emLab spotlight: Ranjit Deshmukh

ranjit deshmukh headshot overlayed on a photo of solar panels

Please describe your role at emLab.

I am a principal investigator at emLab. I joined emLab recently, but have been working with emLab PIs for the last couple of years on a fairly large project looking at decarbonization of the oil extraction and refining sectors in California. I worked closely with Kyle Meng as well as Paige Weber and Danae Hernandez-Cortes. We are hoping to get more projects on fossil fuel and low carbon equitable transitions, but also on the electricity sector side transitions.

Where did you grow up? How do you think this area had an impact on the work you do now?

I grew up in India. It definitely impacts my work because I think a lot from the global south perspective, but living in different places also gives me a different perspective. We tend to simplify life in our world around us too much and not appreciate the little nuances of life. The more you travel, the more places you live in, and the more people you work with, meet, and interact with, you just have a much better sense of these nuances. 

What is your personal story behind why you do what you do?

I worked in the tech industry for several years and I just quit my job one day thinking, ‘I don't want to do what I'm doing. I don't know what I want to do but I know what I don’t want to do.’ So I went to India and worked with different social nonprofits and went for a long, like 2-month long, walk in rural India with the script to learn about issues that affect a lot of people. I learned a lot through that exercise. I wanted to marry my existing skills, like in engineering, with my values in my profession. The opportunity came up right after that to do a graduate program in energy studies, where I started working on renewable energy and energy transitions at the technology level and went back to India to learn about policy analysis in that same field. Now, I also love teaching and sharing what I’ve learned in my classes. 

What advice do you wish you received early in your career?

The advice that I wish I received is to explore many different directions other than what I latched on to early in my career and then figured out ‘ok, this is probably not for me.’ I think early on in your life, if you try to experience multiple areas of work, then you are better able to judge which direction you want to take. The more you are exposed to, the more you can make a better informed decision about your life. Don’t be afraid to change if you're not happy with what you’re doing; you can definitely change at any state of your life. Try all the different things, especially if you are in a position to do so. A lot of us are privileged; if you’re going to college, even if you are a first gen student, then you’re still privileged compared to everybody who is not going to college. That gives you some leeway to try different things, and you should take that opportunity. 

What is one-word that describes how you work?

One word, that’s a tough one. Creatively? Because my work is very interdisciplinary, I always like looking at creative ways of putting together different methods to answer particular questions. 

What keeps you curious about your work at emLab? 

The thing about emLab is that because there are so many different researchers, including faculty and staff researchers and students, you get to learn from so many different people using so many different methods. That makes it a super interesting work environment; you’re always a lifelong student even if you are faculty, so to me I’m always looking forward to learning something new from my colleagues. 

What do you think makes emLab unique?

What makes emLab unique are all the researchers, from faculty all the way to permanent researchers or staff to students and postdocs that work at emLab. That is what makes emLab unique. And the questions that all of us are trying to answer are really applicable to the real world, so we are all trying to make a difference rather than just pursuing theoretical research. We are all trying to answer some kind of unique applied research question that can then be used to inform policies or programs that make real change in the world. 

What aspect of your work are you most proud of?

Whenever my research is used to make real-world policy decisions, when stakeholders actually use our work and apply it in their fields, that is what I'm most proud of. As I conduct my research, I develop open-source models and datasets. We often get emails about reports that other folks have used our work or our products in their own research or their own policy analysis, and that enables our work to multiply rather than it being one research paper and it's done. We are helping others do more research or apply the data and tools in decision making. For example, we developed a platform to identify suitable wind and solar sites across different regions. This kind of work used to take several months to complete but we developed this platform called MapRE, which stands for Multi-criteria Analysis of Planning Renewable Energy. MapRE allows different researchers to do this analysis within just days and the World Bank really took that up. Their consultants started using our models for different countries around the world and over the last couple of years we’ve been co-developing this new platform with their team and a software consulting firm to develop a web-based platform where this kind of analysis can now be done within minutes or an hour. We’re hoping that this will take off so more people can use it to look at wind and solar resources in any part of the world. We developed this open-source platform back in 2020 and now more and more people are starting to use it. The alternative modeling tools cost a lot of money, like $50,000 a year or so for one particular license, and now people who are a little bit code/computer savvy can use our models to do a very similar kind of analysis for free.  

What research topic are you most excited to tackle next?

I’ve been exploring further work on energy systems transitions and what impacts they have on health, labor, and equity, as in who gets the benefits from low carbon transitions and who bears the burdens of the transition. We did that for California, but we are applying it to the electricity sector in China, and we are also doing something similar for India. Hopefully we’ll look at more oil and gas sector transitions for the rest of the United States. We’re also looking at applying machine learning methods for electricity markets analysis. I’m super excited about that because not many people have explored that angle. 

What kind of impact do you hope your work at emLab has on the world?

Our projects are trying to answer very specific research or policy questions, and I’m hoping to continue that kind of work which can actually inform decisions or help other folks make decisions based on our data, methods, and tools. 

What is your vision for emLab over the next 5 years?

Over the next five years, I’m hoping that all the different emLab projects are scaled up. I’m also hoping to create more projects and more partnerships within emLab, bringing in perspectives not only from the economics field, but with other disciplines too. Having multi-faceted research using different methods to answer the questions that we seek out, that’s my vision.


What is one song to describe this season of your life?

Hakuna Matata

What are 5 things you couldn’t live without? 

I am assuming these are inanimate things, otherwise, I would add my daughter and wife. Running shoes, bike, internet, good food, and mountains. 

What could you present about for 40-minutes with absolutely no preparation?

Why energy matters

If you could go to the past or the future as an observer, which would you choose and why? 

I would go to the future! Society, technologies, and culture are changing so fast. I’m just curious how things are going to evolve and how we could shape them today. 

What is one of the most inspiring places you have been and why?

The Himalayas — for their vastness, their steadiness through time, and yet their vulnerability to climate change. The Himalayas inspire me to act in any way possible to protect them, as just one example of nature’s greatness.

Were there any fields of study you were interested in before you chose energy science?

I was studying mechanical engineering and product design, and I even worked in that industry for about 5 years before switching to studying energy science, using methods from engineering and economics.

If you could be any animal, what would it be and why?

I would be an elephant because I’d be at the apex. I’d be large, but actually pretty fast and also gentle. Elephants are really wise and they don’t eat other animals. It’s like they are at the apex, but they are not destructive. 

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