Robert M. La Follette School of Public Affairs

My research focuses on understanding the process of technological change and the ways in which public policy affects it. I primarily work on policy decisions related to energy and the environment. My work also includes consideration of health, as well as science and technology policy more generally. I am particularly interested in how the outcomes of this line of research can inform the design of policy instruments related to improvements in low-carbon energy technologies. My work is motivated by a more general interest in issues related to energy and the environment — including how government actions can expand access to energy services while reducing their environmental impacts. These projects generally fall in three areas:

  1. Empirical analysis identifying the influences on past technological change
  2. Modeling of the effects of policy instruments on future technological outcomes
  3. Incentives and international governance in energy

Past and current projects

A. Empirical analysis of technological change in energy technologies

A weak empirical basis exists for understanding what causes technologies to improve and how governments can affect the process of innovation. Many models used to inform policy design related to energy are highly sensitive to assumptions about the future costs of energy technologies. This work analyzes historical data to identify the drivers of innovation in energy.

  1. Cost reductions in solar photovoltaic (Energy Policy, 2006)
  2. Effects of demand pull on wind power (Research Policy, 2009)
  3. Appropriability of learning by doing in wind power (JPAM, 2012)
  4. Global Energy Assessment: the energy innovation system (ARER, 2012; GEA, 2012).
  5. See projects below under Patent citation data to understand knowledge spillovers across sectors.

B. Modeling of policy design and incentives for energy innovation

Technology policy seeks to influence the rate and direction of technological change to achieve social goals. But limited understanding of the innovation process complicates policy design. This public policy challenge reveals gaps in the more general understanding of the nature of the innovation process and what role governments can play in affecting it. A primary research interest of mine is to improve the connections between the innovation literature, which is often rich and descriptive, and policy modeling, which depends on econometric, optimization, and simulation techniques that require compact quantitative estimation of parameters.

  1. Policy and innovation in low-carbon energy technologies (Ph.D. Dissertation, 2007)
  2. Investment in energy R&D (Energy Policy, 2007). Data available here.
  3. Robustness of incentives under loosely coordinated policies (Energy Policy, 2010)
  4. Cost containment in climate policy (Climatic Change, 2010)
  5. Incorporating air quality co-benefits into climate policy (ERL, 2010)
  6. Willingness to pay for a climate backstop, direct air capture (Energy Journal, 2012)
  7. Under-investment in energy end-use innovation (Nature Climate Change, forthcoming)
  8. Incentives for innovation in building energy control technologies (in preparation)

A summary of the motivation for government action in this area is included in my encyclopedia entry on “Technological change and climate policy” (forthcoming).

C. Expert elicitations and modeling for energy technology portfolios

In collaboration with Professor Erin Baker (University of Massachusetts), I develop a framework for designing a portfolio of technology policies to address climate change. We model the effects of combinations of policy instruments on a portfolio of technologies, when both the outcomes of the technology policies and the effects of climate change are uncertain. The project evaluates combinations of three policy instruments: government funded research and development, subsidies for demand, and carbon prices. It focuses on two important technologies: solar photovoltaic and Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS), while developing a framework amenable to the consideration of a larger set of technologies.

  1. Subsidies vs. R&D for PV (Energy Journal, 2009)
  2. NSF project description (2010)
  3. Elicitation of energy penalties for CCS (in preparation)
  4. Modeling costs of CCS using expert elicitations as inputs (in preparation)
  5. Meta-analysis of expert elicitation studies (in preparation)

D. Patent citation data to understand knowledge spillovers across sectors

A frequently made claim in the literature on innovation is that, historically, the most important inventions involve the transfer of new knowledge from one technological domain to another. I use data on patent citations and have found evidence:

  1. supporting this claim in energy technology (Energy Economics, 2012) …
  2. … but not for technology in general (Research Policy, 2012).

A new project will compare spillovers in the public vs. private sectors.

E. Credibility of multi-year energy policy targets

A look at the past 40 years of U.S. energy policy provides ample evidence of policy volatility, including rapidly varying budgets, cancelled programs, and better success in achieving short-term rather than long-term goals. Changing policy too often is a serious criticism because systemic inertia — for example due to the long lifetimes of capital stock and to the atmospheric residence time of CO2 — implies a need for persistence in order to achieve social goals. But changing policy has benefits as well: it allows for experimentation, policy learning, and assimilation of new information (in preparation).

F. Integration of physical science modeling and policy decisions

I am interested in analysis of physical and technical systems that have direct implications for policy decisions—or for further analyses that can inform them.

    1. Radiative forcing from solar PV (ES&T, 2009)
    2. Effects of climate change on wind power (ERL, 2011)