Fargo.” But I think it helps to think of your money as a form of voting. Those of us who are compelled to vote for people and policies we support should be equally compelled to align our financial assets with those ideals, regardless of how insignificant a single vote may feel in a culture that under-values voting.

Collective divestment really can make a difference. The campaign to divest from South Africa in the 80s contributed to dismantling formal apartheid, and we are starting to see a similar swell organize around fossil fuels. Besides taking money out of the hands of industry players whose actions we oppose, divestment also erodes the political and social capital upon which these industries rely to lobby and continue operating.

Major Banks

Beyond being complicit in long-standing predatory lending and discriminatory lending practices, major banks and financial institutions have also invested billions in fossil fuel industries, financing tar sands, pipelines, and arctic and deep-water drilling.  JP Morgan Chase (Chase Bank) sinks roughly seven billion dollars a year into such endeavors, with Bank of America and Citibank each investing between four and five billion annually.  Wells Fargo’s annual investments come in around one to two billion dollars.  The full rankings of banks’ contributions to fossil fuels by industry type can be seen via this tool maintained by the Rainforest Action Network.

Total financing of fossil fuels by year (source: Rainforest Action Network)

Previously, I had my entire savings in Wells Fargo, and while they contribute comparatively smaller amounts to fossil fuels than some other banks, they have also shown a tendency to disregard the law in terms of both predatory lending and opening of fraudulent accounts in the years following the 2008 crash, a practice for which they were eventually fined $185 million last year (a whopping 0.2% of their 2016 revenue).

Alternatives to Major Banks

Credit Unions:
Switching over to a credit union is a good bet, since they are not-for-profit institutions by their nature.  However, some credit unions are intertwined with large banks and the fossil fuel industry in obvious ways, and in some ways that I still don’t totally understand. Credit unions are not all equal. Make sure their practices align with your values. Generally speaking, going with a local credit union that is community-focused is a solid choice, though it might still be worth chatting with a representative about what varieties of loans they issue.  Here are some local credit unions I’ve been recommended:

This list is non-exhaustive and there are many more.  All of the institutions above are equal housing opportunity lenders. 

Values-Oriented Banks:
I switched over to a mission-oriented bank rather than a credit union. I like the fact that they are an example of a successful triple bottom line banking institution (B-corps certified) that actively funds a wide array of socially-conscious sectors.  I found two candidates in the Bay Area and chatted with representatives from each to find out more information.  Here’s what I learned:

Beneficial State Bank New Resource Bank
0% fossil fuel investment
Branches California, Pacific Northwest
Closest: Downtown Oakland
San Francisco only
Non-profit foundation All profits dispersed in forms of grants or loans to communities All profits dispersed in forms of grants or loans to communities
Housing lending Directly lends to affordable multi-family housing No direct housing lending, but invests in construction of affordable units
ATM Networks MoneyPass (US Bank, Mechanics Bank, Atlantic Credit Union) & All Point Network (inside big retailers like Walgreens, CVS) STAR & MoneyPass 
Credit cards In-house Visa credit cards starting 2018
Currently partners with various non-profits (i.e. Sierra Club) to offer cards to clients
Does not offer credit cards, but partners with a credit-union credit card agency 
Targeted lending sectors Affordable Housing
Sustainable Food and Agriculture
Green Energy
Rural Communities
Minority-Owned Businesses
Sustainable Business
Green Real Estate
Organic & Natural Products
Clean Energy

Interest Rates

I looked into interest rates on savings and checking accounts for Beneficial State Bank and New Resource Bank, and compared them to Wells Fargo.  Beneficial seems to have the best interest rates for small accounts out of all three; Wells Fargo comes in last.  Beneficial also had the lowest minimum ($1,000) requirement to open a certificate deposit (CD) account, compared to $2,500 for Wells Fargo and $25,000 for New Resource.

Here is a snapshot from an investment infographic from New Resource Bank:

New Resource’s index of “Real Economy Assets”  illustrates their departure from the policies of big banks that typically have their money tied up in the financial economy instead of community investments. Beneficial State Bank has a similar “Real Economy Assets” figure of roughly 80%.

In the end, I decided to go with Beneficial because of geographic advantages.  Their nearest office is in Oakland rather than San Francisco. And they have locations in Los Angeles, so I can tell my friends down there to switch over.  Both New Resource and Beneficial seem like great options, and I would encourage you to get in touch with them yourself if you’re thinking of switching.

Stay tuned for the next installment of this three-part series, where Nick looks at retirement accounts mutual funds. 
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