Motivated to decarbonize energy systems: Jenkins speaks out on energy transitions

For newly appointed Princeton faculty member Jesse Jenkins, producing relevant, high-impact research about how to transform our energy systems requires an unexpected tool: Twitter.

With nearly 24,000 followers on the platform, Jenkins engages with leading thinkers and practitioners in the field on a daily basis. “Some of my best research questions have come out of conversations with policymakers, utility strategists and venture capitalists,” said Jenkins, an assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering and the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment.

Jenkins joins the Andlinger Center after his time as a Postdoctoral Environment Fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School and the Harvard Center for the Environment. He earned his undergraduate degree at the University of Oregon and S.M. and Ph.D. degrees at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. In addition to his high profile on social media, Jenkins has published and been featured in The New York Times, Axios, E&E News and the Atlantic, among other outlets.

In this Q&A, Jenkins speaks to why engagement is critical, why students should feel empowered to voice their expertise, and how he stays motivated to decarbonize the world’s energy systems.

Your work focuses primarily on energy systems engineering. Can you explain what that means and why it’s important?

I think about how different energy technologies fit together and interact with one another on a regional or national scale, with a particular focus on the electricity sector and the role of electricity in decarbonizing the overall economy. Most strategies for addressing climate change and limiting global warming rely on transitioning to 100% carbon-free electricity sources, and then expanding the role electricity plays in society, such as in the industrial sector and transportation. I develop models that can help us explore how the transformation of the electricity sector might occur. I try to find the lowest-cost way to build out the electricity system, given different assumptions about the cost and performance of technologies, while taking into account the engineering constraints that we need to meet to keep the grid reliable. I also use the models to evaluate other challenges to energy system transitions (besides cost), such as land use, infrastructure build-out and other impacts.

A lot of researchers look at energy challenges in terms of fundamental chemistry or from a materials science perspective, and say, “These innovations could improve the efficiency or the cost or manufacturability of a technology.” In my work, I use energy systems models to provide insight on which of these possible avenues for improvements in cost or performance of, for example, an energy storage device or a carbon capture system, are most important to make that technology competitive at the energy systems level. I work to connect a regional-scale energy systems perspective to fundamental engineering challenges, and to design decisions that incorporate these low-carbon energy technologies.

Decarbonization has come into the national dialogue with new vigor, particularly in the last year. How did you get involved in electricity, and what have you learned when it comes to decarbonization and policy?

I spent about six years on public policy challenges, advocating for policies that would support the deployment of renewable energy at the state utility commission and legislature in Oregon (with Renewable Northwest), and later for clean energy innovation and climate policy at the federal level (at the Breakthrough Institute). I got a firsthand view of how policy is made and how important a role it plays in shaping the electricity sector by changing incentives for investments and operations.

During this work, I also came to realize that policymakers have questions about technological options, some of which are hard to answer based on the best available research. That motivated me to go to graduate school to develop a set of research tools that I can use to answer fundamental questions about energy transitions.

You are pretty vocal about your work on energy transitions and pathways to decarbonization, both on your personal Twitter account and in the mainstream media. How do you see communications playing into your work?

I became an academic to learn, create and apply energy modeling tools to answer questions from decision-makers. To ensure my research is plugged in to the kinds of questions that are on people’s minds and ensure my work can improve decision-making, I need to be engaged with real-world challenges. My best research questions have come out of conversations with policymakers, utility strategists, venture capitalists and nonprofit organizations working on public policy, the answers to which could dramatically impact the changing energy landscape.

I think Twitter, in particular, is a necessary toolkit if you’re doing research that’s closely connected with public policy or with a national dialogue and movement that’s actively covered in the mainstream media. If you share something you learn, it can have a greater impact and you can get much more rapid feedback on what you’ve learned. It makes your research better because you are able to hone in on questions that really matter to people.

On the topic of decarbonization, where do you see progress and where do you see significant challenges?

There’s actually been a good amount of bipartisan backing for policies that support nascent low-carbon energy technologies. In the last couple of years, even in this divided Congress, there’s been bipartisan legislation passed to support a new tax credit for carbon capture and storage or use, and a production tax credit extension for new nuclear deployments. Creating the policy incentives that provide emerging technologies an opportunity to survive in the market is encouraging, because similar incentives helped make solar and wind commercially viable in their early years of deployment and helped drive down their costs dramatically over the last 20 years.

A major challenge is the scale of energy system transformations that we need to tackle. That’s something that the Rapid Switch project and through this Rapid Switch lens, the Infrastructure Project, two Princeton-led projects aimed at identifying the fastest pathways to decarbonization, tackle head on. These transformations are not just disruptive in terms of total cost, but in terms of big changes in the way we make and use energy across the economy. There will be winners and losers in any kind of transition like that, and that raises the political stakes. I think it’s really important for researchers studying energy transitions to think not only about what the technology looks like, and how we make it cheaper, but also how we can address some of the non-cost-related barriers to energy transitions. This may be how we get the social license to site and build large amounts of new energy infrastructure, or how we align new jobs and benefits with places that experience job loss as we transition. Those kinds of challenges are really where rubber meets the road, and where we might get held up in terms of the pace of the energy transition.

In the United States, we talk about providing power to hundreds of millions of people. Globally, 1 billion people lack access to electricity. How do you think about these systems and stay grounded and positive? What is your personal approach to working on such a challenging, intense and complex problem?

I focus my research on developed countries and power systems. In some ways, that’s the easier challenge. Finding affordable ways to fuel development in emerging economies without contributing to climate change – that’s a necessary condition if we want to address the climate challenge. But, if we can’t figure out how to transition and decarbonize rich, developed countries, we’re not going to be able to do it in emerging economies. Hopefully, in doing so, we’ll develop, demonstrate and bring the cost down of the kinds of tools that are needed for the whole world to decarbonize.

It doesn’t seem likely that we’re going to reduce global emissions on the pace that we would want to see if we wanted to really prevent dangerous global warming impacts. We’re already seeing dangerous impacts today. It’s very likely to get much worse, even if we make good progress, and that is daunting. On the other hand, all you can do is to get up every day, and do everything you can to move things along. Grab the biggest lever you can, and pull on it. Given the complexity of these challenges and the need for new solutions, researchers can play a big role, especially if we work hard to translate that research in ways that the public and decision-makers can consume. We’re working on questions that will help advance an industry that’s going through major changes today, and one where the stakes of that transition are enormous.

Is there anything else you want to share?

I know that, as students, we’re often taught “you’re not the expert, you’re just learning.” But, if you’ve done your senior thesis, or a Ph.D. thesis, or even spent a semester working on a term project, you probably know more about that topic at the end of the process than 99.8% of the world. You should feel empowered to communicate it more broadly to the public as an expert. Most people don’t have more than 10 minutes to think about some of these complex topics. Sharing what you know with the world can be a tremendous public service. Don’t be afraid to do it! You can start a blog, do a tweet storm to summarize your findings, summarize a paper you read, or record a video for a YouTube channel. I started my first blog when I was a junior in college and was just starting to learn about energy systems for the first time. I realized that there were other people interested in the same questions, and that one of the best ways that I could crystallize my learning was to write about it. At first maybe I had three readers. It grew from there.

For more on Jenkins’ work, follow @JesseJenkins, @AndlingerCenter or @EPrinceton on Twitter.

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