Experts in “Smart Energy”

For decades, American energy companies have tried to persuade customers to use less energy. Using giveaways and various other financial incentives, utilities have promoted new light bulbs, miserly shower heads and smart thermostats.

Part of the goal has been to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide and other pollutants. But another incentive hits utilities on the bottom line. Electric utilities must buy enough generation capacity to meet peak demand, which explains their interest in programs, for example, to taper the use of air-conditioning on hot summer afternoons.

The programs sound good, but do they work? That difficult analysis has been neglected, and the answers won’t come solely from classical supply-and-demand economics, says Bill Provencher, a CALS professor of agricultural and applied economics. To fill that gap, Provencher last year founded the Resource and Energy Demand Analysis (REDA) program, a rigorous one-year course of study and training leading to a master’s degree.

“Understanding why people do or don’t sign up and carry through with these programs involves new economic theory and methods, such as behavioral economics,” says Provencher. “Good intentions are not enough; results depend on whether energy is actually saved.”

No matter what happens in Washington, energy analysis will remain a growing field, notes Provencher. Graduates are also prepared for jobs forecasting the demand for energy, and there will always be a need for that, he says.

“In terms of moving toward renewables, the horse is out of the barn,” says Provencher. “For some states, federal changes may make a difference, but for others, not much.”

Last year’s REDA graduates readily found jobs in the energy industry. Graduate Emily Morris MA’16 works at New York City utility company Con Ed.

“One of my responsibilities is benefit-cost analysis of the Brooklyn-Queens demand management program, which has been able to postpone a $1 billion substation construction project for 10 years,” Morris says. “Con Ed has to invest in providing the energy in other ways, or encouraging enough customers to cut back on their usage. I look at whether the program is cost-effective.”

Did the CALS program help her land and perform the job? Says Morris: “I would not be here without REDA.”

Another graduate, Michael Francis MA’16, works for the U.S. Energy Information Administration. He, too, credits the REDA program with exceptionally good career preparation. His REDA experience included attending as many as 20 seminars led by experts in the field. “Today I was reading a report at DOE and realized that I had personally met some of the authors during REDA,” Francis says. “After the program, you will find connections in whatever city you end up working in, no matter what specific segment of the energy industry you are in.”

Provencher came up with the idea for REDA in part, he says, because in his previous work for a large energy consulting firm, he was surprised at the difficulty of finding qualified applicants for analyst positions.

The analytical tasks are complex, Provencher notes. Imagine that a utility with 50,000 residential customers starts a demand reduction program—perhaps it will give four high-efficiency LED light bulbs to any customer on request. To prove whether that significantly reduces energy demand in the next year, the utility must consider a wide range of fac- tors, including how many customers get the bulbs; changes in economic activity (people may use more electricity when they feel prosperous); and feedback to the customer (does the utility measure consumption and congratulate them for acting “green”?). And those are just a few questions.

Crunching those numbers and reaching sup- portable conclusions is no easy matter, Provencher says—but it’s exactly what the REDA program is designed to do. In one year, graduates get grounding in econometrics—think of it as the meshing of economics with statistics—and the energy industry. They meet analysts, consultants, executives and economists in the field, and complete a “capstone” project with a local or distant utility or firm, where they must base conclusions on real customer data.

A major part of the class is learning rigorous statistical analysis, using an open-source program called R. “R is a statistical program language that I had never heard of before, but now I use it daily,” says Morris, over at Con Ed. “It’s been a huge tool for me.”

REDA is a “terminal” master’s degree, which is meant to prepare students for their careers rather than serve as a stepping-stone for a Ph.D. That limitation doesn’t seem to bother grads.

“I was looking to go down the public policy route, but I was not convinced of the value of spending two years on the degree,” says Justin Margolies MA’16, now an analyst at Wisconsin Energy Conservation Corp. in Madison. “I realized that REDA would be a better, more focused route.”

The one-year master’s program is particularly attractive to people with “green” values, says program coordinator Bethany Glinsmann MS’11: “Some states and utilities are starting to pay attention to climate change and reducing their carbon footprint, but they need to make hard choices: ‘Given our limited set of resources, we want to be sure we are spending money in the most efficient manner.’ And that’s where program evaluation comes in. Did it work? Or could they find a way to spend those dollars in a more effective way?”

By applying statistical analysis of human behavior to energy—a field previously dominated by engineers and technology—REDA offers a more realistic and insightful way to assess the success or failure of demand reduction programs, says Margolies.

“The energy industry was historically built by engineers, and they used engineering algorithms to estimate the available savings from technology—say, installing an LED or a new air-conditioning unit— but were a little weak on verifying the savings,” says Margolies. “They did not take into account the behavioral element. People may not use the technology, or it may not be installed correctly. Those are the questions we are now equipped to answer.”

Class Act: Energizing the Classroom

When biochemistry senior Hong-En Chen first got involved with a student organization called Energy Hub, she knew she could bring something special to the table.

As the daughter of a preschool teacher, she’d interacted a lot with young children throughout her own childhood and adolescence. While in high school she worked as a teacher and tutor in music, math and reading in both English and Mandarin at the Einstein School in Madison, a private preschool and after-school enrichment center for elementary school students.

Based on her experience, she saw an important niche for Energy Hub: The group could go out to local elementary schools and hold after-school classes about energy.

“When kids are young, they’re like sponges. They absorb a lot of information and are enthusiastic learners,” notes Chen. “When we introduced concepts about energy use, conservation and sustainability, the kids impressed us not only by handling complex material, but also by applying ideas to their everyday lives.”

As outreach director of Energy Hub, Chen got other club members on board to pilot their project, working with second- to fifth-grade students at four Madison elementary schools. Based on that experience, they applied for and received a Wisconsin Idea Fellowship grant to further develop their curriculum during the 2012–2013 school year. They created a 10-week program that is going strong this year.

Hands-on activities are key, says Chen, whether using an educational science toy like Snap Circuits to teach the concepts behind powering lights and fans, or having students divide into the fantasy cities of Greenville and Coaltown to talk about how they, as residents, would use energy from various sources to get through a day. “It was a fun way to get them thinking about the costs and benefits of renewable versus nonrenewable energy sources,” Chen says.

Chen’s thinking a lot about that topic herself. She is researching compounds for solar energy conversion in chemistry professor Song Jin’s lab. And she is considering graduate programs in materials chemistry with an eye toward working in renewable energy research.

Learn more about Energy Hub at www.uwehub.org.

Sustainable by Design

THE CHILDREN’S SONG URGES HER TO FLY AWAY HOME, but the ladybug—or ladybeetle, as she’s properly called—is anything but a homebody. After feasting all summer on soybean aphids and other crop pests, the beetles take off from farm fields in search of snug overwintering spots, often winding up in people’s houses. Around Madison, this usually means a journey of five miles or more, says CALS entomology professor Claudio Gratton. But the insects can also fly much farther. In the Southwest, for example, they congregate on mountaintops. “You’ll come upon a bush just dripping with ladybeetles, and you know they probably had to travel 30 miles to get there,” says Tim Meehan, a research scientist working with Gratton who earned his doctorate in
New Mexico.

Those wandering ways got Gratton and Meehan wondering a few years back if the beetles’ lives were touched not just by the soybean fields where they fed, but by the wider world as well. They soon discovered that, indeed, “What the landscape looks like actually makes a big difference,” says Gratton. In experiments across the Midwest, ladybeetles devoured more aphids in fields nestled within a patchwork of woods and grassy pastures than in those surrounded by soybeans and corn as far as a bug’s eye could see.

Although the two still aren’t sure why this is, it led them to ponder another possibility that has big implications for the sustainability of our farmlands. If the chance variation that exists in some farming areas already gives ladybeetles a boost, what if farmlands were purposely designed for diversity? Would the insects dispatch even more aphids? Might they even become tiny tools of sustainability, allowing farmers to spray fewer chemicals?

It takes a lot of imagination to picture such a landscape today, with two-thirds of the Midwest’s cropland blanketed in corn and soybeans. But there is a force that could re-stitch the Corn Belt into a crazy quilt—the push toward ethanol and other types of bioenergy. True, the ethanol blended into gasoline today still comes exclusively from corn kernels. And few “dedicated” bioenergy crops, such as grasses, have been sown so far for making cellulosic ethanol from stalks and stems, or burning in power plants instead of coal.

But bioenergy crops will almost certainly grow widely one day. The goal of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) is to replace 30 percent of gasoline and other U.S. transportation fuels with biofuels by 2030. And that, CALS scientists say, offers a chance to reshape our farmlands in an unprecedented way, so they yield not only food and fuel, but also things like ladybeetles and the benefits they provide.

In scientific parlance those benefits are called “ecosystem services”—natural processes we rely on but don’t usually pay for, Meehan says. Pest control by ladybeetles is one service; pollination by native bees, water cleansing, soil formation and even aesthetic beauty are others. Today’s simplified agricultural landscapes excel at producing corn, cotton and other vital commodities in massive amounts, but these may come at the price of water quality, erosion, loss of bird and insect habitat and increased pesticide use, as another study by Meehan and Gratton recently found. The question now is whether switchgrass, willow and other biofuel crops could cut those costs by sowing some plant diversity back into the system.

“The focus now is land use, not just food or fuel or a new crop. How do we use land sustainably?” says Chris Kucharik, a CALS professor of agronomy and environmental studies. “It just so happens that fuel has ignited the debate over sustainable land use right now.”

At the same time, strong forces are working to maintain the status quo. Skyrocketing commodity prices and rising demand for ethanol have led many farmers to put as much land in corn as possible. This year, 92.3 million acres were planted, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, four million above last year’s total and the second highest amount since World War II.