State of the Planet

News from the Columbia Climate School

Life as an Earth Institute Postdoctoral Fellow

By Daniel Soto

Daniel Soto

About this time a two years ago, I was preparing my own application to be an Earth Institute Postdoctoral Fellow.  I am beginning my second year in the fellowship and would like to share my experience with anyone who is interested in the program.

My work here at the Earth Institute explores new methods for delivering energy services in the developing world.  Most likely, you are reading this on an LCD screen in a building with ample power for lighting, cooling, computation, and communication.  In many parts of the world, this is not the reality and a service as basic as electric lighting is not available.  My work allows me to put my background in Electrical Engineering and Physics to use to bring these services to the developing world in novel ways.

As part of my work with Vijay Modi, we have designed and deployed systems that generate solar power, distribute it to homes, and allow for the payment of electricity in a method similar to the purchase of prepaid cellular airtime.  Last winter, I spent a month in Mali installing and debugging a prototype system and visited the Millennium Village sites where we would later deploy more systems.  Villagers were immediately able to study more comfortably at night and charge their cellphones at home.  Since then, I’ve been busy gathering data from the sites and exploring the consumption patterns of these new utility customers.  At the same time we are doing engineering work to lower the cost of the systems and make them more energy efficient.  These improvements will increase the likelihood that the systems could be deployed widely and provide the energy for light, communication, and entertainment for those who lack it.

Other work I have performed has been to test energy sources available in the developing world and determine the amount of light available at what cost.  Dry cell batteries and LED flashlights are gaining popularity.  We have build circuits measure the amount of light and energy available from these light and energy sources.  We find that the costs rural customers are paying for lighting is much greater than what customers with electricity grid access pay.  Understanding what prices are currently being paid for electricity help us determine what solutions are feasible from an economics perspective.

The Earth Institute Postdoctoral Fellows Program has also provided me with an inspiring cohort.  As Fellows we often meet to discuss each others work.  Beyond the group of Fellows, the Earth Institute has many researchers doing work that I am able to incorporate into my own.  Following the work of other groups has influenced my own work.  Because of the many connections within the Earth Institute, we are extending the work we have done on electricity into the areas of drinking water and agriculture.  I can see that the relationships I have already made here at the Earth Institute will be valuable in my research for many years to come.

Learn More:
Modi Lab
Overview of the Fellows program

Daniel Soto is an Earth Institute Postdoctoral Fellow

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