Research

The transition to a low-carbon future is one of the defining challenges of this century. Despite significant progress in adopting clean energy, fossil fuels, especially oil and gas, represent a large fraction of our energy use. To limit climate-change induced damages, which have been shown to disproportionately affect vulnerable populations, we need to transition rapidly to cleaner fuels. This should happen even as global energy use is expected to increase by 30% by 2040 as we lift billions of people out of energy poverty.

Right now, I am focused on reducing methane emissions – a highly potent greenhouse gas – from the oil and gas industry. As natural gas use continues to rise in both the developed and developing economics, it is critical to reduce methane emissions to prevent overshooting climate tipping points.

Because of my interdisciplinary background, I use a variety of methods to achieve this goal – experimental work, energy systems modeling, technology assessment, and policy analyzes. Currently, our policies and analysis tools (or lack of thereof) do not sufficiently account for the rapidly evolving technology landscape. My goal is to change this.

Here are some of the cool projects I’m currently working on. I have grouped them into three different themes – Technology/Engineering, Energy Systems Modeling, and Policy Analysis, but many of them are highly complementary. These are just some representative examples – a more comprehensive list will be updated soon.

Technology/Engineering

  1. Stanford/EDF Mobile Monitoring Challenge: This is one of of my latest projects in collaboration with Environmental Defense Fund and Stanford’s Natural Gas Initiative. Because of the unique challenges in reducing emissions from the oil and gas sector, leak detection solutions need to be cheap, robust, and cost-effective. This project aims to bring sensor technologists together for three weeks of field experiments to evaluate their performance. To have maximum impact, we have organized an industry advisory board as well as a regulatory advisory board to help translate our research findings to business practices and mitigation regulations. You can find more details about this competition on this website.

Energy Systems Modeling

  1. Embodied emissions in LNG trade using life cycle assessments: Growth in unconventional natural gas production in the US and Australia have increased forecasts for LNG exports to demand centers in Asia. These exports are expected to reduce coal consumption in Asia, improving air quality. In a collaboration with the University of Calgary and the University of British Columbia, I am studying the life-cycle emissions impact of using Canada-based natural gas to displace coal use in China. This project is unique in that the three teams are independently pursuing this LCA – comparing results will give insights into how teams choose system boundaries, assumptions, and other critical parameters. Extending this work, LCA can provide information about trade imbalances in emissions. For example, whether exporting benefits of using natural gas is in the national interest is an important question to address when deciding on major fossil projects. LCA is an ideal approach to study the distributional impacts of emissions associated with global trade – this will become important as nations institute policies to reduce carbon emissions.

Policy Analysis

  1. Impact of EPA methane regulations: Recent EPA methane mitigation regulations rely on periodic surveys using IR cameras, with a target to reduce methane emissions by 40 – 45% by 2025 compared to 2012. To evaluate this policy, I helped develop the open-source Fugitive Emissions Abatement Simulation Toolkit (FEAST). FEAST is a Markov-model based stochastic simulation tool that mimics the evolution of leaks at natural gas facilities. It has built-in modules to represent technologies, policies, and facility characteristics. Users can also input proprietary data to estimate costs and benefits of various mitigation approaches. Using this framework, I showed: (1) EPA over-estimated costs of methane mitigation, and (2) EPA is likely to miss 2025 methane mitigation targets [6]. Highly skewed leak size distributions (small number of very large leaks contribute to most leakage) resulted in lower repair costs, while uncertainty in both emissions and technology reduced expected benefits. More importantly, we found that increasing survey frequency does not lead to corresponding increases in mitigation benefits. This implies one can reduce costs with fewer surveys without compromising on emissions reductions goals – a conclusion that will change the cost-benefit analysis many regulations are based on.Paper: A.P. Ravikumar, and A.R. Brandt (2017). “Designing better methane mitigation policies: the challenge of distributed small sources in the natural gas sector“. Environ. Res. Lett. 12 044023.Media Coverage: Stanford news releaseE&E news, Anthropocene Magazine