Nidhi Santen: New Energy Technology in an Uncertain World

Nov 01, 2012
Nidhi Santen: New Energy Technology in an Uncertain World

When Nidhi Santen was just about six-years-old she went on an overnight trip with her Brownie troop. The same night her older brother went on a trip with the Cub Scouts. She came home with an air freshener she had made after sleeping in the local elementary school. Her brother came home with a pet frog after spending the night camping by a pond. Frustrated she didn’t get to do “cool things,” Santen became an honorary (tag-along) Cub Scout, and her love of the environment grew more each day.

Now Santen follows her passion to protect the environment by studying something most take for granted: Electricity.

“Electricity is one element that affects almost every sector of our economy. We use it without really thinking, and there’s a lot that goes into designing the system so we can just flick a switch,” Santen says. Yet because electric generation comprises about 40 percent of the carbon emissions in the U.S., “doing something about this sector is really important if we’re going to address environmental challenges such as climate change.”

Plus, Santen — a self-described electricity geek — adds, “Seeing the inner workings of a power plant, and how it makes electricity, is amazing.”

This October, Santen finished her doctorate in Engineering Systems, where she focused on long-term capital and R&D investment planning for the U.S. electric power generation sector, in the face of climate change.  Specifically, she looked at how best to balance efforts in research and development of new technologies versus building already available technologies in the electric power sector.  The challenge in finding this (cost-effective) balance arises from the fact that (1) continued electricity demands require some upfront installation of very long-lived, potentially high-carbon, commercially available technologies; and (2) R&D into new technology areas might allow potentially lower-carbon technologies to be competitive soon, but with some uncertainty.

“R&D programs are fundamentally uncertain. So if you have a cumulative environmental (e.g., carbon) target to meet and a finite amount of money, should that money be invested in building new commercially available power plants, or do you put $2 million into a company that’s really excited about their new solar panels or new wind turbines or new method of extracting carbon?” Santen says.

Santen’s study helps government agencies make those decisions by creating a new modeling framework. Unlike current models used by the U.S. Energy Information Administration or several government and academic research institutions, her method allows researchers and policymakers to consider what is known and unknown today, and make short-term decisions based on those uncertainties.

“Right now the types of models government and research institutions are using assume that we know how R&D programs are going to turn out, and we don’t,” Santen says. “They also assume that you’re not going to in 10 years from now reassess, look back on how things went, and reconsider your next decision. And we know that’s not how real people make decisions. Real people make decisions by evaluating the best choice now, given what they know, and later change their path based on what they learned.”

When applying this method, Santen found that when uncertainty is factored into these decisions, the amount one would invest in R&D is different from when uncertainty and learning is not formally considered. For example, if by 2060 emissions need to be reduced by a certain level, power plants may not need carbon capture and storage technology working immediately to meet the cap. There may be some time to wait and learn.

“The model tells you to invest less in R&D because it knows you have time to make decisions in the future and see what happens with R&D outcomes in the meantime,” Santen says. “But in the no uncertainty model, it thinks you don’t have any other chances to change your investment levels, so it tells you to invest more heavily now.”

Santen hopes her new method will help to improve models that work at a more industrial level, such as the NREL ReEDS model. She looks forward to continuing her work on electricity planning and environmental policy analysis as a postdoctoral research fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs.