Energy Spotlight – Nathan Ratledge, PhD student in E-IPER
This interview series shines a spotlight on energy-focused members of the Stanford community – students, faculty, staff and alumni - and traces their foray into the field of energy, their journey so far and what they have planned for the future. By highlighting the incredibly diverse range of ongoing energy-oriented work at Stanford, the series hopes to spur conversations and forge connections within campus and beyond.
My first interviewee is Nathan Ratledge, a third year PhD student in the Emmett Interdisciplinary Program in Environment and Resources (E-IPER) in Stanford’s School of Earth, Energy and Environmental Sciences.
R: Tell me about your background – what spurred your interest in energy, and how did you get started?
N: It’s been a winding, fun journey. I started my career working on habitat and biodiversity issues with Conservation International and took part in fieldwork in a variety of places. My experience was that landscape conservation was slow due to the large scale of the work, which was frustrating for me at the time. I transitioned into the resource management side of things and that quickly put into focus the tremendous influence of energy on climate, sustainability and social justice. I ended up becoming the Executive Director of a non-profit in Aspen, Colorado – the Community Office for Resource Efficiency (CORE), probably best known for helping to implement one of the first carbon pricing programs in the country, which the local municipalities apply through their building code. I then went to Princeton for an MPA and spent some time in DC working on larger policy levers. It was interesting to experience the policy making process in Washington, but discovered I wasn’t particularly motivated by the political side of the equation. Fortunately, I found E-IPER – it’s a fantastically unique PhD opportunity.
R: How would you broadly describe yourself and your work?
N: I work on the economics and financing of clean energy in the developing world. I look at my PhD work as having two halves – the first half is understanding the causal effect of electricity. In other words, what is the impact of new electricity connectivity on metrics like household wealth? I work with Marshall Burke on this, and it is a more retrospective view. The other half of my work is more prospective. As an example, I’m working with Stefan Reichelstein at the GSB on new business model concepts for clean energy in the developing world. My perspective is that now is the time to go big and fail fast when it comes to new, large level opportunities. Small incremental change is not going to address the interrelated phenomena of poverty, social justice and climate change.
R: Can you share a surprising finding that emerged from your work?
N: We have the technology to solve a lot of problems with respect to clean energy deployment. So, it has been encouraging to see how achievable some of the implementation can be. But what I have been surprised by is the extent to which high levels of risk perception and the cost of capital have become barriers to clean energy projects. I’m finishing a geothermal study in East Africa and the high assumed interest rates substantially inflate the estimated cost of energy. Bringing down the lending rates should be a major policy and development goal.
R: Can you share a turning point or defining moment in your career?
N: Originally, my motivation was protecting wildlife. But, really for me, it was the realization that social and environmental justice overlap in so many important ways. This might sound trite, but most people in the world have a hard daily life, and we sometimes forget about that in the work that we do.
R: What is your favorite aspect about your work?
N: I really enjoy talking to people – I try to talk to everybody I can meet in the energy and climate space. The energy-climate-sustainability nexus is so complex and unless you are constantly interfacing with people who are different from you, it is hard to develop a complete picture of what is going on.
R: What are some real-world applications of your work that excite you?
N: This is actually a step away from my core PhD research, but I’m working on a project with The Wilderness Society that is measuring GHG emissions from fossil fuels on federal lands, which account for 20% of the US’s carbon budget. Despite the sizeable contribution, it completely flies under the climate radar. We just published a Nature Climate Change commentary on this. The particularly intriguing thing is that since federal lands are primarily managed through the Department of Interior, there are real opportunities for policy change via Executive Action – given a climate friendly President.
R: What do you see as the next horizon in the field of energy?
N: The big thing, for me, is what happens to fossil fuel-based products and industrial processes when electricity becomes virtually 100% clean and very cheap, say a few years down the road. There is actually some early investment in this space. For instance, will fossil fuel-based plastics be replaced by new materials? Similarly, companies are beginning to focus on taking emissions out of the cement and steel production processes, which is really fascinating.
R: What things in the field of energy are still a mystery to you?
N: The technology - some of the newest tech and engineering are extremely advanced. Also, some policymakers’ views on climate change science!
R: Which two organizations outside your own do you know the most people at and why?
N: Within Stanford, probably the GSB. They also have the best whiteboard markers on campus! Outside of Stanford, I’d guess The Wilderness Society due to professional relationships, or Princeton, where I did my MPA.
R: Teach me something I don’t know in the next five minutes.
N: I love backcountry skiing. So, if you are backcountry skiing, be aware of the snow conditions and read the avalanche report. If you are anywhere steep, you should know how to do a basic snow quality test, which is one way to assess avalanche risk. If you ski slopes below 30 degrees, you’re good in most situations.
R: What’s one interesting thing about you that we wouldn’t learn from your resume?
N: I daydream about skiing all the time.
R: What advice would you give your younger self?
This is a tough one. Invest time only in things that you truly care about and then go for it 100%, don’t be shy.
R: How might interested people get in touch with you?
Super easy, email me through my Stanford email – ratledge[at]stanford[dot]edu.
Photo credit: Gustavo Costa (https://www.pexels.com/photo/man-playing-piano-1771304/)