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SPE partners with Edison International on renewable energy transmission research

Friday, October 22, 2010

California has created ambitious renewable energy policies that aspire to have one third of the state’s electricity generated by renewable sources in the coming years. 

Progress toward such a goal requires the construction of solar and wind power plants in remote areas, along with hundreds of miles of new transmission lines to carry the electricity into population centers. 

Mark Abdollahian, Claremont Graduate University Hal Nelson, Claremont Graduate University
Abdollahian Nelson
Finding routes for those lines is a delicate and politically sensitive task. Despite the broad benefits of renewable electricity, many people don't want high voltage power lines near homes or fragile environmental habitats. These conflicts are proving to be the biggest barrier facing electricity providers tasked with meeting the state's energy goals.

To help solve the problem, professors Hal T. Nelson and Mark Abdollahian from Claremont Graduate University's School of Politics and Economics (SPE) have partnered with electricity giant Edison International, parent company of Southern California Edison (SCE), to create a computer simulation that will identify potential conflicts before they arise. 

“This is precisely the type of innovative research and cutting-edge technology that will be vital in guiding SCE to create more effective ways to address our customers’ electricity needs,” said Jim Kelly, SCE’s senior vice president of transmission and distribution. “Our partnership with Claremont Graduate University promises to yield valuable data with broad applications.”

The professors’ model simulates the political-economy of “getting to yes” on siting contentious transmission projects, potentially allowing Edison to construct transmission lines that are agreeable to electricity providers, regulators, citizens, and environmental advocates.

"The benefits to the community from the increased production of renewable energy are potentially huge," said Nelson, a co-lead on the project. "We expect this research will reveal better ways to manage social, political, and environmental conflicts surrounding these projects, which can provide us with sources of electricity that create jobs and reduce pollution."

Edison International has pledged $225,000 to CGU for a three-year study. The fund will support two classes per year for the next two years to develop the model and collect data. Most of the research will be done by Nelson, Abdollahian, and a group of about two dozen students, with assistance from Professor Jennifer Merolla.

"This is cutting-edge transdisciplinary work that fuses the natural sciences with social sciences," said Abdollahian, also a co-lead on the project. "The students will get a first hand view of the challenges faced by policy makers in the real world."

The students will survey electricity providers, government regulators, citizens, local politicians, and environmental advocates to identify the most contentious issues surrounding the construction of transmission lines.

Those findings will be fed into a computer simulation platform that will use spatial bargaining dynamics to predict the responses of various groups. By anticipating political acceptance of transmission siting plans in advance, regulators and electricity providers are able to combine community needs with energy growth in a sustainable fashion, building participation and support among underrepresented groups.

"We are developing a bargaining model that codes stakeholders according to their preferences and their influence and then we let them 'interact,'" Nelson said. "We will see how different coalitions form given different preferences and starting values with the hope of finding solutions everyone can agree upon."

Nelson's research interests include international political economy, climate change mitigation and adaptation policy, civic engagement, and decision-making.  He is a senior advisor to the Center for Climate Strategies and helps U.S. states develop climate action plans to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases.

Abdollahian is an expert on predictive models. He has been a consultant to the IMF, the World Bank, State Department, Department of Defense and a number of U.S. agencies and private businesses, including Arthur Andersen, Motorola, McKinsey, Raytheon, British Aerospace, Chevron & DeBeers.

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