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Berkeley Economic Review: Interview with Professor Meredith Lynn Fowlie

Vanessa Thompson, Editor at Berkeley Economic Review, sat down with Professor Meredith Lynn Fowlie to discuss market-based environmental regulations and their impact on society and businesses.

Dr. Meredith Lynn Fowlie is an environmental and energy economist, and Professor at the University of California, Berkeley. Her work investigates market-based environmental regulation, such as emissions trading programs, and the demand-side of energy markets. Dr. Fowlie was very generous to share her work and findings with BER Staff Writer, Vanessa Thompson, in the following interview:

Vanessa: How did you first get into economics? Why did you choose energy economics in particular?

Fowlie: Long story short, I was interested in finding solutions to environmental problems. I initially thought that these crises could be solved by studying the science behind these problems. I did my undergraduate at Cornell in Ecology and Sustainable Agriculture. I soon realized that the science was relatively far along, and that the crux of these problems often had more to do with the economic incentives that guide the choices we make. So, I got my Master’s in Environmental Economics.

When I was working with a Canadian Aid project in Pakistan and Afghanistan, I intended to work on a project involving sustainable agriculture, microcredit and women’s groups. But in the end, I ended up working with a team of engineers who were working on local micro-hydro developments. It was super interesting. It had elements of engineering/science, economics, and touched on gender issues. We had to ask questions like: If we bring electricity to these villages, who will benefit and how? It had so many threads.

They got me involved and put me on whatever aspects of the project they needed help. And it turned out to be really fascinating in terms of thinking about how to value rural electrification, who benefits from these developments, and how to set up the cost recovery mechanisms so that these projects can sustain themselves.

Vanessa: As someone interested in economics and policy regarding energy, what are some places we can look for discovering our own specialty in this field?

Fowlie: If you are interested in policy, there are a number of agencies in California that can offer exciting and stimulating career opportunities: CARB, PUC, CEC.

In my past research projects I have worked closely with electric utilities (investor owned and municipal utilities). More recently I am starting to get involved with our Community Choice Aggregator (East Bay Clean Energy). These entities need to stay a few steps ahead of the policies that impact their investments and operations. So these can be really interesting places to work if you are interested in energy and environmental policy. The electricity sector has been—and will continue to be—a focus area for climate change mitigation.

We also have Environmental Economic & Policy alumni at influential think tanks and advocacy groups such as NRDC, the Natural Resource Defense Council, and E3, which is a consult-ing firm that does a lot of the analysis for the PC. There are several places you can look if you're interested in policy.

Vanessa: If we are interested in learning more about this type of data analysis, what resources would you recommend?

Fowlie: One resource I would recommend is the Dlab on campus. They have Python boot camps. They run a bunch of boot camps, which probably won't get you to the level needed, but at least it signals that you have got some basic familiarity.

Vanessa: As we explore professions and interests, what is your experience or recommendations when looking at energy markets abroad? Regarding electricity systems outside the US, what programs are you aware of that help developing countries?

Fowlie: In developing and emerging economies, the emphasis and priorities can look different as compared to here in the U.S. I am working with some collaborators at IIT Bombay on a project that aims to accelerate the adoption of more efficient appliances. In this context, rural electrification and expanding access to reliable and affordable energy sources is an essential priority. So when we are thinking about what kind of in-vestments make the most sense, we need to think about both energy savings potential, but also economic development objectives.

Vanessa: Within the US, I'm also curious about how difficult it is to push for renewables like solar in colder climates with less sun access as well as political environments that are not as supportive of renewables. What do you see as the best ways to reduce our carbon emissions in places like Minnesota or the Midwest who tend to have less sun and also less of a political push for green infrastructure than California?

Fowlie: There are these fantastic resource maps that the National Renewable Energy Laboratory showcases. They've assessed the wind and solar potential across the country. And you might be surprised at the solar energy generation potential even in colder climates.

Recent work by researchers at LBNL have been assessing both the resource potential and the costs of increased RE penetration. Here in California, they have found that fairly aggressive targets (e.g 80%) are within reach and would not significantly increase generation costs. But as you push beyond that, costs start to really escalate given the intermittent nature of solar and wind.

Vanessa: Do you think it’s possible to improve public transportation?

Fowlie: It's a really important question. Vehicle's miles traveled (VMT) in the United States have been increasing. Some of this is related to housing affordability issues here in California. We're seeing more driving. As people are pushed out of the city due to urban housing prices, they're having to buy a car when they didn't have to before. I see an important role of investments in public transit in terms of supporting our decarbonization goals. I do fear that the current pandemic is a set-back for public transit. We had a hard time convincing people to get out of their cars and onto the BART before COVID-19. I fear that argument is going to get even harder to make. At least in the near term.

Vanessa: Thank you so much for your time. As a prospective professional interested in working in the private sector, but also interested in policy, do you have any recommendations?

Fowlie: In California, there are a lot of private companies or industrial companies that need policy experts. Many host policy work-shops to find these professionals so they can understand the policy environment and anticipate the changes. There are lots of opportunities for policy work. I recommend looking at our alumni networks and utilizing our resources.

Vanessa: Thank you so much for your time and insights.


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