Thursday, August 31, 2017

(S)Peaking of oil


"The report of my death was an exaggeration" - Mark Twain

The stimulus for this post is this fascinating talk (link) by a guru of clean tech Mr. Tony Seba, and predictions about peak oil I heard at recent workshop on transportation. I don’t have any materials to share from the workshop but this WSJ article (link) makes some of those same points. Seba’s talk is mainly about the confluence of five major innovations - four technological - solar PV systems, battery technology, electric vehicles, autonomous vehicles and a fifth that is more institutional (academic jargon for business model), which is the ride-hailing industry (lyft, uber etc.) In fact, I made similar but different optimistic points on the combination of EV, AV and ride-hailing a year back (link).

Predicting peak oil, on the other hand, is a different proposition altogether. It has been a topic of intense analysis and debate for several decades now. Beginning with King Hubbert in 1950s, many geologists have been pessimistic about the long term prospects for cheap oil supply. Their claims rests on assumptions about depletion of reserves and the increasing amounts of energy (and therefore, cost) associated with extracting from depleted wells. Interestingly, economists were more optimistic and in any case the peak is not  important in and of itself as we would innovate our way out of the problem as oil price, the true indicator of scarcity, rises. And, of course, all the while climate scientists and environmentalists have been shouting (unforuntately, in vain so far) for absitnence, (ofcourse, from oil for the most part but not exclusively). But the peak oil prognostications of today are about an impending peak in the demand for (or more precisely consumption of) oil as opposed to peak due to depletion. The reason for this is exactly the kind of breakthroughs mentioned above.

If your day is made, then I recommend you read no further for I am going to spoil it. Sorry, but it is my job to call it as I see it. Don’t get me wrong. I would love nothing more than to solve externalities (jargon for pollution problems) and produce public goods (jargon for things like knowledge) with a business as usual  approach. But I know enough to not bet on it. In other words, I am not sure which among the two — peak oil supply or peak oil demand is better for the environment. 

A peak due to scarcity would mean that oil prices rise which would provide an impetus for renewables (which are costlier today because we do not see the full cost of oil) and at the same time make us more efficient in energy use. The flip side is that higher oil prices would also lead to innovation in finding more oil or converting coal and gas to liquid oil which is a very dirty process. It is a question of which of these two forces will win out. A peak in oil demand while it sounds good might be the proverbial Torjan horse. It might lull us into a sense of lazy optimism only for oil to strike back with vengeance. Here is why. 

1. Peak oil demand means that the price of oil keeps falling. At today’s price of $50 per barrel, we are all not exactly rushing to buy electric cars (of course, a few have plonked down $1000 to reserve a Tesla Model 3). As if life was not hard enough at $50/bbl, these technologies will now have to compete with ever cheaper oil. Likewise, solar and wind have to compete with ever cheaper coal and natural gas as we move to a renewable electric grid. 

2. Some contend that we did not stop getting around in horses because we ran out of them but that we discovered a superior alternative in oil and motorized transport. Other somewhat more trivial analogies might be that we did not run out of Kodak cameras, telephone lines, postal mail. In each case the product that displaced these were clearly superior and it did not take a government regulation to phase them out. There was also the famous Ehrlich-Simon wager about scarcity of important metals we know how that was settled. In any case, I am not convinced that batteries, solar electricity and electric cars are relatively as superior to today’s oil + internal combustion engines as oil was to horse drawn carriages. Agreed, an EV might be a smoother ride and range is unlikey to be an issue but is that nearly enough? Also autonomous and ride-hailing work is indifferent to propulsion technology.

3. Now, let me get off my smart horse and concede for a moment that EV’s and solar electricity are such a superior alternative that we will voluntarily stop buying internal combustion engine automobiles and combusting coal and gas. But that doesn’t mean the fossil fuel industry will shut shop and things will be hunky-dory. A bit of history would come in handy here. Before the 1970s, a substantial amount of oil was used for electric power generation and mind you burning oil for electricity is quite bad for both human health and climate change. This wasteful use of oil has since declined only because oil became scarce enough to justify it’s use only for transportation and as a source of back up and peak electric power and remote locations with little access to other energy sources. That said, in oil rich countries like Saudi Arabia oil is used profligately for baseload electricity. My spreadsheet tells me that at $20-$25 oil, oil-fired generation could come back in a big way especially in places where gas is scarce and coal is considered as dirty. What’s more at these prices we oil-fired generators might be able to afford $40 to $50 per tonne for either a carbon tax or carbon di oxide capture and sequestration.

I will conclude on a constructive if not entirely cheerful note. The solution is simple. Basically, we are faced with a leaky bucket and as we begin to fill it with cleaner water, it is all the more important that we also fix the leak. In technical terms, we need to put a price on pollution and make it not worthwhile to consume dirty fuels even as they become cheap. One way to do this is for the world to agree on capping global greenhouse gas emissions. I am optimistic that we will achieve this someday but will it be soon enough is anybody’s guess. In the meantime, there is no reason to not be excited about the coming technological disruptions.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Amazon and the urban landscape

Writing this blog helps me get something more useful out of my addiction of consuming news, which gets depressing by the day. But Professor Hal Varian himself thinks the best place to find ideas for research is the news and popular press rather than academic journals (link to his paper). So the idea for this post comes from a discussion on NPR a while back (link). It was on the unintended consequences of Amazon on cities. This reminded me of my own and only appearance on public radio till date (link) from about a year back talking about a related topic.

I work on LCA, which is largely, although not exclusively, about assessing the greenness of individual products or actions such as shopping online and more importantly, how does this compare to an alternative way of satisfying the need in question. LCA is not very meaningful in an absolute sense, it is only in a relative sense, i.e., when comparing alternatives. And so I have thus far only thought seriously about adding up all the pollution when you shop online vis-a-vis from a brick and mortar store. But this NPR program raised some really interesting and challenging issues both from an LCA and an urban sustainability standpoint. Online shopping is slowly but surely changing our landscape. For one, it is driving several types of retail stores to close down and this includes individually owned and outlets of large retail chains. Somehow, we tend to feel more badly about the former although the lives of employees in both is affected. At the sometime there is a boom in restaurants and bars (See this news article). It is hard to say how much of this because of rents being lower which is in turn driven by store closings, and how much is simply because of increase in demand for eating out and drinking. The two might not be unrelated. Amazon and online shopping is driving store closings and also freeing up money to spend on eating out.

So how do we begin to grasp the environmental impact of online shopping when there are all these ripple effects? LCA has a role here but this is a classic question for interdisciplinary research for understanding the environmental impacts requires a grasp of the economic implications. A great topic for research.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

LCA and the world’s 28th largest economy

This has to be one of my best summers across the last seven years. I no longer have much control over whether I keep my job. It might sound terrifying to leave your fate in others’ hands but I am more relieved than worried at this point. So faced with a choice of writing blogs vis-a-vis bread and butter academic papers neither of which anyone seems to read, I choose the former as it is more fun and something even my family might enjoy someday. On that note, my tennis has seen a massive improvement this summer, thanks entirely to my father-in-law, a fine tennis player (you guessed right, my wife will be the first person I will be emailing this post). Let me get to the point. This post is about the environmental sustainability of the 28th largest economy in the world. These last two statements are not as disjointed as they might appear because I purchased my tennis balls from the latter. If you thought I am talking about a country, you are wrong. I am talking about Walmart, which is the largest corporation in terms of annual revenues (~$486 Billion in 2016 - the next largest corporation’s revenues were less than half that). Yeah, much to the chagrin of some of my environmentalist friends, I do shop there whenever convenient, which is not all that seldom. Therefore, when I came across this NPR report about sustainability at Walmart, one that fundamentally entails a life cycle assessment (LCA) of an entire corporation, I could not but go bananas. Incidentally, Walmart sells a billion pounds of bananas each year. A government mandate for each and every product retailed at LCA of Walmart would be akin to a full employment act for LCA experts. I digress. Walmart has a voluntary goal of reducing it’s GHG footprint by a billion tons between now and 2030, called Project Gigaton. When in a cynical mood, I would call voluntary a euphemism for cheap and empty but in today’s climate (pun intended), where the world’s richest and most powerful nation has abdicated it’s committment to sustainability, a pragmatist can ill-afford to be dismissive of corporate charity. When optimistic citizens, NGOs and not-entirely-insincere executives are stepping up  to the challenge, academics are obligated to descend from their ivory towers and play a constructive role.

Imagine you are Walmart’s sustainability lead. Ignoring for now the cold-hearted considerations of the dismal science (i.e. Economics), just think about where would you look to reduce your corporations’ overall climate footprint? If the government mandated a cost benefit analysis of what is the right level of sustainability that Walmart should seek that would be akin to a full employment act for both economists and LCA experts. I digress again. If you had asked me to guess which activity of Walmart contributes the most to it’s aggregate climate footprint my top two choices would have been, energy use at their warehouses and emissions from transportation and logistics. I am of course ignoring the emissions associated with the durables such as air conditioners or furnaces for which the bulk of life cycle emissions are during their use phase i.e., they depend on how fickle-minded and lazy consumers operate them, aspects over which Walmart has no control whatsoever. Ofcourse, Walmart could try to increase the sales of greener versions of these durables such as energy star appliances but that is a whole another topic.

So it might come as a bit of surprise that it is neither Walmart’s own energy use nor emissions during transportaiton that were the largest sources of emissions. Instead, it is the production of fertilizers. So how does urea make Walmart stink even though neither it’s production nor sales are central to Walmart’s bottom-line?  Enter LCA. An assessment of the supply chain emissions, effectively a form of LCA, of the various products retailed at Walmart appears to show that it is fertilizer use on farms that produce the grains that go into the meat and dairy products that go into the procesed foods that Walmart sells are the culprit. So Walmart has to convince the processors who in turn buy the grains, dairy and meats to clean up their act. Unlike with life cycle emissions from durable goods, Walmart can exercise substantial influence over the products they put on their shelves or more importantly on their website.  That is tough but not impossible task for Walmart. But I am glad to see that my trade is stepping up to the task and I look forward to teaching it again this Fall!

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Getting a faculty position with an interdisciplinary PhD training

For teachers, summer time is travel time (Yes, poorly paid teachers have no choice but to travel during the most expensive times of year!). Summer is also the time for many academic conferences, workshops and meetings, at least many of the ones I frequent. I did my bit to boost the economy and warm the earth. Just last week, I got to attend a unique and highly satisfying workshop. It was a NSF Workshop on Interdisciplinary Urban Sustainability Careers at the University of Minnesota. The theme was - Now That I Have an Interdisciplinary PhD in Sustainable Urban Systems, What’s Next?. The workshop had panels dedicated to careers in academia, industry, government etc. I, ofcourse, was on a panel focussed on how to land a job in academia as an interdisciplinary PhD. It was a lot of fun and a wealth of information for students interested in both an interdisciplinary graduate education and career. I have been told there will be a link with the video recordings which I will share as soon as I get the information. In the meantime, I wanted to blog when it is still fresh in my mind.

Below are the questions I was asked to speak about. I did not get to convey this verbatim but basically this is what I had to say.
  1. What drew you to a career in academia? 
    • When I began my PhD, I thought I will join the non-profit/non-governmental sector or work in a government agency. That was still the case by the middle of the 4th year of my PhD. However, in my fourth year a slew of things happened that first kindled and eventually made a faculty position as my first choice for a career. I authored a couple of publications that instantly received a whole bunch of citations. I was also invited to guest lectures, workshops and international consultations on biofuels - the focus my research.  While I had been a TA before, I actually got to be a co-instructor for an interdisciplinary class freshman/junior class called Plants and Society, which was  a lot of fun. Finally, I also got the chance to help write grant proposals. 
    • Secondly, it was option value in the face of irreversibility. I felt and still feel it is harder to find a faculty job after working in non-academic jobs rather than the other way around. Ofcourse, there are exceptions. If you worked in National research labs, some private research labs or even the government you might be able to find academic positions but those are fewer and when I see the openings for and applicants it is mostly freshly minted PhDs and post-docs. So long as you are doing high quality research and have good writing skills and communication skills, you are likely to be competitive in academic market.  But you will be swimming against the tide.
    • Lastly, as an immigrant, an academic position can fetch you a permanent residency quickly and it did for me. I hope that is still the case today. In today’s political climate that is gold.
    • Today however, the thing I value to the most is the total freedom to pursue your passion, speak your mind, and the flexibility of working during your own time except of course, when I have to teach. Also it is extremely satisfying to hear students tell you how much they enjoyed your class and that you motivated them to continue in this line further. These more than compensate for the lower wage when compared to private sector career. 
  2. How did you frame your research and experience when you were on the job market? 
    • I was in a situation of having published a couple of papers. In such a situation you have a couple of options, present one of the papers or a weave a story around the papers. The risk with the former is that it is the standard approach in disciplinary job talks and you might come across as not having breadth. The risk with the latter is that you might come across as shallow as you run through two or three different papers in 40 minutes. So it is a really tricky situation.  I was fortunate that the topic of my research -  the environmental implications of biofuels — was then a hot new topic. I focussed on one specific paper, that would take three more years to publish, but I also gave a brief overview of my other papers. Having a publication or atleast an almost final manuscript is critical. This is also essential to make the initial cut from 100 odd applications to a select 10 to 20 that will be more closely reviewed say via Skype and eventually the 5 or 6 that will be short-listed for a site interview.
  3. How did your interdisciplinary research experience help in the job hunting process? 
    • Quite a lot. For one, I went to an interdisciplinary program and so I was acutely aware there is a perception issue to overcome. 
    • My PhD committee had an engineer, physicist, agricultural economist and water economist and that was a great preparation. 
    • Our own department PhD seminars and department seminars were a great preparation with people from different disciplines asking all kinds of questions of a presenter.
  4. What is the most challenging aspect of navigating the job hunting process? And how did you overcome it? 
    • Clearly communicating who you are  especially when you have an interdisciplinary PhD that no other institution offers.
    • There is also a disadvantage. A lot of disciplinary people might compete on the interdisciplinary market but the otherway around is more challenge as there is a perception issue to overcome, when you want a job in a disciplinary department but you don’t have a PhD in that discipline.
    • You will not be able to send a canned application that you mail out to tens of openings, each has to be tailored for each interdisciplinary job could be different.
    • Contact the programs you are applying to and speak to a search committee member and get a sense of what they are looking for and if it is worth your time. 
  5. Looking back, what would you do differently?
    • Not much. Why tinker with something that seems to have worked well. I will know for sure next year :-)
  6. How do you handle the workload and life/work balance during the first two years as an assistant professor?
    • Depends on your personality and life situation. You have 6-8 years to tenure, don’t rush it. Use the clock. Ease into the job. Don’t get burnt out. Get your grad school/post doc papers out of the way and put together the class materials for what you want to teach. Get to know the place you have moved to. Important to find a good mentor at work not necessarily one who works in your area but one who can help with navigating the tenure process. Lastly, and most importantly, there may be important personal and family decisions that for some can wait until after tenure and for some it cannot. I am one to put family first, and for me that has totally changed my view of sustainability.

Closing Thoughts

  • I was fortunate to be accepted to a top PhD program. I was fortunate to find outstanding advisors, late Prof. Alex Farrell and Prof. David Zilberman. I was fortunate that the topic of my research was timely both in a policy and academic sense. So I have had my share of good fortune but it also just did not land on my lap! It has been, is and will be a lot of a struggle whenever you attempt something outside of mainstream. 
  • Academia is an institution steeped in disciplinarity. While it is changing it is a slow transformation. Expectations are that you have some solid disciplinary foundation and demonstrate an ability to bridge disciplines. 
  • This is important - there is no single template to success - you have to be creative and imaginative and that is where the fun is. You will be evaluted by smart but disciplinary experts who quickly need to understand who are you and what is your skill set. There might be no single discipline, single journal, single academic society that you can point to and say you are that person. It is your job to communicate clearly what is your unique skill and how it can be applied beyond your dissertation work, to attract students to work with you, to attract funding for research, etc. At a minimum you should be an expert in atleast one research method and a have a good grasp of the basic theoretical concepts needed for your work. 
  • You got to embrace skepticism about your work. Believe me, there will be many days when you wonder, I wish I was just an engineer, chemist, ecologist or economist. But if ask you me it is worth failing challenging established norms rather than walk a well worn path. If I were do it all over again, I will choose an inter-disciplinary PhD again.