The shining faces of the ERG community

Hello there! This blog post, written by a group of ERG students, contains advice that we often give to prospective ERG applicants and that we wish we’d heard when we applied for graduate school. This reflects our own impression of the application process, not necessarily the views of the admissions committee. We hope it’s helpful to read some thoughts from people who have been through this process themselves.

Please give it a read if you’re thinking of applying to ERG. If you have lingering questions that are not answered by this blog post, feel free to reach out to current students who have listed their contact information.

ERG’s Graduate Student Advisor Kay Burns is also available for questions about the program or admissions process; you can reach her at erggrad@berkeley.edu.

While many current students are happy to chat and answer questions, please note that we are not able to read or edit application materials such as the statement of purpose and the personal history statement.

Knowing if ERG is right for you

Am I a strong ERG applicant?
Admissions is a dynamic process in any graduate program. It depends on funding, research directions, professor availability, cohort mix, and other factors that can all vary from year to year. So even higher-qualified candidates who fit well with ERG may not be selected in certain years. Read through this FAQ, however, to understand some of the ERG community’s values and expectations.

I’m in my last year of undergrad. Should I apply to ERG?
Most ERG students have at least two years of post-college experience before they start, but some of us do come in straight out of undergrad. For many of us, having that post-college experience, whether it be in research, industry, NGOs, government, consulting, or something else, helped us figure out why we wanted to go to grad school and what we could do with a graduate degree. That said, it’s completely possible that you’ve been able to answer these questions for yourself without post-undergrad experience. So if you feel like your undergraduate degree gave you experience beyond coursework, and that graduate school is the right next step for you, then go for it! If you’re not sure, maybe you’ll find that a year or two (or more) away from school will help you decide.

Post-college experience can also help guide you once you’re in graduate school, especially in a program like ERG where students tend to work on applied research questions. Experience outside of an academic setting often informs the approaches we take in our research. ERG as a graduate program has a pretty open, self-directed structure, and it is well-suited to those that have clearer goals or intentions.

I’ve been out of school for a long time. Should I apply to ERG?
Yes! Many students come to ERG after long and/or varied careers. You will have many people who can help with your transition, from current students to our alumni network. ERG research strives to be solution-oriented using interdisciplinary approaches toward a variety of social and environmental challenges. Your real-world experience with complex, “wicked” problems will be an asset in both your application and your time at ERG.

I don’t have an academic research background. Is that a problem?
No! Both applied and academic experiences are valued at ERG. Focus your application on what you have learned⁠—both in terms of skills as well as perspective⁠—from your background.  If you feel like there are gaps in your experiences, talk about how ERG could provide an opportunity for you to round out your expertise.

I don’t have a technical[/economics/social science/…] background. Is that a problem?
No! Very few students have experience in all of the disciplines, and the ERG curriculum is built so that you can get an interdisciplinary academic experience even if you haven’t had a chance to do that in your educational career thus far. You can think of ERG as an opportunity to fill in those knowledge gaps, and focus your application on the experiences and questions that have led you to explore interdisciplinary approaches. While having some prior engagement with technical or math-heavy subjects may be useful for our quantitative course requirements, we believe those with a wide range of backgrounds and experiences will bring a fresh perspective and find success in our curriculum.

Should I apply for the Master’s or PhD?
If you’re interested in gaining new applied research skills across different disciplines, the Master’s is a good option. If there are larger research questions that you’re interested in exploring that would extend beyond a year-long project, you should consider the PhD. The Master’s program is more structured than the PhD, although it’s still very flexible compared to many other Master’s programs. Both programs have a research component, but because the Master’s program is more time constrained your research project will necessarily be less involved than if you had done the PhD.

Are prospective PhDs expected to have published before they apply?
It’s definitely not an expectation! There’s a wide range in how much opportunity prospective students have had to do research and/or publish before graduate school. If you have had research experience it’s often useful to include something about it in your statements. If you haven’t, don’t let that stop you from applying if you otherwise think that you and ERG may be a good fit for each other.

The application process


How should I approach the statement of purpose?
You may have already looked at these links, but just in case, the ERG website and the Berkeley Graduate Division provide some guidance on what should be in the statement of purpose.

One way to break down the statement of purpose is by answering the following three questions:
  1. Why graduate school? Why now? Everyone will have a different mix of reasons, but the best statements do include all parts of you, not just work experience or education.
  2. What do you hope to do while in grad school? Gain new skills? Explore new research? Be specific about what knowledge you want to gain and/or contribute in your time as a graduate student.
  3. Why ERG specifically? How is ERG a good fit for you, and you, a good fit for ERG?

Another resource that we’ve found helpful is this guide, by Professor Eve Ewing at the University of Chicago, which gives a clear model for how to write a statement of purpose. It’s directed at prospective humanities and social science PhD students, but the advice is widely useful.

How should I approach the personal history statement?
As a general rule, the personal history statement should not be a guide through your CV. This is the part in your application where you showcase who you are through what you have done, observed, and reflected on (i.e. action-oriented sentences as opposed to passive). Demonstrating an appreciation for interdisciplinarity (e.g. social science/humanities and STEM) is valued at ERG.

How should I prepare for the GRE?
Take a couple free GRE tests online and see what areas you need improvement on. Work through some free internet tutorials that focus on those areas. Also, do some everyday practice, e.g. for math calculate your own restaurant or shopping bills everyday or for English download a GRE-level vocabulary app on your phone. The GRE primarily tests your skills and speed on a narrow range of specific types of questions, so practice, practice, practice!

ERG has a balanced view of the GRE’s effectiveness in predicting success in grad school; the admissions committee will look at your scores in combination with your GPA/transcripts and your letters of recommendation to get a better picture of you.

My undergrad GPA isn’t what I want it to be. What should I do?
ERG values experiences as well as academic accomplishments. If you think your grades in certain courses don't reflect your strength in a subject, focus your personal statement on what does! If you feel like you need to explain your GPA (e.g. life happened and you had to withdraw for a semester and this lowered your GPA), you can do so in your personal statement.

How important are the recommendations?
Recommendations are important elements of your ERG application. Choose recommenders who showcase you in the best light. It might be helpful to ask each of your recommenders to focus on different elements of your resume, experiences, and achievements. Recommenders who can provide personally observed, concrete examples of your qualifications and accomplishments are best. At least one of your recommenders must be an academic, but the others may be drawn from your professional life.

Life at ERG


How do students fund their degree?
This very much varies from student to student, but a majority of students fund their degree through one or a combination of the following ways:
  • Working as a graduate student researcher (GSR) or graduate student instructor (GSI). These are positions that you would find after getting your acceptance, and involve working anywhere from 10-20 hours per week during the school year. If you work at least 10 hours per week, your tuition and most fees are covered through a fee remission and you receive a stipend. More details on GSR/GSI appointments can be found here.
  • Fellowships or grants. These are generally more geared towards PhD students “who are domestic U.S. citizens, Permanent Residents, or qualified ‘dreamers’ through CA AB540”, although there are some opportunities for Master’s and international students. UC Berkeley has some fellowships for entering students that you can apply for as you apply to ERG.

How do international students fund their degree?
It’s really hard to generalize international student funding situations because they’re so particular to different countries of citizenship and fields of study. However, funding is generally more limited for international students because many (but not all) fellowships are for U.S. citizens or permanent residents only. However, international students can work as GSRs or GSIs, which will cover in-state fees. For now, one thing that any prospective international student can do before they’re admitted is look for funding sources in their home countries. For more information specific to international applicants, the Berkeley International Office is a good resource.

To what degree can students tailor their studies/projects to their interests?
A great amount compared to other graduate programs. Though there is some structure in the 2-year Master's (as outlined on the ERG website), there is still a lot of flexibility within that structure. There is even more freedom for those who go on to the PhD. For some, there may be too much flexibility and it might feel like they're not getting enough direction. But, for others who want to build their own program, it can be great.

How long does the PhD take?
It varies! PhDs in different disciplinary fields can already vary quite a bit in length, with STEM-oriented programs often finishing faster than those in the humanities or social sciences. It’s hard to predict the length for any given person and/or course of study, but ERG students whose academic projects lean towards any of these disciplines may see their PhD unfold in a similar timeframe. That said, ERGies take many different paths through the PhD: some do fieldwork, some change or expand their academic area(s) of study, some come in with well-focused projects intent on finishing relatively quickly, while some work part- (or even full-!) time for portions of their time at ERG. This is a good question to ask other ERGies whose paths might look similar to the one(s) you are considering, and also your prospective academic adviser once you’ve been accepted.

Can I hold on to my current job/business and study at ERG at the same time? Can I study part time or remotely?
ERGies have done all of these things! You’ll have to work with ERG to figure out how this might work for you and how it could impact your time here. It can be easier to add this kind of flexibility as a PhD student further along in the program, rather than early on in your time here. But keep in mind: ERG may be willing to work with you to offer flexibility as it makes sense for a particular situation, but these are not typical tracks through the program and there are some limits to how much can be accommodated. For example, you can’t complete the program while being fully (or even mostly) remote for its duration.

Is the program really demanding? Will I have any work-life balance?
The answer to this question is very particular to how you work and approach graduate school, as well as what your commitments are outside of school. However, what we can tell you is that there are definitely a lot of opportunities within ERG and on campus to be social or active or otherwise have balance. Many of us have spouses, pets, or families, and ERG tends to be very supportive of balancing the rigors of graduate school with the importance of self-care and personal relationships. There is much less of an emphasis on maintaining a high GPA in grad school than there is in undergrad (though you do still need to maintain a GPA of 3.0 or higher), and there’s a fair amount of flexibility within ERG to choose to take a lower courseload, so we hope those factors tip the scale a little bit in favor of the life part of work-life balance.

How do you say “ERG”?
Most of us in the Energy and Resources Group do not call it “the E.R.G.” We just call it ERG (without the “the”). It rhymes with Pittsburgh, Luxembourg, and Zuckerberg. And it also rhymes with blurg — a slang term that the Urban Dictionary defines as a “Versatile expression of confusion, annoyance, anger, boredome [sic], or surprise.” An “erg” is actually a unit of energy. People strongly associated with ERG are called “ERGies.”

Thanks to Anna Brockway, Salma Elmallah, Anaya Hall, Chris Hyun, Veronica Jacome, Seigi Karasaki, Nik Lollo, Gauthami Penakalapati, Jenny Rempel for putting together this guide!


[Isa Ferrall, ERG Graduate Student; Jonathan Lee, ERG Graduate Student; and Jordan Freitas, Assistant Professor at Loyola Marymount University]

Every day, 300,000 people are being connected to electricity through efforts to achieve Sustainable Development Goal (SDG 7): “Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all.” For them, new access to electricity comes with a host of new data harvesting by electricity meters, appliances, and payment tracking. Unfortunately, this data is typically collected ad hoc and shared in a bespoke manner or not at all, with concerns about privacy and provenance taking a back seat to increasing electricity service. However, lack of attention to data management practices around SDG 7 is slowing progress and creating potential problems down the line.

Source:    Alex Radelich via Unsplash
Connection to electricity often also means new connections to sensors, data collection, and privacy concerns.
Source: Alex Radelich via Unsplash

Effective practices aren’t only about protecting the privacy of individual end users of electricity. There is potential to create real value through systematic data collection and expanding access to more stakeholders, and improvements require considering the position of each. We recently coauthored a freely available review article in a special issue of the Proceedings of the IEEE on energy access, describing 1) the stakeholders involved in the data ecosystem of SDG 7, 2) the types of data at play and how they are being used (or not used), 3) potential value and risks of sharing these to each stakeholder group, and 4) data management principles to incorporate moving forward. We lay out a framework that we hope can be a foundation for initiatives to engage stakeholders in responsible and effective data sharing.

The key stakeholders we identify are electricity users, micro-utilities (mini-grids and solar-home-system providers), macro-utilities (national or regional), governments, development institutions (e.g. the World Bank, United Nations Development Program, Sustainable Energy for All, or national aid agencies), and researchers. We group the types of data as technical (electricity usage, system and product performance), financial (transaction records and costs of service), or demographic (income, cultural affiliation, etc.).

The risks and values to sharing depend not only on the type of data, but who it is about, who is gaining access to it, and privacy mechanisms that are put in place. In the full paper, we explore these combinations and provide detail about the different possibilities and current practices. Through that exercise, we identified areas for mutually beneficial data sharing, others that require careful navigation of tensions, and those where risks outweigh potential values. We found that a common and open platform for sharing technical data can enable efficiency in a number of areas, such as utilities providing better data access to end users to promote energy literacy and efficient use, and aggregating larger consumption data sets for better demand prediction. We surveyed a group of different stakeholders at a 2018 workshop in Nairobi on Decentralized Energy Solutions for East Africa and the Role of Research, and some of the responses illustrated areas with more tension:

  • Micro- and macro-utilities sharing performance and cost data can increase competition leading to better quality service with fair pricing for users, but current market leaders may lose their competitive advantage
  • Government and development institutions will have better reporting capabilities, but contradictions between promises and performance may be revealed
  • Researchers can discover key insights and contribute to public education, but may risk using data that was improperly collected or poorly-documented

Our analysis suggests that fewer benefits are likely to be realized from sharing detailed – even anonymous – financial data of users without increased legal protections. Codesign of data sharing practices and platforms among all stakeholders is crucial to expanding access, realizing benefits, and mitigating risks. These discussions also need to be held in the context of changing regulatory landscapes and utility business models, so that data sharing practices can enable forward-looking goals and are not overly restricted by the needs of today.

We are actively continuing this work with a series of in-depth stakeholder interviews to contribute more primary data about perceptions. Please email Isa Ferrall, Jonathan Lee, and/or Jordan Freitas for more information on how to get involved or to participate in interviews.

This article was originally posted on the blog of the Thematic Research Network on Data and Statistics (TReNDS) - an initiative of the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) that leverages the data revolution to support the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals.


[Sara Mulhauser, Director (BERC) Berkeley Cleantech University Prize, ERG graduate student]

Prior to ERG, I developed installation sites for distributed power generation products on behalf of a clean tech start-up. It was there that I came to appreciate the complexity of the energy industry, and understand that we will need to learn how to commercialize innovative technologies within such highly regulated environments if we want to tackle global climate change.

Research and development in the electric power industry is notoriously underfunded -- pharmaceuticals, information technology, and semiconductor firms spend between 15% and 20% of revenues on R&D, whereas electric firms spend less than 0.25% of revenue on R&D – but there is no guarantee of impact even after a scientific or technological breakthrough. There is still the matter of commercialization. A lot of functioning, important technologies die either in the pre-commercial gap (never find venture funding) or in the valley of death.

Berkeley Haas Business School’s Cleantech to Market (C2M) class provides free consulting to clean technology firms to help them through this journey from R&D to commercialization. Its goals are to prevent promising ideas from dying in the pre-commercial gap, and to train an interdisciplinary group of students to evaluate and pitch these technologies – valuable skills for their lives after graduate school.

Technology Commercialization Process - from C2M information slides.

So how does C2M work?

The class is only offered in the fall, but preparations for it start early in the year. The C2M directors spend the first few months of each year vetting technology groups (mostly early-stage companies, sometimes not-yet-companies) for an appropriate fit. In the spring, they start the application process with the students. Many of the students that apply are Haas MBAs, but they strongly encourage students from other disciplines like engineering, hard science, and policy to apply.

C2M first selects “team leads” from the pool of Haas MBA students. These team leads then select team members from the pool of class applicants. It is part NFL rookie draft, part medical residency program matching. You rank which technologies you are interested in working on. Team leads review your resume and statement and determine what kinds of skills they’ll need on their project. The selection process takes place over the summer.

My C2M Experience

Last year, I was matched into a team of four MBAs and one chemistry PhD to support a company developing a new kind of heat exchanger. Heat exchangers are critical pieces within a lot of technologies that we take for granted every day, so even incremental improvements to their efficiency can yield tremendous GHG emissions reductions.

The Rocky Mountain Institute and others have joined a coalition and set out a global challenge to improve efficiency of cooling options, the Global Cooling Prize.

Once the fall semester started, we got to work very quickly. We first learned as much as we could about heat exchangers, both technically, and where they fit into various markets. Then we questioned our client’s assumptions about their pathway to commercialization. We brainstormed every possible use of heat exchangers, what performance metrics were most important to them, and systematically evaluated how our technology’s innovation added value to that industry. We came up with multiple criteria for evaluation, then used that to narrow our search of potential fits.

C2M team brainstorming markets and metrics with which to evaluate markets.

Heat exchanger market evaluation

Once we arrived at a handful of highest potential industries and applications, we set about the hard work of understanding these industries in great depth and quantifying the value add. We learned how to use techonomic models to do this, but we also learned a lot from directly interviewing dozens of industry professionals. This was an incredibly chaotic time with lots of information flowing in. Our six team members divided and conquered the monumental tasks, and somehow magically arrived at the end with great information and strong ideas about how our client might find success. Since the heat exchanger company had a good strategy for approaching their first market (US window air conditioning), we focused on their second and third markets, which they would also need. We ended up suggesting emerging market air conditioning and small-scale data center cooling, because both are underserved by current products on the market and have tremendous growth potential.

I pulled from my training in the dual ERG/MPP degree program during this process. I used back-of-the-envelope calculations and other skills from ER102 and ER200 to parse technical information. I applied skills from the policy curriculum to understand regulatory and policy drivers of markets.
I learned a lot from my teammates; it was an incredibly collaborative environment. Team leads get an additional unit in the course, because they must also dedicate time to steering the ship and learning how to be effective managers of high-output teams. They get a crash course in some of the best professional performance and management coaching, and I was incredibly impressed with how quickly they put it to effective use. I’d easily trade my team lead (who is many years my junior) for any number of bosses I’ve had in professional settings.

At the end of the semester, we produced a lengthy and professional market assessment report, and gave a twenty minute pitch in a formal setting to industry professionals at the C2M Symposium. Symposium attendees often go on to become funders of the technologies, and, as such, they ask very difficult questions after presentations. We practiced for weeks to refine our presentation, including the graphics, the speaking performance, our answers to anticipated questions. We ran it so many times, each of us knew our five minute pieces as well as any politician knows their stump speech. And our research was so comprehensive, we knew we could answer almost any question (we also practiced another important political/professional skill – how to pivot when you don’t know, or like, the real answer!).

C2M Presentation

Welcome to my TED talk on small-scale data center cooling.

We tied with another team for the Game Changer Award, for the technology with the most potential for global impact. We were especially proud of this award, because our competitors had some amazing technologies and presentations, and, well, it can be challenging to make heat exchangers exciting.

We tie for the crowd-voted "Game Changer". My husband attended and did not vote for my team, but I’m not bitter about that.

Why do C2M?

In the end, this was one of the most time-intensive courses I’ve taken in my graduate program, but also one of the most personally and professional rewarding. C2M gets great reviews, and justifiably brags about them. As someone who has been out in the commercial space for many years, I can attest that the skills you learn in the class are the ones required in the field. This is a phenomenal way to practice them, and you will end up creating some great industry relationships. I also got a better understanding of what it takes to go from early- to late-stage start-up, and learned so many interesting things about the other technologies my classmates were serving along the way.

This is a major commitment, but if you think you may benefit by having something like this under your belt, I highly recommend considering applying for the 2019 C2M. This is one important way for people with our kinds of skills to help make much-needed technology a reality, and you get so much out of it in the process.

We only had to wear suits once.

C2M is holding an information session on Tuesday, April 2nd, 12:30 - 1:30pm at Haas N470. 


[Michelle Levinson, ERG graduate student]

Photo credit: natsihlaneone on Flickr

In the aftermath of another round of divisive elections in the United States (and around the globe) many of us feel distraught about the ability and speed of our political systems to address urgent social challenges. Political change requires organizing and community- slow but necessary processes. Meanwhile, from climate change to income inequality, gentrification and displacement to the gender-wage gap, the challenges we face as a society seem more acute than ever. Votes may have been cast and ballots counted, but that does not mean we must wait another two years for our next chance to shape our world. There are other avenues by which we can continue to make change.

Last week I attended the SRI Conference in Colorado Springs as one of twelve conference scholars, where I got to see how investors perceive of their role in mobilizing finance for energy decarbonization and how they are integrating climate change risk into investment decisions. I met people that have spent decades working to spread awareness and develop the tools to leverage the power of investments to achieve better outcomes for society: individual retirement advisors, endowments for religious orders, the City of Chicago, the Sierra Club Foundation -- Socially Responsible Investing (SRI) is being practiced throughout the investment industry.

The principle is straightforward: when we own a piece of a company, be it via public markets, as debt, or as private equity, we are reducing that company’s cost of capital. In a way, we are betting that a company’s business model, practices, and products will contribute to a better, more prosperous world in the future.

This is what I call voting with your investment dollars, and this vote takes place every month of every year. Directly or indirectly, through our educational institutions, pension and retirement funds, and government treasuries, we are all investors in the global economy. But where do we direct this capital? To whom do we entrust it to be used well, and to build a foundation for our long-term personal and communal well-being? We are stakeholders in the economic system, but many of us do not wield this power with as much purpose as we could. 

I work with many people that strive to make such changes in the energy sector, where the financial factors that hinder the development of sustainable energy are perhaps just as daunting as the scientific, technical, and political barriers. Development in both the fossil-fuel and clean energy sectors is shaped by the market appetite for risks associated with investing in new projects, be they a new coal plant or an array of solar panels, which translate into the cost of capital for that project. These equations only account, however, for the internalized risks and costs that project investors are assuming. These may not be the same as the costs faced by society as a whole; they may not account for externalities. When determining our “required return,” investors have the opportunity to thoughtfully consider which risks they are willing to bear and what future they hope to facilitate with their capital for society at-large.

Why is Socially Responsible Investing hard?

Basic microeconomic principles show us that there are plenty of instances where corporate profit maximization can be misaligned with socially optimal outcomes, especially when those internalized benefits create externalized costs. In these cases, a rational business decision or practice that we are facilitating through our investments might run counter to our own long-term priorities and needs. There are lots of reasons why externalities are often not accounted for, such as measurement challenges, information asymmetry, and principal-agent issues. A classic example of private profit running counter to society’s values is the tobacco industry, where much of the healthcare costs that result from tobacco externalities are borne by society as a whole. This tension motivated famed moves by government agencies, such as CalPERS that manages health and retirement for California employees, to divest from tobacco. Even though this meant foregoing short-term profits, the long-term payoff was clear in the eyes of former California Treasurer Phil Angelides: “What sense does it make for CalPERS to be an investor in companies that cost the state billions of dollars?

Avoiding negative externalities is a start, but investors are increasingly aiming to finance positive impacts. At this conference, Chicago City Treasurer Kurt Summers shared that his office sees its investment dollars as a way to “make a positive impact on some of the most fundamental challenges facing Chicagoans.” Considering environmental, social, and governance (ESG) factors helps his office promote conservation and sustainability, racial and gender equity, better labor standards and more, all of which improve the quality of life for both the current and future Chicago community. I am especially pleased to see that the Treasurer’s Office is setting concrete goals for itself, such as achieving a carbon neutral investment portfolio by 2020. The city recognizes that as a first-mover it is a catalyst for change and is using this position to test new approaches and move new efforts forward.

Investment plan from a presentation by the Chicago City Treasurer

Under this banner of impact there were a number of innovative approaches to mobilizing finance for energy decarbonization and sustainable development on display at the conference. I chatted with folks from the Iroquois Valley Farmland REIT, who are making investments in organic farmland, and with clean energy project developers from Clean USA Power; both companies are applying financial products in new ways to move finance towards positive impact. I also enjoyed learning more about my favorite startup, Hyphae Partners, which works to bring finance to businesses that practice regenerative agriculture.

By definition, these negative externalities and positive impacts are not captured in traditional financial information. However, the finance industry is awakening to the notion that non-financial information can be material to a company’s economic performance. This is illustrated by the groundbreaking work of Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (SASB) and the Task Force on Climate-related Financial Disclosures (TCFD), which are setting standards for corporate sustainability disclosures across industries and asset classes. Better sustainability information allows investors to employ more precise strategies when they invest in their values. SRI strategies were developed decades ago and have been continuously refined over the years, evidenced by the fact that this year’s conference was the 29th reunion of these industry practitioners.

SRI 2018 Conference Scholarship Winners

This year’s 29th SRI Conference provided attendees with a rich snapshot of a dynamic, multifaceted industry. This snapshot illuminated the industry’s shift from niche to mainstream, a growth in asset types and sectors represented, and a welcome intentionality around diversity of representation and perspectives. These trends ensure that this conference will continue to be a fascinating window into a the finance industry and bell-weather for its future. To read more about what you can do to align your personal finances with a future you want to live in, check out Nick Depsky’s great Life@ERG posts on Personal Banking and Retirement Accounts + Mutual Funds.


[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
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