Faculty Affiliate Spotlight: Duncan Callaway

December 8, 2023

Our latest spotlight interview is with Duncan Callaway, who shared how energy research became his field of interest and how he joined the Energy Institute. Duncan is an Associate Professor of Energy and Resources with an affiliate appointment in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, and a Faculty Affiliate at the Energy Institute at Haas.

What led you to become an energy researcher?

It started with a high school science project: my dad encouraged me to build wind turbines out of balsa wood and test which one was most efficient. I went to college intending to become a practicing automotive engineer – I even managed to work on fuel economy in my summer internships at GM. But I fell in love with academia and research in college. Working on electricity topics has been a great way for me to balance following things I’m curious about with choosing projects that have the potential for impact on society.

What brought you to UC Berkeley and the Energy Institute?

UC Berkeley and Lawrence Berkeley National Lab have had an influential footprint in the energy analysis space since the 1970s energy crisis, and so it was on the map for me as soon as I started working in earnest on energy research. When the opportunity to come to work at Berkeley came up, I was further swayed by the incredible people here. The students and faculty in my home unit – Energy and Resources Group – are just extraordinary.  After I arrived on campus I found that I could gain a lot by connecting my work more deeply with economics – and so the Energy Institute and its incredible people became a natural place to affiliate with.

How would you describe your overall research focus?

I work on a two-pronged research agenda under the broad umbrella of grid decarbonization. The first is what I call engineering innovation, focused on emerging challenges to grid operations and planning. I look at algorithms and control strategies for grid technologies. The second is energy analysis. This research examines what-if scenarios for technology deployment, taking a technical-economic approach to understand both costs and technology applications.

What is one research project you are most proud of?

PhD students Salma Elmallah and Anna Brockway and I completed a project looking at the impact of electrification on distribution systems in California. We leveraged a tremendous amount of data that Pacific Gas & Electric (PG&E) is required to file with the CPUC to do a detailed geospatial analysis of how the electrification of vehicles and homes will impact the performance of electric distribution systems. We estimated how the distribution system will need to be expanded and how much it will cost. The Energy Institute’s release of the working paper led to significant attention among policymakers and utilities, including being invited to testify before the state legislature. It’s been nice to see the research having this impact.

Finally, what’s an ongoing project that you’re excited about?

I’m working on a project with Meredith Fowlie and PhD student Cody Warner to understand the impact of wildfire mitigation efforts by PG&E. We have detailed data – also from CPUC filings – on the condition of PG&E infrastructure and the specific locations where ignitions have happened in the past. We’re just getting to the point where we can start to understand how effective various wildfire mitigation measures are. We’ll be able to compare undergrounding to enhanced vegetation management and public safety power shutoffs. This research comes at a time when PG&E has proposed to spend billions on distribution system undergrounding, so I am excited about its potential impact.