Four Graduate Students Awarded 2016 PEI-STEP Environmental Policy Fellowships

Joanna M. Foster ’08 for the Princeton Environmental Institute ・ High Meadows Environmental Institute

Four graduate students have been awarded 2016 PEI-STEP Environmental Policy Fellowships by the Princeton Environmental Institute (PEI). The recipients are: Alexander Berg from electrical engineering, Michelle Frazer from atmospheric and oceanic sciences, and Da Pan and Siyuan Xian from civil and environmental engineering.

Through the PEI-STEP Fellowship Program, Ph.D. students in departments outside of the Woodrow Wilson School receive funding for two years to enable them to explore the environmental policy dimensions and implications of their doctoral research through supplementary course-work and policy-oriented research. Upon completion of the program, the students will graduate with the Graduate Certificate in Science, Technology, and Environmental Policy (STEP).

The PEI-STEP Program provides participating graduate students with an enhanced skill-set and interdisciplinary perspective, making them more effective and versatile to address environmental problems in careers as scientists, educators, policy makers, and business professionals.

To meet program requirements, the PEI-STEP students normally take three courses related to science, technology, or the environment. In addition, they must produce a paper or incorporate a policy component of publishable quality into their dissertation.

2016 PEI-STEP Fellows

Alexander Berg

Alexander BergPh.D. Thesis: Silicon Heterojunction Interfaces for Solar Applications
PEI-STEP Adviser: Michael Oppenheimer, geosciences and international affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School
PEI-STEP Environmental Policy Topic: Patent Internationalization and Renewables Specialization in Emerging Economies

As more and more corporations choose to outsource and offshore their research and development efforts to cut costs and take advantage of local resources, many future technology breakthroughs are likely to occur far away from company headquarters. As a result, many R&D host countries produce large quantities of research that are actually owned abroad and patent profits rarely benefit local economies.

For his PEI-STEP project, Alexander Berg will investigate patent internationalization for renewable energy technologies in emerging economies to determine how efficiently a country benefits from its research accomplishments.

“While this situation could easily be exploitative, there is also research that suggests that there are real benefits to being an R&D destination country,” said Berg. “It has both the potential to kick-start locally owned innovation or stifle it.”

By digging through patent databases, Berg will identify countries that show a clear specification in their renewable energy research and compare these trends to patterns of patent internationalization in that field.

 “Since the primary moral purpose behind the renewables push is to avoid the profound harm that climate change has the possibility to cause, it is important that we interrogate the nature of renewables development to help ensure that it does not replicate the patterns that led to the current climate crisis in the first place,” said Berg.

Michelle Frazer

Michelle FrazerPh.D. Thesis: Toward Understanding the Role of Clouds in the Climate System
PEI-STEP Adviser: Michael Oppenheimer, geosciences and international affairs, Woodrow Wilson School; Robert Socolow, mechanical and aerospace engineering
PEI-STEP Environmental Policy Topic: Policy Implications of Regional Climate Responses to Stratospheric Aerosol Albedo Modification

As average global temperatures continue to rise creating growing concern of reaching devastating climate tipping points, intervention in the climate system through geoengineering is being more widely considered. While these strategies could potentially buy the planet more time, they also pose a host of ethical, political, and environmental concerns that are less well understood than the technology itself.

For her PEI-STEP project, Michelle Frazer will focus on the policy and environmental implications of one geoengineering strategy known as stratospheric aerosol albedo modification or SAAM, which is designed to help cool the planet by reflecting solar radiation back into space.

“I propose to analyze the international policy implications of regional climate impacts of SAAM,” said Frazer. “This will require a scientific analysis of possible impacts and their likelihood, which will then frame policy questions regarding the possibility, character, and governance of injecting aerosols into the stratosphere to reflect more solar radiation back into space.”

SAAM is a controversial method of mitigating climate change because it is likely to have unequal regional impacts, and projections suggest that an attempt to restore a pre-industrial global mean temperature would have unintended climate effects including reductions in precipitation.

“Since the use of SAAM is unlikely to disappear quickly from climate discussions, ethical norms and governance processes ought to be established preemptively, requiring a better scientific understanding to frame the deliberations,” said Frazer.

Da Pan

Da PanPh.D. Thesis: Spatiotemporal Characteristics of Emissions of Ammonia and Nitrous Oxide from Agriculture
PEI-STEP Adviser: Denise L. Mauzerall, environmental engineering and international affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School
PEI-STEP Environmental Policy Topic: Investigation of Monitoring Strategies of Atmospheric Ammonia for Ammonia Regulation in the United States

With the support of the PEI-STEP program, Da Pan will apply his knowledge of atmospheric ammonia (NH3) measurements to investigate effective and economically feasible monitoring strategies to improve regulation.

NH3 reacts with atmospheric nitric and sulfuric acids to form fine particulate air pollution known as PM2.5. These particles, just a fraction of the diameter of a human hair, can accumulate in the respiratory system and pose a serious health threat. The re-deposition of ammonia can also lead to soil acidification and eutrophication in water bodies. In the United States, farm animals are the greatest contributor to gaseous ammonia emissions.

“Because of the increasing awareness of the environmental impacts associated with NH3 emissions, advocacy groups have pressed the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency on several occasions to address it under the Clean Air Act,” explained Pan. “But difficulties in measuring NH3 emissions and NH3 ambient concentrations are two major regulation obstacles.”

Pan will compare the effectiveness and costs of different measurement methods of NH3 emissions, investigate potential strategies to identify large emission sources, and study methods of monitoring ambient concentrations.

Siyuan Xian

Siyuan XianPh.D. Thesis: Improving Coastal Flood Resilience through an Integrated Science, Engineering, Economic, and Policy Approach
PEI-STEP Adviser: Michael Oppenheimer, geosciences and international affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School
PEI-STEP Environmental Policy Topic: The Impact and Value of Information on Risk Reduction Measures

The economic toll of flooding is projected to mount with sea level rise and increasingly frequent and severe extreme weather events. In an effort to reduce flood damage, FEMA requires properties in flood zones to be elevated at least one foot above the Base Flood Elevation. This number, however, rarely corresponds with the optimal elevation level for a specific property that would minimize both the combined cost of cumulative insurance premiums and upfront cost of elevation.

In an effort to update this one-size-fits-all solution with a more economically efficient and rational risk mitigation strategy, Siyuan Xian is studying how providing homeowners with additional information on hazards and vulnerability, insurance costs, government subsidies, and Federal Emergency Management Agency’s (FEMA) requirements, affects home elevation decisions.

“This study will help policy makers design more effective risk communication tools to motivate and persuade people to elevate their homes to more cost-effective levels,” said Xian. “This would be economically beneficial to FEMA, homeowners, and society as a whole.”

Xian will investigate the effectiveness of different information on shifting homeowners’ decisions using an online survey and will also use the collected data to model the decision-making process to predict future flood mitigation decisions.