Q&A with AOS Graduate Student Jane Baldwin

Joanne Curcio of the Program in Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences ・ High Meadows Environmental Institute

The Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment (ACEE) recently released its latest Energy Technology Distillate, a report titled, “Fusion Energy via Magnetic Confinement.”  AOS Graduate Student Jane Baldwin is one of 10 members of the Princeton Energy and Climate Scholars (PECS) who researched, synthesized, and wrote, along with their faculty mentor Robert Socolow, the Distillate, the third Energy Technology Distillate from ACEE designed to provide succinct yet substantive information to policymakers, educators, students, and other citizens. Jane was also one of four students on a panel who spoke about the Distillate at the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment Celebration and Symposium on May 20, 2016.

AOS Graduate Student Jane Baldwin

In this Q&A, Baldwin discusses her involvement leading up to the Distillate’s release:

How is it that a group of Ph.D. students with a range of expertise from biogeochemistry, climate modeling, ecology, electrical engineering, psychology, to public policy came to write a report related to nuclear fusion?

About every year or so PECS does a project, but what the project constitutes is quite open-ended. Past projects have included a trip to exchange with universities in India and attending a sustainable development conference in Rio. When I joined PECS in June of 2014, the group was interested in learning more about US national labs, and the role they play in the overall energy research enterprise. When it became clear that traveling to a large number of U.S. national labs was logistically difficult, we started talking more about the largest national lab close to Princeton, the Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, and prospects for fusion energy more generally. Rob Socolow, the main faculty sponsor of PECS, happens to also be in charge of the Andlinger Center’s distillates effort. He suggested that working towards a distillate on fusion could be a useful way to focus our learning. Additionally, Socolow felt that having a group of graduate students not in the fusion field approach the topic with fresh eyes might be useful in producing an objective analysis, especially given the fraught environment regarding funding for fusion and which type of fusion reactor model to pursue. All the PECS students were intrigued to learn more about this low-carbon and low-nuclear waste, seemingly endless but technologically very difficult energy supply. So we said yes we’d work towards a distillate, and started right away organizing and researching…

What was the most challenging aspect of the process?

Getting up to speed on fusion, a topic outside of our respective research fields, was of course challenging, and is probably best represented by the many, many drafts we had to go through as we learned. Fortunately, Egemen Koleman and Rob Goldston, both fusion scientists at Princeton, were very helpful in making sure we understood the technical details and relayed them accurately.

In the case of the economics section, which I was in charge of, the biggest challenge was picking apart the assumptions that went into estimates of future fusion power plant costs and fusion’s potential energy market share. Given that fusion energy does not exist yet, any related economic estimates are somewhat speculative. However, with significant effort, we were able to wade through the uncertainty and draw some key conclusions.

Finally, keeping the project going was difficult — all of the grad students involved (including myself) had to prioritize our dissertation research first, and so sometimes the momentum would drop and it looked like the distillate would never become a reality. I’m very proud of us for persevering to a finished product, and Rob Socolow and the student distillate leaders Cleo Chou and Janam Jhaveri definitely deserve some credit for that.

What was the most rewarding?

Getting to work closely with all the other grad students in the project and Rob Socolow was definitely the most rewarding part of the project. Each student brought a different skill set to the table, creating a very creative dialogue. Rob also kept pushing for further rigor, which was at times frustrating but in the end very valuable. Forging relationships with all these diversely interested and intelligent individuals has been a highlight of my Princeton experience to date, and I don’t think would have occurred without the intensive work we had to put in together on this project.

Also rewarding was going through the extensive review process for the distillate. The distillate was reviewed by 10 different experts in total, a much more extensive review process than for a typical peer-reviewed paper. As a young scientist who hasn’t yet gone through the review process many times, this gave me great hands-on experience in negotiating between reviewers with different viewpoints, and defending our (the authors’) choices when necessary.

Has working on the report changed the way you view nuclear fusion as a global energy source?

Yes. When embarking on this project, I was convinced that fusion was a great solution to cleaning up our energy mix and ultimately dealing with global warming, and assumed it must just be held back by lack of funding. After working on this project, I am not a pessimist regarding fusion’s potential, but my views have definitely become more nuanced. It is important to consider the energy system holistically when trying to quantify fusion’s potential. For example, in the economics section we demonstrate that fusion may not be that valuable if carbon capture and sequestration becomes available, or there’s no price on carbon. Additionally, technological uncertainty is still quite significant — fusion plants being successful is contingent on numerous technologies that are still waiting to be tested in ITER (the internationally funded tokamak in the south of France) and other fusion test facilities. Nonetheless, working fusion energy is a unique energy supply, and despite these uncertainties significant research into fusion, and funding for that research, should certainly continue.

Has your involvement with PECS and the Distillate, in particular, made a difference in how you approach your own research?

I’m still a little too close to the project to say — I expect ideas for more interdisciplinary collaborations will branch off from my involvement in PECS and the students I got to know in it for years to come. In terms of methodology, working with Rob Socolow has empowered me to try to quantify things that others assume or just explain qualitatively; many of our meetings were spent attempting back of the envelope calculations to test our understanding of economic quantities relevant to fusion, which I previously did not think could be quantified.  I also now appreciate the costs and benefits of entering a new area of research (really, entire field!) from the ground up. I’m sure that experience will direct my future research choices, informing when I dive deeper into a prior area of research or pursue something new.

The executive summary and full report can be found at the following link: http://acee.princeton.edu/distillates/fusion-energy-via-magnetic-confinement/

The PECS program is a graduate-honor society administered by the Princeton Environmental Institute. PECS is a platform that enables a group of Ph.D. students working on disparate aspects of energy and climate to have an interdisciplinary exchange of ideas.

Advised by AOS Faculty Member Gabriel Vecchi, Jane Baldwin’s core research employs a combination of dynamical climate models and earth observations to elucidate the ties between global and regional climate, and move towards useful predictions of climate change. A recipient of the National Science Foundation graduate research fellowship, her current work explores the influences of orography on regional climate, with a particular focus on the deserts across interior Asia.