Duke student organization publishes new case studies on sustainable energy and technology

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Wednesday, Oct 10, 2018 - 12:00 am

What do dusty solar panels, biomass cookstoves, biogas-fueled sanitation systems, and renewable project finance have in common? Each is featured in a new volume of energy access case studies from Duke University student authors.

Case studies by Michael Valerino (PhD’23, Environmental Engineering), Chinmoy Kumar (MIDP’19, Master of International Development Policy), Brandon Hunter (PhD’20, Environmental Engineering), and Thomas Klug (BA/BS’18, Public Policy and Environmental Science) feature insights from students’ fieldwork in Madagascar, India, and the Philippines.

energy access case studies
GLEAN’s second volume of case studies,
“Sustainable Energy & Technology,”
was published in September 2018.

It’s the second volume of case studies published by Duke University’s Global Energy Access Network (GLEAN), a student organization. GLEAN brings together graduate, professional, and undergraduate students across disciplines, affording opportunities to explore diverse perspectives on energy access issues and discuss relevant fieldwork experiences.

Heidi Vreeland (PhD’19, Environmental Engineering), editor of the second volume, first got involved with GLEAN during its inaugural year (2016-17), finding that its interdisciplinary approach immediately resonated with her. She shares, “At GLEAN meetings, I loved seeing how the same energy access topic could be interpreted by economic, policy, and science/engineering perspectives in different ways. Discussing these topics with those outside my field helped me synthesize a fuller picture.”

In the editing process, Vreeland observed how challenging it can be for students to “translate technical terms and convey field-specific language across disciplines.” Iterating on drafts with reviewers from four different departmental backgrounds helped student authors improve these skills by offering valuable feedback on how to improve clarity for a diverse audience.

Spanning fields like engineering, policy, finance, and health, the case studies’ findings offer rich insights for those advancing modern energy technologies and effective energy policy in the developing world:

  • Valerino’s case study discusses how the energy yield of photovoltaic cells can be compromised by poor air quality and what this could mean for countries like India that have intentions to increase reliance on solar energy but also suffer from high levels of air pollution;
  • Kumar reflects on how lessons from India can help other developing nations finance renewable energy projects in innovative ways;
  • Klug's case study examines how reliance on traditional biomass fuel has affected a community in Madagascar; and
  • Hunter, drawing on his experiences with on implementing biogas-fueled sanitation systems in the Philippines, demonstrates the importance of propagating suitable technologies that are robust and cater to the unique social and cultural needs of diverse communities.

The students first got involved in their fieldwork in a variety of ways, from Bass Connections to Duke Engage to faculty research, exemplifying how the larger energy community at Duke offers a myriad of student research opportunities.

Thomas Klug shares, “My work in Madagascar began with a Bass Connections project in spring 2016. I decided to return to Madagascar on a DukeEngage independent project grant in summer 2017 to work more closely with the Duke Lemur Center: SAVA Conservation (the branch of the Lemur Center in Madagascar that focuses on community based conservation efforts). My work in Madagascar led me to work for the Sustainable Energy Transitions Initiative (SETI) based here at Duke, which is an international network of energy access researchers and practitioners that coordinates and supports new energy access research around the globe.”

Team of researchers from the Duke Lemur Center, including Thomas Klug (BA,BS’18, Public Policy and Environmental Science), and cookstove competition participants in Andapa, Madagascar. Photo: Thomas Klug.
Team of researchers from the Duke Lemur Center, including Thomas Klug (BA,BS’18, Public Policy and Environmental Science), and cookstove competition participants in Andapa, Madagascar. Photo: Thomas Klug.

Brandon Hunter’s case study builds off of his dissertation research, which has connections and support beyond Duke:

"In 2011, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation launched their Reinvent the Toilet Challenge which aims to develop sustainable technological solutions to address the 2.4 billion people worldwide who do not have access to safe, cost effective sanitation. My advisor, Dr. Marc Deshusses, received this grant and established the Anaerobic Digestion Pasteurization Latrine (ADPL) concept, which is the basis for my dissertation research. Since 2012, the ADPL team has demonstrated that the concept is feasible in the laboratory and has implemented five full-scale ADPL field units in Kenya, India, and the Philippines. I serve as the Duke ADPL team liaison to our partners in the Philippines and oversee the operations of our systems there. My GLEAN case study was generated from observations of system implementation and user interaction in the Philippines."

Graham Miller (far left) and Brandon Hunter (far right) of the Duke ADPL team pose with their collaborators from the Tesari Foundation (center) in front of the ADPL system in Baragay Subayon, Toledo City, Cebu, Philippines.
Graham Miller (far left) and Brandon Hunter (far right) of the Duke ADPL team pose with their collaborators from the Tesari Foundation (center) in front of the ADPL system in Baragay Subayon, Toledo City, Cebu, Philippines.

Each case study both builds on and furthers student research, coursework, and career explorations in energy. Chinmoy Kumar recognizes the interconnected challenges embedded within issues of energy access and sustainable technology, reflecting, “I realized that for several developing nations, the transition to renewable sources of energy is going to be difficult in view of the fact that they are constrained by availability of financing. Many of these projects would be risky and attracting cost-effective capital will pose a challenge for them. Therefore, there would be a need for innovation and financial engineering in the area of financing… in order to enable these projects to become viable.”

What will be the impact of these case studies at Duke and beyond? The authors see wide-ranging applications, but emphasize the centrality of context and human experience.

Hunter shares, “It is my hope that this information will lead to more efficient and effective engineered systems that more carefully consider the lived experience of its users. I hope that this case study will aid in preparing other engineering research design teams to develop their technologies with considerations for the specific environmental, economic, social, and cultural contexts in which their technology will ultimately be used.”

Brandon Hunter manually tests the igniter system that is used to burn the methane-rich biogas from the ADPL digesters.
Brandon Hunter manually tests the igniter system that is used to burn the methane-rich biogas from the ADPL digesters.
Woman next to cookstove
A research participant wearing an air quality monitoring backpack to measure personal exposure to air pollution while cooking (Mandena, Madagascar). Photo: Thomas Klug.

Valerino hopes his research on photovoltaic soiling will support efforts to deploy renewable energy in developing countries, helping “allow large-scale, small-scale, and off-grid solar energy to be more efficient and feasible solutions to the energy crisis." He recognizes the collective need for action, as well: "The challenge of energy access for the world has fallen onto our generation. It is a field that can really have tangible impact on peoples' lives.”

The impact will surely have a ripple effect across campus and throughout the students’ academic pathways. Vreeland shares: “I hope this volume is informative to others who may be pursuing related work, and inspires people to share their own insights. Importantly, it is a great experience for students who are early on in their publishing careers to gain experience by iterating on drafts, responding to reviewer comments, and formatting documents and citations as one would for a journal.”

Growing interest in energy access

Housed by the Duke University Energy Initiative, the Global Energy Access Network was financially supported in its first two years by the Office of the  Vice Provost for Interdisciplinary Studies through its Duke Support for Interdisciplinary Graduate Networks (D-SIGN) grant program. In addition to publishing the second volume of case studies, GLEAN organized an Energy Access Speaker Series and curated an energy access photo contest and exhibit under the auspices of its 2017-2018 D-SIGN grant.

Faraz Usmani (PhD’19, Environmental Policy), an Energy Initiative Doctoral Student Fellow, has served as one of the coordinators of GLEAN and co-edited the first volume.

Usmani recognizes the growing movement of student interest and participation in issues of energy access at Duke, noting, “The international community has recognized the fundamental constraint that lack of access to energy imposes on inclusive growth and development. Duke is quickly moving to the fore of that global conversation. On campus, there have never been as many opportunities to learn about, engage with, and work towards solving the energy challenges faced by billions in low- and middle-income countries as there are now.”

Among the recent developments on campus has been the January 2018 launch of Duke’s Energy Access Project, a new research and policy effort that takes an interdisciplinary approach to developing market and policy solutions for the 1 billion who are still without electricity, another billion lacking reliable electricity, and the more than 3 billion people currently without access to clean cooking technologies. The project is a collaboration among the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions, the Duke University Energy Initiative, the Sanford School of Public PolicyBass Connections, and the Nicholas School of the Environment.

To learn more about energy at Duke: Check out the Duke University Energy Initiative. As Faraz Usmani advises students, “The Energy Initiative serves as the unifying hub for all of this — if you have an idea, connect with the Initiative and make it happen.”

To join GLEAN: Duke students, contact one of the coordinators listed here or send an email to sympa@duke.edu with no subject and the following message: subscribe glean