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Operation PhD: Engineering and Public Policy

May 15, 2011

In August, I will be moving back to the East Coast to do a PhD in Engineering and Public Policy. I’m very excited about it – my research will be related to consumer decision-making regarding electricity usage with smart meters.

Below is my statement of purpose:

During the spring of my third year in engineering school, I spent a semester studying oceanography and nautical science aboard a tall ship.  Living and working on the ship gave me a deep appreciation for the ocean. When face-to-face with such vastness, it is easy to understand how generations of people thought it would be impossible to impact the ocean in any way. Even Rachel Carson, famous for her classic Silent Spring which exposed the environmental impacts of pesticides, once wrote “He cannot control or change the ocean as, in his brief tenancy of earth, he has subdued and plundered the continents.” We now know that is far from the case. Climate change has already had an enormous negative impact on the oceans, from rising sea levels, to ocean acidification, to reduced Arctic habitat. Already, it is too late for places like Kiritimati, a small atoll I visited that rises a mere 5m above sea level and will likely no longer exist in 10 years due to projected sea level rise.

When I returned home from this life-changing experience, I met the industrialization of our country first-hand. I went to work at a base-load coal power plant built in the 1950’s on the Patapsco River in Maryland, where I was issued a hard hat and given a tour of the facility. One of the turbines had recently overheated and was in the process of being completely rebuilt. I looked inside the boiler and saw flames shooting out, performing the same combustion reaction I was more accustomed to seeing in a chemical equation. That summer, I was as equally impressed by the majesty of power production as I was disgusted by the environmental after-effects. I realized that I wanted to be part of changing the power industry to be an ally of the environment, rather than an enemy. The Engineering and Public Policy program at [grad school] is my next step towards that ambition. Ultimately, I intend to pursue a PhD for a career in academia and consulting.

As an environmentalist, I approached my work in the power industry with a critical eye. I took advantage of the opportunity to speak to numerous people in the fossil fuel industry to get their perspective on renewable energy. Besides being worried about their own job security, I learned that many people were concerned about a gap in generating capacity as older coal power plants were forced to shut down due to environmental regulations before new renewable and nuclear plants were built. This sparked my interest in energy efficiency measures that would reduce the overall need for electricity. By reducing demand for electricity, we could minimize the number of new power plants that need to be built to meet peak capacity requirements.

While technology has an obvious role in achieving high levels of energy efficiency, education and public policy measures are equally important. In order for energy efficiency technology to be implemented in a systemic way that maximizes its effectiveness, we need creative regulations that make it economically feasible. Energy-efficient appliances and light bulbs are not enough, we need a paradigm shift where consumers view electricity as a resource rather than a right. Even small changes could make a big difference as the power industry evolves.

I am particularly interested in studying the mental frameworks of consumers regarding energy usage in order to guide energy efficiency initiatives such as smart grid development. In my undergraduate education, I learned the value of social science methods through qualitative research in engineering education. In close collaboration with [someone], I have published three papers as first author since I joined this research in 2007. Where quantitative data can describe a classroom, qualitative data is primarily useful in telling the story of the data. Similarly, public policy decisions cannot be successful without qualitative data to understand how consumers make choices regarding energy consumption and what factors may be used to influence their behavior.

At [grad school], I look forward to bridging my experiences in social science, natural science and engineering to develop a career in public service. In terms of my career, I see a PhD from the Engineering and Public Policy program as a lift-off point for my ambition to improve energy efficiency on a national level.

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