Today’s guest is Paulina Jaramillo, Professor, Engineering and Public Policy, & Co-Director, Green Design Institute at Carnegie Mellon University. Much of Dr. Jaramillo's recent work has been focused on energy systems in places like Africa, and this conversation not only sheds light on the process of academic research and how it ties into real-world solutions, but also the dual problems of climate change and energy poverty and the tensions between the two. Enjoy the show!
Today’s guest is Paulina Jaramillo, Professor, Engineering and Public Policy, & Co-Director, Green Design Institute at Carnegie Mellon University.
Dr. Paulina Jaramillo has a bachelor’s in civil and environmental engineering from Florida International University (2003), as well as a master's and PhD in civil and environmental engineering with an emphasis in green design from Carnegie Mellon University (2004 and 2007, respectively). Her past research has focused on life cycle assessment of energy systems with an emphasis on climate change impacts and mitigation research. As a professor at Carnegie Mellon University, she is involved in key multi-disciplinary research projects to better understand the social, economic and environmental implications of energy consumption and the public policy tools that can be used to support sustainable energy development and consumption. She is now the Co-Director of the Green Design Institute and has started pursuing research about infrastructure systems for global development.
In today’s episode, we cover:
Links to topics discussed in this episode:
Dr. Jaramillo bio: https://www.cmu.edu/epp/people/faculty/paulina-jaramillo.html
CMU Africa: https://www.africa.engineering.cmu.edu/
National Science Foundation: https://www.nsf.gov
Diesel generator: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diesel_generator
Federal Energy Regulatory Commission: https://www.ferc.gov/
Subsistence farming: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Subsistence_agriculture
1.5C IPCC report: https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/
You can find me on twitter @jjacobs22 or @mcjpod and email at email@example.com, where I encourage you to share your feedback on episodes and suggestions for future topics or guests.
Enjoy the show!
Jason Jacobs: Hello, everyone. This is Jason Jacobs, and welcome to My Climate Journey. This show follows my journey to interview a wide range of guests to better understand and make sense of the formidable problem of climate change, and try to figure out how people like you and I can help. Today's guest is Paulina Jaramillo, professor of engineering and public policy and co-director of the Green Design Institute in the College of Engineering at Carnegie Mellon. We have a really interesting discussion in this episode, because unlike some other guests, Dr. Jaramillo's research focuses on energy needs and modeling in some part of the developing world, specifically in places like Africa. We talk a lot about the roots of how Dr. Jaramillo got into this work, the types of projects that her and her students take on, the criteria they use to determine which are the right projects to pursue, how they measure success, and also how their work and work in academic research in general, ties into the broader climate fight. I think this is a great one, and I hope you enjoy.
Jason Jacobs: Dr. Jaramillo, welcome to the show.
Paulina Jaramillo: Thank you for having me.
Jason Jacobs: Thank you so much for coming. I'm excited for this one. You bring a very different perspective than we've represented previously onto the show, and I think it's a really important one. And that's the implications of climate change in developing countries and other parts of the world outside of the US and outside of the West.
Paulina Jaramillo: Exactly. Yeah. So my work. I have a long history of working on energy and climate change issues. Mostly I focused for the first years of my research career I focused on North America. And then for the last couple years, I've been looking more at the Global South and particularly Sub-Saharan Africa.
Jason Jacobs: How did you make that transition? Why did you make that transition? It'd be great to get some color on how all this came about.
Paulina Jaramillo: There's a little bit of serendipity there, but I'll provide more details. I'm originally from Colombia. So I've always been interested in the Global South developing country issues. I just had an opportunity to really work in that area and we're in an academic setting. There's funding constraints and publishing papers. So all my funding had come for work focused in the US.
Jason Jacobs: Because that's what people were interested in funding basically.
Paulina Jaramillo: Right and because that's what I did my PhD on, and that's just, I mean, there were a lot of important issues here. And I've lived in the US for more than half my life already. So that just made sense and there were a lot of interesting research problems and I continue to pursue research on US-focused energy climate problems. But then about five years, six years ago, I had an application for a PhD student that really just wanted to focus on energy and Africa. And so he was an excellent PhD applicant American, but had spent a lot of time in Sub-Saharan Africa with the peace force and then doing a master's in South Africa and working in South Africa. And he was a really good student and just fortune, serendipity, luck, something. I had funding.
Paulina Jaramillo: I had a discretionary funding that I could use to fund this student, and so to work on Africa. And so he came, he started working on this. It turns out that around that time, we were also ramping up. So CMU has a campus in Rwanda, where we offer two master degree programs. One in electrical computer engineering and one in information technologies. And so when the student came in, and we started looking at these, that's also around the same time that the CMU Africa program was ramping up and growing. So that also gave us an opportunity to have a footing in the continent where I was going. And then through his work and thinking about these issues, I kind of realized that what happens in Africa, as they develop their energy system will be critical to global mitigation and stabilization efforts.
Paulina Jaramillo: So climate change, it's a complex problem, right? It's a global problem, and it needs global engagement. One single country will not solve the climate crisis. So we could eliminate all of our emissions of carbon dioxide and greenhouse gases. But if the rest of the world just continue as they are or increase their emissions, it doesn't happen. It doesn't matter what we do.
Paulina Jaramillo: Similarly, I realized that we can, the US in North America and Europe can do everything right and if we don't pay attention to what happens in Africa, then we're going to be in trouble also. And so less attention has been paid to Africa, because it's their historical contribution to greenhouse gas emissions has been low. Their annual greenhouse gas emissions are currently relatively low. And so all of the concern has been on the large emitting countries. So North America, Europe, China and India, there's a lot of work going on, on China and India because their massive population and their emissions have grown so rapidly over the last 30 years, that there's a lot of attention on that. Much less on Africa. But Africa will have 2.5 billion people by 2050. They will all need energy and they are seriously energy-constrained right now.
Paulina Jaramillo: I spent a year in Rwanda, which is a country of 12 million people. And their installed capacity for power generation is 250 megawatts, which is the size of a small natural gas power plant in the US for 12 million people. So to meet the demands for 2.5 billion people, they're going to need to expand their energy system very rapidly. It's a large effort. And if they go on a carbon intensive energy development pathway, it doesn't matter what we do in the US, their emissions are going to surpass, what we emit on a year. So that was very eye-opening to me, that realization and the realization that we're just not paying attention. I think the energy and climate research community isn't really focused that much on Africa. And so I felt there are all these opportunities then for me to engage in this research. I got a really good student, I had some discretionary funding, CMU has a program in Africa where we're training African students. There's a need. So I decided to kind of transition most of my research into issues related to Africa and other developing countries. I'm doing also a little bit of work in South America, but primarily Africa.
Jason Jacobs: And when you say you, what percentage of the overall work that you're overseeing is actually you doing the research versus PhD students or fellows or others that are kind of working with your guidance and tutelage?
Paulina Jaramillo: The actual research is done by PhD students. I currently have 11 PhD students in my research group that I supervise or close supervise with other faculty. About at least half of them are working on developing country issues. And so we come up initially, a lot of the ideas come from me as they transition, as the graduate students move through their career, and by the time they're third year or fourth year PhD students, they're the ones that are driving most of the research questions they're looking into. And my job is kind of guide the research. We meet weekly or biweekly, and we make plans to what they're working on and we review what they've done. And I often can say, this is great, it looks great, everything seems to be working in your models, all of these make sense, so let's think about what the implications of your results are, or I can say something is not looking right.
Paulina Jaramillo: You need to figure out what's going on behind, your modeling, so we can make sense of these results. And then a lot of my work is finding funding for all these PhD students. So applying, writing research proposals to submit to the National Science Foundation or foundations or whatever opportunities I can find for applying for funding.
Jason Jacobs: And that's funding essentially to cover their living while they're in the program?
Paulina Jaramillo: So the way at Carnegie Mellon, this might be slightly different than some other universities, but I am responsible for funding. PhD students have to pay tuition to Carnegie Mellon University. No PhD... I would never let a PhD student of mine to pay tuition out of their own pocket. So my responsibility when I commit to take on a student is that I will fund their tuition. So cover the tuition that has to go to Carnegie Mellon and covered as an annual stipend for living.
Jason Jacobs: And does any of that funding ever come from the private sector?
Paulina Jaramillo: Do you consider foundations, private sector?
Jason Jacobs: I don't know. Yeah. I was thinking more industry but you tell me.
Paulina Jaramillo: So within Carnegie Mellon there, it's a research university. There's a lot of researchers. I think there are several research groups that have a lot of funding from industry. I have not personally had funding from industry. I'm a system modeler. I look at the big picture of a social problem. There's just not... I just have never been very successful at identifying companies willing to fund these work.
Jason Jacobs: Well, it's not. It doesn't sound like it's directly correlated with industry making more profits.
Paulina Jaramillo: Right.
Jason Jacobs: Yeah, which is actually not in any way a judgment on how important the work is. And in many cases, the most important work is work that has nothing to do with helping companies to make more profits. But the challenge is that the easiest work to fund is the work that's most correlated with padding the pockets of the organizations who are writing the checks. At least in the private sector.
Paulina Jaramillo: Yeah, I mean, and it depends on the field, yeah. But this system-level social problems research. I mean, sometimes there might be opportunities for private sector that, for corporate responsibility. I mean, I think there could be avenues, I just haven't identified them, I guess.
Jason Jacobs: There's three areas I'd love to dig into. And I've never tried to lay out three areas at once. So maybe this is getting too complicated, but one is just the criteria that you use when assessing what makes a good project for one of your PhDs. Another one is some example projects, and then a third is just how those dots connect from the work that you do to actually making a difference on the problem.
Paulina Jaramillo: So I wanted to add something about industry. We have been working with industry in Sub-Saharan Africa. These are small startup companies trying to develop solutions for the energy problem in Africa. So they're not in a position to fund research, but they've been very generous in sharing data with us and just providing guidance to some of our data analysis and my students have been able to visit some of the sites they've been working on. So that relationship with these companies has worked out so.
Jason Jacobs: Now why if the startups are the ones that are resource constrained and at most risk of not making it are they more generous with their time than the big organizations with so much more resource and stability?
Paulina Jaramillo: Because they are trying to build a business model in a very, so these are mostly mini-grid developers. So these are small utilities trying to provide electricity services to rural communities, which are very poor. And so they are trying to make a business model out of serving the poorest people, and they're collecting a lot of data about their customers, about their electricity consumption patterns. And they just don't have the in-house capabilities to analyze all of that data, which is what we can do. And so I think they have realized the value in working with us to help them learn more about their customers, their systems, things.
Paulina Jaramillo: Because they're on a day by day operating their business and trying to solve any problems with their sees if there's a technical problem with the systems, they have to fix it, customer service, all of these things. They're under resource constrain. I think the value we provide and that they have realized is that we can help them with all these data analysis and more of like, understanding better some of the context in which they work. These are also companies that and their operating in Sub-Saharan Africa in very serving poor conditions. So these are already companies that have a sense of social responsibility, right? Like by their nature, and so maybe that also contributes to their willingness to work with us.
Jason Jacobs: Great, and anything else you wanted to add there? Or should we talk about some of the example projects?
Paulina Jaramillo: Yeah, we can talk about the other thing. So your first thing was what makes a good problem to work?
Jason Jacobs: Yeah. If a student comes to you and says, "Here's what I'm thinking of working on." What criteria to use, do you have a mental checklist of how to assess if the project is a good fit for the program?
Paulina Jaramillo: So I don't have a very structured process for figuring that out. I'm in a department called engineering and public policy. So we're in the College of Engineering. We're very unique department, where I'm a civil engineer by training. Most of my colleagues are also engineers, although we do have some economists and some decision scientists working that are our faculty in the department, but most of our students come from technical backgrounds, and are interested in using that technical background to work on problems that are important to the public. And so most of us, we don't do even though our name, engineering and public policy, we do not design public policy, most of my work, the output can be useful to inform public policy. And so we are working on technical problems and my focus is energy and climate sustainability.
Paulina Jaramillo: So it has to be a problem based on climate and energy sustainability. Typically, when a student first arrives, it's very rare that they have a clear idea of this is the project we're going to do on this scene. Typically it's, I have an idea, we discuss it and they start working on it and we refine it as they move along. So their first project is typically informed by something else I've been doing and I find that there's a different, like an opportunity to find a new answer.
Paulina Jaramillo: It's typically just, I had a student that looked at something and then realized we don't know how these may work in these other context. So for example, I have a student currently, he's from Nigeria. He's currently working and looking at the economic disability, and the environmental benefits of deploying rooftop solar PV systems with batteries in urban settings in Nigeria, and I don't know, maybe you have a rooftop solar system. I have a rooftop solar system. This is pretty growingly common in the US. In Nigeria, where they have very constrained power system and people suffer a lot of outages. What people do is they go and buy backup diesel generators. And this is actually a problem, not just in Nigeria, in many Sub-Saharan countries and in many developing countries in Asia as well.
Paulina Jaramillo: And so I had had a student, at one point thought, we were looking at air quality. So this is the thought process that went there. I had colleagues working on air quality, we realized air quality is a massive problem in Sub-Saharan Africa. I know, I lived in Rwanda for a year. And I realized that whenever the power goes off, all of these diesel backup generators kick in. I know but that backup diesel generators are very polluting, both in terms of climate but also of pollutants that affect local air quality. And so I had a student that also spent some time in Rwanda with me, and we realized, no one has really quantify what are the emissions associated with these backup generators in Sub-Saharan Africa. And there is very little data. Turns out there's very little data about it.
Paulina Jaramillo: But he started doing some modeling work and simulation work. And we published a paper on, these are the emissions from these backup diesel generators are very large. All of the focus on renewables and electricity access has been on people that don't have a connection. So there's a lot of investments, we should also be looking at the people that have a connection, but then have to rely on these backup generators for half of the time of the year. And these are costly. So we published that paper, and then my student from Nigeria, who's familiar with the context thought, well, can we look at what options are there for replacing those backup diesel generators? And so we thought, well, why not solar PV rooftop in your house, with a battery or without a battery or a hybrid system where you also have some diesel, but mostly rely on the solar.
Paulina Jaramillo: So he's been looking at what are the economic viability for households in the settings to use these systems to reduce their diesel consumption? And then what are the emission benefits of that? So that was kind of it always happens like that and my PhD students... When I was a PhD student, I was always surprised at how easy my advisor came up with ideas. I thought, how do you come up with all of these ideas? I'm never going to get to that point. And I think my students feel a little bit like that.
Paulina Jaramillo: How are they when they're going through... If I decide to pursue an academic career, how am I going to come up with all of these research ideas? And my answer is, the more you work on it, there's always a new question. You'll do some work and a new question will come up. Either there's a problem that it's tangential to the work you're currently doing, and so you can't pursue it right now or follow up work to what you did. That you did all these analysis and at the end, you think, well, why don't we also look at these other things? And so the PhD student that was working on that project, he may be done, she may be done, they're moving on, they can't do the follow up. So then another student can come in and do the follow-up. But yeah, so I don't have a structure checklist of what to work on.
Paulina Jaramillo: Every time we come up with an idea with a student. The first thing we do is do a literature review to see if anyone else has looked at the problem, what has been done in the area, to see where we can make a contribution.
Jason Jacobs: When you're going in to these projects. Are there clear success metrics or things that you're striving for in terms of the result coming out the other side?
Paulina Jaramillo: So in academia, the easiest metric of success is they will publish a paper. All right. That's the easiest or did a student grant finish, successfully completed her PhD, right? It's also a metric of success. Those are the easy metrics of success that we can track. I think the... I mean, the reason I do these work is my hope is that I can actually influence what's going on outside of the university. And we have seen some. We have had, we don't collect these. We're not very good at collecting the data to support the evidence of our impact outside of the university but we have had cases. So we do have a lot of outreach to policymakers. And so a couple years ago, I managed a project to look at renewable integration of wind. So integration of wind and solar into the US grid, and at that time, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission put out a proposed rulemaking and all of those rulemakings are open for public comments.
Paulina Jaramillo: So we submitted public comments based on that research. And the commission actually, when they revised the rule, they took into consideration our comments. So we've also done congressional hearings. So I've been to Congress, when I would like for work related to the US. I've been to Congress and done staffer briefings, or briefings at the Department of Energy. In Africa, we are particularly in Rwanda, we are well connected with the utility and so we're trying to do analysis that is useful to the utility and we're sharing our results with them. We've been working with the mini grid developers, for example, and doing a lot of data analytics to understand how demand for electricity evolves in these newly electrified communities and how does that demand growth affect the viability of the systems operating and how do...
Paulina Jaramillo: So again, the mini grid developers have been very generous in sharing the data with us. And in return we've been provided all the models, all the information, we've come up with, we've shared it, and they have included some of the models we developed in their design process. The other way I can see an impact is because of my research background and my history. I'm now involved in writing the next assessment report, the IPCC Sixth Assessment Report for climate change. So that is another and I wouldn't be an author in these if I didn't have been doing all this research all these years.
Paulina Jaramillo: So that's exciting, because now I'm going to be involved in these. I'm in Working Group III. There's maybe roughly 150 co-authors for that report. For Working Group III, which is the mitigation report from all over the world. And so I'm working with researchers from all over the world to produce the report. The report that is basically going to update the state of the knowledge about climate mitigation, which ultimately does inform the climate negotiating agreement and all of that so.
Jason Jacobs: If you take a step back and look not so much at what's going on in your lab, but just academia in general, as it relates to climate change and climate change research, do you feel like academia, if you look in this point in time is fulfilling its full potential in terms of the impact it can have on helping with the climate crisis? And if not, where's the biggest opportunity for it to play a bigger role than it's playing today?
Paulina Jaramillo: Yeah, so I think, research and not just academic research, not just the universities, but also at national labs and everything we know about climate change has been a result of research. Most of it, at universities and national labs. So all that knowledge is there because there are very smart people smarter than me, the climate scientists smarter than me, that are working on these issues and identifying solutions. Now, the challenge is we do the research, we put the research out there, we can communicate it, we try to talk, we do outreach, we present our research to policymakers, decision makers, but ultimately, it is the decision makers and the political process. The one that takes that information and does something with it.
Paulina Jaramillo: There is I think, a discussion going on in the academic, in the scientific community about the role of scientists in advocacy, especially around climate change. And I think that's a complex discussion. I mean, because we are scientists, one of the objective. But this is also a crisis, and we're also private citizens. So like that balance. And you have seen some very renowned scientists that are now very engaged in the advocacy for climate change. And the other big challenge also, I think, for academia, so I think that knowledge, the creation of all the knowledge about climate, a lot of the fundamental research that enables companies to then commercialize energy technologies happens in universities, in research labs. So that is very... That knowledge is being created at universities.
Paulina Jaramillo: There's the question of what to do regarding for advocacy. I also think a big challenge for scientists, not just climate or energy scientists, just scientist in general is communication. And there's a lot of growing interest in science communication and how to improve science communication. How do we improve communication about uncertainty? Right? So there's actually, I'll send it to you, there's something called PhD Comics, which is these comics that are based on experiences of PhD student and there's one about the cycle. They had this cartoon about the cycle of communication of research, and how you find something and then the PR offices put something out there and then these press outlet put something out there that is slightly different, until it gets to the consumer and it's a totally different message to what you started, right?
Paulina Jaramillo: Scientists are cautious, right? We're very cautious about trying to... So with climate specifically, this has been very challenged. There's uncertainty about climate impacts, right? These are very complex models, there is uncertainty, but we know enough that we have been able to at least quantify the knowable uncertainty and then somehow over the last 20 years, what has come out at the other end of this communication cycle is that there's too much uncertainty, we really don't know what's going to happen. And that's not really true, which has personally, I think, has led to some of the inaction, right?
Paulina Jaramillo: There's too much uncertainty. There's nothing we can do about it, and that's not really true. There's uncertainty, but there's uncertainty in everything in life, and we still make decisions on our daily lives or on our private life. So I think there is still a big opportunity for improved science communication. And that involves scientists themselves learning and better engaging in the communication of the science.
Jason Jacobs: It seems at least at the federal level in this country, that there's an intentional breeding of distrust of science, maybe to protect large and well-funded incumbents that are active political donors or other reasons. But is that a US-specific phenomenon or do you see that happening in other parts of the world as well?
Paulina Jaramillo: I think their motivations are different. This is a complex problem, right? So in the US, well, there's all the political rhetoric around climate. But in other countries the challenge with policy making around climate maybe are slightly different, but are still political, right? So in a country in Sub-Saharan Africa, where people, like 70% of the population lives from subsistence farming, there's no water infrastructure, there's no energy, right? And you're a politician elected and have to make decisions with limited resources about what you're going to invest. Climate is probably at the bottom of your list.
Paulina Jaramillo: This is a long term problem. You're getting elected, you want to invest in projects that are, the results are tangible, within the next election cycle, right? So I don't know that the rhetoric around climate or energy in other places. I mean, there's evidence to suggest there's similar things happening in Europe as in the US, not as severe. But there are some very conservative parties in Europe that have become more outspoken about climate skepticism.
Paulina Jaramillo: Again, not as severe as in the US. But Australia, I think has also observed some of these trends. So I don't necessarily think it's unique in the US it's just to a different level right now.
Jason Jacobs: When you think about climate change, and then you think about what you were just addressing around energy poverty, for example, how do you think about the prioritization or the interrelation of those two things. Where on the one hand, we have this carbon budget, and if we don't get it under control and get to net zero emissions as quickly as possible, then the planet will be less and less inhabitable by human life. But on the other hand, it's already borderline uninhabitable for a large group of people here and now today. Where if they had access to energy, then with energy comes abundance and higher quality of life, at least as we've defined it historically.
Paulina Jaramillo: Yeah, so this is a very complex equity issue, right? How do I tell the poorest person in the world that they shouldn't use coal because it's a bad energy source for climate, but it's the cheapest for them, right? How do you do that? There is a big ethical question there. I think my sense is that this is... But on the other hand, as a global community, we have to do something about it. If we are going to do something, we have no choice but to figure out how to meet this dual objective of providing energy without destroying the climate, right? Providing energy for the poorest people in the world without destroying the climate. We have to do it.
Paulina Jaramillo: We may not do it, but to solve the crisis, we have to do it. And so I think that is where international commitments are going to come in, because some developing countries are very resource constrained and do not have the investment capacity to address some of these issues. And I think, so that's where the climate negotiations are going to have to come in and how are we going to finance climate mitigation in these rapidly growing countries that require a lot of energy?
Jason Jacobs: Primarily, it sounds like the role of you and your students is to help better understand where we are and the implications if different things happen, but not necessarily modeling out the impact that certain solution can have, is that right or are you focused on solutions as well?
Paulina Jaramillo: Well, no. I am looking at some... So for example, the 1.5° Celsius report that the IPCC put out last year, it's what do we need to do to come up with 1.5 to stabilize the climate 1.5. They developed, they used the integrated assessment models, and they come up with, we need to eliminate global carbon emissions by 2100, I mean or 2050. Something really radical that's, eliminate the current emissions. That doesn't even talk about avoiding future emissions. And so with one of my PhD students, well we're trying to build models of the energy system for East Africa and looking at well, what technologies do we need to have in place to meet the demand for energy at a net zero carbon emissions, and how much is that going to cost? Right?
Paulina Jaramillo: So these modeling effort will tell us something about the technologies that we need to have in place or that these countries have to be able to deploy to meet their energy needs at a net zero carbon, and then it gives us a sense of how much is this going to cost?
Jason Jacobs: Do you have thoughts as it relates to looking at the big picture of the climate crisis? What the highest impact things are that could be put in place? I mean, those could be policy things, those could be innovations that don't exist today, those could be mindset shifts from consumers or something totally different. But I mean, if you could change one thing to most dramatically accelerate our trajectory towards getting to where we need to go, what would it be and why?
Paulina Jaramillo: Well, because of where I stand, we just need to invest in low-carbon technologies. In not just developing them but deploying them and deploying them very rapidly.
Jason Jacobs: So investing, does that mean public sector investment, private sector investment, innovation, policy?
Paulina Jaramillo: Well, I think it means all of them. But we need to build these systems now. Right? It's investing to build these systems. My concern is that we don't actually know what these systems are.
Jason Jacobs: Or how to make the math work at scale, without doing things like pricing the externality in some way, which is another whole topic.
Paulina Jaramillo: Right. No, I mean, the people are working on other... There are other sources of emission beyond, besides energy, right? Agricultural and land use change. Those are also pretty critical. But from my point, we need to have these technologies in place. We need to have the technologies to a place where they can be deployed, and then actually building these systems. I do think we have a good sense of what technology of like low-hanging fruit.
Paulina Jaramillo: There are some sectors energy systems that going to be much harder to decarbonize. Electricity, I think, decarbonizing electricity is hard, but it's probably the easiest in the energy sector, right? How do we decarbonize long distance-
Jason Jacobs: Hold on.
Paulina Jaramillo: ... Freight or flight, right? Aviation and shipping. For airplanes you need, for transatlantic flights, you're going to need a high density, low-carbon fuel. So what is that? And I think we are not as further... Our knowledge about those technologies are not as advanced as they are for the power generation. And it's not like... For the power generation I think, it's going to be hard. I think it's going to be hard because we need to invest now very rapidly and building systems now. But I think we have a good sense of technologies that are available.
Jason Jacobs: If power's where the fruit is the ripest, if you will, what's holding us back? Where are the biggest headwinds in terms of getting that transition done in power?
Paulina Jaramillo: These are massive investments, right? It requires a transformation. In the Western world, it's a complete transformation of the existing energy system. And in developing world, it's building these new systems from scratch, and that requires massive investments, right? These are trillion-dollar investments.
Jason Jacobs: Do you have any thoughts in terms of how those investments should get funded?
Paulina Jaramillo: I do not have thoughts about how those things. I think, that is where the engineering... My engineering background doesn't help with that.
Jason Jacobs: Yeah, no, I understand and I'm still trying to piece together not only the problem, but also which segments of the people working on it, stop where in terms of their sweet spot, and then how much collaboration is needed, how much collaboration is occurring, where there might be opportunities to build bridges and get people in the same room, and that might not necessarily be in the same room. Otherwise, I don't have any answers to these things. But these are the kinds of things I'm trying to piece together by talking to people with very wide range of backgrounds thinking about these problems.
Paulina Jaramillo: Yeah, and I think a really interesting person that you could have in your show might be people that are looking at climate finance mechanism. So there like our business schools are producing really smart business people, right? MBAs, like I said a professor in engineering, I'm always complaining that we lose a lot of students that graduated from engineering degrees and then decide to go and get an MBA because there's just more money in the financial sector. But I assume, I imagine, I hope I guess, that there are some of these very smart finance people are also trying to figure out the climate finance issues. And if they're not, I hope maybe we need to think about how do we attract those really smart people to work on those problems.
Jason Jacobs: Yeah. And I'm definitely, I mean, I'm not only talking to the people that are running the institutional funds, writing checks in innovation to understand if they're investing in climate innovation, what it would take for them to invest in climate innovation, but I'm talking to the limited partners that fund those entities, but also project finance and alternative financing vehicles and public-private partnerships. And it's a complicated landscape, one that I don't claim to understand well at all, but it is one where I'm spending more and more time because I agree with you that I think it's not the only important thing. I mean, this is a system's problem. So there's lots of important areas but it is certainly one that belongs on the shortlist.
Jason Jacobs: Just another fun question that I've been asking on a lot of these episodes is if someone gave you $100 billion, and you could allocate it towards anything to maximize its impact on the climate fight, where would you put it? And how would you allocate it?
Paulina Jaramillo: Right now, I would allocate it in helping develop low-carbon energy systems in the Global South. These are countries that are much more resource limited, that need to really grow their energy, as I said, really rapidly, but because they don't have a legacy infrastructure that also gives us the opportunities from scratch with low-carbon system. And so at this point, I would want to invest more in understanding what are the solutions to what kind of systems we can build in these settings? What technologies do we need? How much are they going to cost? And then actually start building those systems.
Paulina Jaramillo: Now, so I do think there is a reason that it's hard to fund my research is that it's very system-level looking at what should we do, there's no shiny widget at the end, there's no shovel ready project at the end of my research. But I do worry that in some of these settings, we are putting a lot of money in building systems without really knowing how to do it or without really thinking through how to do it well. And we're not funding the research to really understand how to build these systems well, and so we're making investments in infrastructure, that may not actually be the best for the challenges to come but that will lock us in, right? If we build a co-power plant now, that power plant is going to be there 30 years from now, likely 40 years from now, right?
Paulina Jaramillo: If we build systems that are not integrated and synergistic, how do we integrate systems between right now the way we've always designed system is like the power system, is separate from the water system, is separate from the food system, right? And there may be opportunities for designing these systems. So they're integrated and synergistic, right? And we don't know how to do that. But if we start building just the systems in silos, like we have been doing, retrofitting in 30 years or more, it's going to be harder, because this is how we've done it. There's this locking. And so while I think we definitely need to make investments on building systems, I think we need to be smart about how to make these investments. And I think those investment needs to be informed by research. By robust research about at least no regrets solutions, we don't know everything, but what are appropriate technologies that we think are at least least regret, right?
Jason Jacobs: The challenge though, is that what you just said, I think is exactly right. It makes a ton of sense. But it's also an excuse for the entrenched interest to stall. And we don't have the time we need to proceed with urgency. And so how do you proceed with urgency in an intelligent and informed way, when people are using the fact that we're not as intelligent enough, as informed enough as a reason to just keep doing the same things we've always done?
Paulina Jaramillo: Right, but we do have a sense of what are least regret pathways, right? We do know that there are certain technologies that we should be investing in and certain that are not. I think the issue of integrating systems is not as well understood. And so we just build the power plant. And then what? Right? But it is a very complex system. I'm getting depressed with this discussion right now.
Jason Jacobs: No, we can end it there. We need to end it on the high note, which is that human ingenuity never ceases to amaze and even when it looks like the chips are down, it's our fighting spirit that ultimately carries through and there's been so much work that's been happening behind the scenes in so many different areas. And even though the dots haven't connected, where they're not feeding each other yet, once they do, it happens very fast and it looks like an overnight success story, but really, it was many years and decades in the making.
Paulina Jaramillo: Yeah.
Jason Jacobs: Yeah. I'd rather end there. I'd rather end on that note than, yeah.
Paulina Jaramillo: Let's just be clear, it's not just innovation in the way engineers think about innovation, right? We think of innovation as a better technology. Nice, shiny, better technology, but it's also innovation in delivery models, innovation in business models, innovation in policy, right?
Jason Jacobs: Innovation in consumer sentiment, innovation in where certain issues stand in people's voting priorities, which then shows up in the demographic data, which then shows up in the political platforms that people run on and how they vote or what policy is the politicians propose once they're in office, so that they can keep getting elected, et cetera.
Paulina Jaramillo: Yeah, and so as an engineer, obviously, I think technology has a role. And there's a lot of potential for technology. But I think and that is something that I like about where I am at Carnegie Mellon University, is that we are a truly interdisciplinary place. So I work. Most of my students are for advice and most of my students I have, I work with engineers, I work with decision scientist, because these other systems that are not physical technology systems are just as important. And so as an engineer, I see a role for technology, obviously, but we also need to keep in mind these other stakeholders that are part of the system and that are very influential in the system.
Paulina Jaramillo: You can design, I actually had a discussion be once in a review panel years ago, where someone was talking about what we need is just to optimize the location of charging infrastructure for electric vehicles based on some objective function that it was a very, very engineering-driven objective function. And I kept saying you can optimize based on that. But if people don't like your optimization, they're just going to do whatever is better for them, right? And you may have wasted all of these resources, because you optimize based on these very engineering mindset constrained by engineer and physical constraints and now you have to consider the consumers. We need to bring in, as we're designing the system, we also need to understand the consumers. And so I think that and for example, one of the challenges that some of the utilities in East Africa have faced is everyone has always assumed you build the electricity system, people will use electricity, right? You build it, they will come.
Paulina Jaramillo: It turns out that some of these utilities have seen that they've built the capacity for electricity, they've connected more people and demand hasn't grown. So why hasn't demand grow? And if you provide electricity for people who don't use electricity, then the benefits we expect from electrification are not going to happen because people are not using it, right? So electricity provides benefits, but only, it's not just if it's delivered, it's also if it's used for useful purposes, right? And in some context, we're not seeing growth in demand for electricity and it's not clear why.
Paulina Jaramillo: Is it that people can't afford the electricity? Is it that people can't afford the appliances, they need to be able to use electricity? And those have two different solutions, right? Is it that people think, oh, I get electricity, I'm going to get light bulbs and a TV and they don't think about other things they could be using that electricity for because they've never had electricity. They don't have the context to really think beyond those things that are just clear. Like everything, TV and lighting, right? And so we need to understand those things as much as we need to understand the technologies.
Jason Jacobs: Anything that I didn't ask you that I should have or any parting words that you'd like to leave with our listeners?
Paulina Jaramillo: So I was saying I was getting depressed with the discussion. And sometimes you get the question of whether I'm optimistic about the outcomes. And at this point, I think, I have no choice. I have to remain optimistic. I have two kids, nine and 11. So I have to believe and I work on these problem every day.
Paulina Jaramillo: I have to believe that something will come out of this work, and that we will do something. I think we're already committed to pain as a result. I mean, we're already seeing the impacts of climate change and people are already suffering, I have to be optimistic that we will do something before it's just awful or more awful. I just at this point, I don't have a choice but to be optimistic.
Jason Jacobs: I think that's right. I mean, people ask me the same and I'm much newer to this work than you. I mean, if you can even call what I'm doing work but yeah, people ask, well, isn't it too late? And it's like one, no. There's a lot we can do and two, yeah, it's hard, but it's hard. But there's a lot that's under our control. And it might be a steep hill and getting steeper by the day, but we don't have a choice. So there's a lot unknown as well but I'm not going to look back and feel like there's anything more I could have done. I'm going to do everything I can while I'm here and that's the best I can do. And then no matter what happens I'll know I did everything I could. And that's all you can do. Control what you can control but if you're not controlling what you can control, and you're freaked out by it, and you look in the mirror every night and you worry about it and you don't do anything about it, then shame on you.
Jason Jacobs: Yeah, I don't want to judge but at the same time, people need to be responsible for their own actions and if they know it's there, and they're consciously aware and they're consciously, completely freaked out by it and worried about the future and not changing anything or taking any emotion to do anything about it, then at least for me, personally, I couldn't live with that choice for myself. Each person needs to decide that for themselves, though. Okay, Paulina. Well, thank you so much for coming on the show. Thank you for all the work that you're doing and I'm excited for people to hear this one.
Jason Jacobs: It might not be the most uplifting of all the episodes we've done, but I think it's an important perspective to hear and at least for me, when we talk about the grim realities it doesn't make me depressed, it makes me motivated. So hopefully, that's the message that gets instilled in each listener as well.
Paulina Jaramillo: Okay, I'm glad.
Jason Jacobs: Okay, thank you so much for coming on.
Paulina Jaramillo: Thank you very much for having me.
Jason Jacobs: Hey everyone, Jason here. Thanks again for joining me on My Climate Journey. If you'd like to learn more about the journey, you can visit us at myclimatejourney.co. Note, that is .co not .com. Someday we'll get the .com but right now .co. You can also find me on Twitter @jjacobs22, where I would encourage you to share your feedback on the episode or suggestions for future guests you'd like to hear. And before I let you go, if you enjoyed the show, please share an episode with a friend or consider leaving a review on iTunes. The lawyers made me say that. Thank you.