News Story

June 9, 2014

Harvard Faculty Profiles

Assistant Professor, Harvard Kennedy School

When it comes to the world of alternative energies, Laura Diaz Anadon brings an unusually broad set of skills to the table. A chemical engineer by training, Anadon is also an assistant professor of public policy at the Harvard Kennedy School (HKS), a position that gives her unique insight into not only the science behind alternative energies but the policies that go into developing and deploying them. “I was at Cambridge University studying multi-phase flow reactors and magnetic resonance imaging,” Anadon said. “I realized I was very interested in science, energy and environmental policy and wanted to conduct research in that area.” That interest led Anadon to the Kennedy School, where in late 2007 she began conducting research on energy policy through the HKS Science, Technology and Public Policy program, while simultaneously working towards a master’s degree in public policy. After receiving her degree, Anadon was appointed director of the HKS Energy, Technology Innovation Policy research group, and lectured at the Kennedy School before being hired earlier this year as an assistant professor. While she admits that recent years have seen “a great deal of progress” in the development of alternative energy technologies, Anadon said additional government support will play a crucial role in moving new technologies out of the laboratory and into the market. “The question is how much we should invest and how to allocate those investments,” she said. “Right now, the United States invests about $5 billion annually on energy research and development, and even very conservative estimates of the potential benefits suggest it should be investing much more, on the order of $15 billion.” Though private investment will play a role in energy innovation, government investment has played a key role in developing technologies that are virtually indispensible in the modern world, Anadon said, and the same will likely be true for renewable energy. “What we know is that many of the energy technologies we have today, and other non-energy technologies, like GPS, stealth technology and the Internet, have benefitted enormously from government research funding,” she said. “Solar photovoltaics began in the 1950s in Bell Labs and were further developed in the context of the U.S. space program before government funding for R&D and deployment from the U.S. and other governments enabled its application in terrestrial settings, leading to dramatic reductions in cost. The U.S. and other nations also had a major role in the development of wind and nuclear power, among other technologies.” Increasing funding for research, however, is only half of the equation. Given the uncertainty around the potential returns for any single technology, Anadon said the question government must answer is how to allocate their investments across various technologies. Current approaches for investment, unfortunately, take a piecemeal approach to making those decisions. “One question I have found interesting is how governments can make those decisions using a more robust approach,” she said. “In the U.S. the current funding allocation, for example, doesn’t focus enough on storage. If you’re investing a lot in solar, but you don’t also invest in storage, you won’t get the same benefits, so you need an integrated method to make those decisions.” Anadon is also working on other technology innovation policy questions beyond R&D decision making, such as understanding the sources of technology breakthroughs, the evolving role of publicly-funded R&D institutions, what transnational actors can do to accelerate innovation for sustainable development, and how to manage linkages between water and energy systems.

Cherington Professor of Business Administration and Senior Associate Dean, Harvard Business School

As a young schoolteacher on Long Island, Richard Vietor recalls taking part in the first Earth Day by riding his bike to work wearing a gas mask. These days, Vietor, the Cherington professor of business administration and senior associate dean of the Harvard Business School, is still committed to environmental causes as a leading expert on the business of renewable energies—particularly wind power. Vietor’s academic interest in the nexus of business, politics and the environment can be traced back decades, to his work as a doctoral student at the University of Pittsburgh. Working under environmental historian Samuel P. Hays, Vietor wrote his dissertation on environmental politics and coal, and later wrote a book that examined stationary source air pollution and coal strip mining. “After I completed my doctoral dissertation on coal, I realized that coal-related air pollution and water pollution were big deals and kill people,” he said. “But it wasn’t until later, when I became aware of climate change, that I understood how great the problem is.” The path that brought Vietor to Harvard began when he received a year-long fellowship. Though he intended to use the time solely for research, Vietor soon found himself drafted into classroom duty, as one of nine professors teaching a course called “Business, Government and International Economy,” more popularly known as “BGIE.” When the Working Group on Environment was created in the early 1990s, Vietor—by then the author of several books on environmental politics and countless HBS cases that addressed environmental issues—was invited to join. When asked about the future of the renewable energy industry, Vietor said he expects the next several years will bring a tipping point as technology continues to drive costs down. “It is happening, but it requires oil prices to stay high,” Vietor said. “The cost of solar has come down drastically—about three years ago, solar cost about 18 cents per kilowatt hour, and it’s now down near 14 cents. That still doesn’t compete in the U.S., but prices are continuing to drop.” With renewable technologies becoming increasingly viable, Vietor said a number of nations have begun to turn to them as a way to supplement their power needs. “Iceland, for example, not only has enough geothermal energy to power themselves, but they can actually generate electricity to build an undersea cable all the way to Europe,” he said. “They’re considering doing that…because if they can deliver electricity in England or Ireland for ten cents per kilowatt hour, that would be comparable to their cost.” Other nations, like Ireland and Denmark, have turned to wind power, and today generate 20 percent or more of their energy using wind turbines. “That has freed them up from having to import so much natural gas,” Vietor said. “It’s also an alternative to nuclear power for countries that choose not to have it. However, it’s variable, so they can’t do it all with wind—you need to have base load from other energy sources.”

By Peter Reuell

These profiles originally appeared in the Environment@Harvard newsletter, Volume 6 Issue 1.

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