Profiles in Innovation: Geoff Blanford



Fortnightly Magazine - November 11 2020

PUF's Steve Mitnick: What's the latest in your modeling?

Geoff Blanford: Right now, we are focused on decarbonization, not only in the electric sector, but economy wide. We're looking at what technologies we need, what would provide value or would be part of a cost-effective transition to low or net zero emissions in the mid-century timeframe.

There are many interesting interactions between the economy and the electric sector, starting with electrification. We know that electrification is a good option for decarbonizing the end-use sectors. 

There are many opportunities for electrification that would be economically and environmentally beneficial with today's technology. And there are opportunities to push further with policy incentives and technology improvements. But ultimately, in certain sectors, there are going to be limits to how much electrification can do, and we know other options will be needed.

There's a new EPRI project called the Low-Carbon Resources Initiative or LCRI. That's been a major investment by a number of our members, as well as some non-traditional members. We have some vendors and new technology players participating as well. 

It's an exciting project that will last over five years. It will include considerable new technology development and research. My team is supporting the modeling piece of LCRI, which is trying to understand from an economic integrated system perspective, what are the roles these different technologies could potentially play? How are they going to be important? How do they interact? 

We want to make sure we're not studying them in a vacuum. One key example is hydrogen, which is potentially useful as both an end-use fuel and as a long-duration storage medium for electricity when produced with electrolysis. 

The potential role of hydrogen and other low-carbon options are integrated questions. We're extending our modeling tools to be able to capture this new set of technologies, thinking about where they might be in ten, twenty, or thirty years. What are the most cost-effective ways of putting them together to reach an attainable goal of a net zero emissions economy by mid-century?

PUF: Do you look at what different sectors of the economy should do because it's economic? Or is it what the economy is going to do, given institutional factors like transaction costs, politics, and what's harder to capture?

Geoff Blanford: Primarily we're focused on what the technologies could do if you had efficient market structures and efficient policy incentives to push them in that direction. However, there are political economy questions that our models are not designed to capture. We must make some assumptions about the policy environment and use the models to show what the impact of alternative policy designs might be. But predicting how that political process goes, that's outside the scope.

For the end-use sectors, there are a number of important behavioral barriers that affect the way people make decisions about the technology they use. A majority of carbon emissions arise from direct use of fossil fuels in the end-use sectors, which means you've got individuals, whether they're customers or firms, making decisions about the technologies that drive emissions outcomes. 

Reducing emissions in those sectors means getting a lot of people aligned with decarbonization priorities. That includes residential energy use and personal vehicle choices. 

In the electric sector, if we apply a carbon price, and that shifts the optimal choice from technology A to technology B, the model assumes that utilities will invest in technology B instead. But you can't necessarily assume that happens in a customer decision making context, because there are so many other factors. We try to account for that. 

PUF: How do you go about figuring out how to improve the model or try to capture a sticky aspect of the economy? 

Geoff Blanford: You have to get your hands dirty and think about how to represent things, and that usually involves rethinking a formulation. I always start by asking, what question am I trying to answer? What is an issue that members or other stakeholders have raised? 

Then, I look at the model formulation and say, am I capturing the key interactions? Does my model include the key mechanism that drives the answer to the question? If not, what is that mechanism? What am I missing? That's where I get started. 

Then you start digging and thinking, what are the assumptions I need to make about technologies and other parameters? EPRI is good at doing technology assessment, and as modelers we rely on EPRI's technology experts as much as we can. I plug those parameters into the extended modeling framework, and then look to see whether I get some insights from that additional structure, whether I've helped to answer the question that I started with.

PUF: What's rewarding about doing this kind of work?

Geoff Blanford: I'm fortunate to be in a position where I can spend so much of my time on model development, on thinking through how we can do things better. We also spend a lot of time on communicating and honing the insights once we've done the model development work.

I wake up in the morning and think, I've got a question I want to answer. Curiosity drives me, and I get to learn something new every day. And I know these questions are important for the industry and society.

We're trying to answer complex questions by applying a diverse range of mathematical, programming, and engineering concepts to channel those approaches into insights that can change the course of the energy system. It's a great combination of features that makes this a fun and rewarding way to spend my time.

Profiles in Innovation