Reflections of a TEX Fellow

By Abhishek Rao

Editor’s Note: TEX created a Community Science Training/Fellowship opportunity for the Hermosa Beach, CA project in Fall 2016. While TEX projects typically include scientific partners who are more established in their field, we saw an opportunity to engage a student or early career scientist on one of our newer projects. By inviting such an individual to join a team in partnership with a more experienced scientist, he/she could see community science first hand and learn how to connect their science to local concerns. TEX looks forward to expanding this model to other projects.

 

In September 2016, I received an email from my graduate school program manager. Thriving Earth Exchange (TEX) was looking for its first Fellow, a student or early-career scientist to work on a new project in Hermosa Beach, California. It was over a year since I had graduated and started my job designing solar photovoltaic systems to power houses across the country. I quite enjoyed my work and my life in Southern California. But something didn’t feel right. I missed being in an academic environment, spending long hours in the library, constantly learning and being immersed in intellectual conversations about the big challenges in the world. I missed the feeling of curiosity that drove me to research these challenges, of wonder for the latest scientific discoveries and technological breakthroughs, and of awe for the everyday ways in which science and technology help solve so many of these challenges. But most of all, I felt this pent-up potential thumping inside of me: skills that I could put to good use beyond my day job, and leisure time that I could better utilise. I wanted to do more with my life. I decided to apply for the Fellowship.

TEX, powered by the American Geophysical Union, brings together scientists and community leaders to use science to tackle community issues related to natural resources and climate change. The effects of a changing climate usually manifest at the local level, affecting the communities we live in: fires and floods, hurricanes and heat waves. Very often, our communities do not have the technical expertise to understand the causes and to mitigate the effects of natural hazards. On the other hand, the scientific community undertakes a lot of modelling and simulation work, with little input from or impact to the real-world communities outside of their circles. TEX works at bridging this gap.

I was interviewed and selected as the first TEX Fellow, to work on a new project in Hermosa Beach, CA. In 2015, the City of Hermosa Beach, a beach town not far from Los Angeles airport, established aggressive carbon reduction goals for the city. The objectives of the TEX project were to identify viable renewable energy technologies for the city, to estimate the power and energy generation potential of these technologies, and to compare costs of these technologies. I recognised that it was a worthy ambition for a whole city to go renewable, and that if successful, the model could be replicated in some measure in other cities, and even scaled to entire states or even countries. I was excited with the prospect!

I realised right at the outset that Lon and I made a terrific team. Dr. Lon L. Peters is the senior scientist I worked with on the project. Lon has a PhD in Economics from Yale University and recently retired from his position in resource planning at a Southern California electric and water utility. Though thirty years his junior, Lon considered me an equal, always listening to what I had to say and trusting my opinions. At Hermosa Beach, we worked with Dr. Kristy Morris, an Environmental Analyst for the City and a PhD in Environmental Science from Griffith University, Australia. Kristy is the lead official for the City’s Carbon Neutral Plan, and was very encouraging and supportive of our efforts, and helpful with all our information and data requests to the City. Melissa Goodwin was our Project Manager at TEX, instrumental in facilitating the project, especially streamlining communication among team members and helping set the timelines for the various phases of the project. Melissa was phenomenal at her job, enabling us with the tools and resources we needed and keeping the project on track in general. It was an amazing opportunity for an early-career scientist like me to be mentored by experts in my field. It was like the PhD program I never had, replete with a project manager!

Lon and I started with defining the scope of the project. We listed all the potential renewable energy technologies the City could consider, including distributed solar photovoltaic, anaerobic digestion, wind, wave, tidal, and geothermal. For each technology, we evaluated the renewable resource available and the potential power and energy generation capacity within city limits, or in partnership with the neighbouring cities of Manhattan Beach and Redondo Beach, or in the case of wind – off the city’s shores. We estimated the overnight capital cost ($/W) and the levelized cost of energy ($/MWh) for each technology. This allowed us to objectively compare the cost of the various renewable energy technologies available to the City.

We relied on a number of different sources for our inputs: research papers and reports, publicly available data from City records and national laboratory publications, cloud-based GIS and energy modelling tools, the City’s past and present renewable energy bids and contracts, information requests to scientists and utility companies, and quotes from new technology developers. Two seminal papers we used for literature reviews were by Prof. Juan Matute’s group at UCLA and Prof. Mark Jacobson’s group at Stanford, both dealing with evaluating renewable energy potential within geographic areas. We used historical data from NREL’s publications to model the capital and levelized costs of energy technologies. Google’s Project Sunroof and HelioScope were respectively handy in simulating the city’s solar potential on the residential and commercial scales. The City’s current waste collection contract as well as a past bid for a waste-to-energy contract proved useful for estimating the potential and costs of anaerobic digesters. Having contacted developers of small-scale on-shore and off-shore wind energy technologies, it was determined that these are currently not fully mature or feasible for the City of Hermosa Beach, and it would be some time before they become cost-effective. Southern California Edison, the electric utility serving the city was helpful with information about grid integration of the renewable technologies we evaluated.

Some of my biggest takeaways from the project are defining and refining the scope. Over the course of the project, we learned that some technologies such as small-scale wind and wave, though attractive, are not viable for the City at this time. Realizing that we may have overestimated their potential initially, we had to go back and refine our focus to the more viable technologies such as solar and anaerobic digestion. I learned how to collect information from various sources, and if little was available, how to make safe assumptions from the information at hand. Most importantly, I was exposed to the functioning of grassroots government: how budgets and grants are approved, how requests for proposals (RFPs) are drafted, how bids are evaluated and contracts awarded, and how policymaking happens at the municipal level. Personally, the project taught me how to manage my schedule well, and to set aside dedicated time to work on projects I am passionate about while juggling my professional and personal commitments. If there was one thing I could change if I started the project over, I would be more real to myself and more communicative to my team members about my expectations of myself and my commitments to them.

In late 2017, we delivered a report to the City detailing possible renewable energy technologies within Hermosa Beach, their generation potentials, and costs. Kristy along with Lon will share these results with the City Council in a forthcoming meeting and use the recommendations to inform decision making, in terms of drafting RFPs for renewable energy technologies and cost considerations for budgeting and awarding contracts.

Being a TEX Fellow was an extremely enjoyable and enriching experience. I can sense that this is the start of a lifelong love affair with pro bono consulting. I would highly recommend any motivated early-career scientist or subject matter expert in the earth and energy sciences to work with TEX. If you are aware of any community issues that could use a scientific hand, be sure to let TEX know. As for me, if I ever convince myself to get a PhD, my problem statement would most definitely be a TEX-style community science issue. There is a certain fulfillment to see your work have a tangible impact on the people and communities around you.

mgoodwin editor