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Summer 2013 Blog - Nidhi Kaul

Nidhi Kaul is spending ten weeks in Singapore working at the National University of Singapore.

July 24, 2013

As my previous blog post was all work and no play, I have decided to give a brief update on how my knowledge of Southeast Asia has been evolving.


Nidhi visiting a Thai temple in her spare time.

My coworkers and I have been eating at the best hawker centres around Singapore, famous for their chicken rice, rojak, popiah, and carrot cake (oddly not made with carrots but with fried turnips). I even sneaked a view of Gordon Ramsay and his amazing chili crab when he visited for the Singaporean cook-off with the nation’s famous chefs last month.

In addition to becoming a culinary connoisseur, I have developed a flair for international traveling. I first decided to tackle the bustling city of Bangkok, Thailand, with a student I met in the hostels. Throughout my four days there, I learned a few phrases in Thai: “S̄a wạs̄ dī ka” and “k̄hob khuṇ ka” mean hello and thank you, respectively. Having mastered the basics, I decided to pay Chatuchak Market a visit. Soon I realized that, despite being a Berkeley student, mental math in times of stress is quite challenging; the conversion rate of 1 SGD to nearly 25 baht had my brain churning throughout the trip. Despite being dubbed a “developing country,” its transit system is scores more efficient than the Bay Area’s. Its taxis and tuk tuks even have revolving disco lights – what a nightlife experience. One knuckle-popping foot massage, three beautiful temples, four mosquito bites, and many souvenirs later, I left Thailand – happy to be free of dengue and malaria.


Mitsubishi i-MiEV model that Nidhi’s research is based on.

Last weekend, I took a ferry to Batam, Indonesia, with two other Cal students. We arrived happily, unaware of the shock we were soon to experience. Impoverished men eating glass and fire for money, cigarette smoking in abundance (in bathrooms, malls, restaurants, elevators, and beyond), and noticeable smog were a few of the oddities I noted. Once again, I could not help associating these observations with my research at ESI. All the emissions combined from vehicle tailpipes and cigarettes must have led to increased concentrations of harmful airborne toxins, such as carbon monoxide and particulate matter. I certainly knew that the hydrogen cyanide was making me nauseous and light-headed; my two-day stay was enough to make me miss Singapura, my home away from home.

Back to work! My main research in the electric vehicle project has come to an end, so I am taking my last days to compose a short write-up on market-based, subsidy, cap-and-trade, and education EV policies with my colleagues. I cannot wait to present my findings to students and faculty at the Cal Energy Corps Symposium and hope people will gain a deeper understanding of the intricacies of “green goods” through my EV work. It is such a bittersweet feeling to know that I am Berkeley-bound in just one week, leaving behind some great new friends but taking away with me the priceless memories and knowledge that I have gained in the past three months.

Zàijiàn | Hati hati | See you soon | Aṭutta muṟai varai

(A salutation in all four or Singapore’s national languages)

July 16, 2013


Nidhi working at her desk.

Papers. Online research. More papers. Writing. Editing. Rinse and repeat.

Such have been my past three weeks at the Energy Studies Institute. The work is tedious (and distressing at times), but my colleagues understand that this is because much of the published research findings pass swiftly over my head; hence, they never hesitate to sit down with me and explain key concepts of environmental economics, finance, and statistics. These are the perks I have of working with Ph.D., M.Econ., and M.B.A. graduates!

I have been spending a portion of my time on drafting an article that I previously mentioned would be sent to the Singaporean government. Because it will be an official document published by ESI, my supervisor is taking no risks; he wants the composition to be of high caliber, with style akin to that employed by The Economist. In order to mimic its style, I have been reading various articles online as my first task every day. (There is a positive externality to this: I have been able to keep up with global news for the first time since joining debate club in high school.)

Another task, which I just finished completing, was to produce results from the emission analysis software, RiskPoll. The inputs the program required were extremely specific, causing my teammate and me to run in circles while looking for accurate numbers via endless emails, online mining, and phone calls. Ironically, to the amusement of our other colleagues, we later discovered that much of this data was sitting in ESI’s own library of books and journals.


Sample data from the analysis software that Nidhi uses.

Hereafter, we checked off all the data points from our list: emission source coordinates, statistical weather data, population density, health impact costs, and pollutant inventory. After successfully running the program model, I was able to find total mortality and morbidity costs due to classical pollutants under specific conditions in a given year. The whole team then met to find the capital expenses of EVs (Mitsubishi iMiEV) versus ICEs (Mitsubishi XXX) over a ten-year period.

Through this process, we created a spreadsheet in which the user can change base assumptions (discount rates, whether or not the owner will replace the battery, average annual distance driven, and health damage costs) and see its change on the ten-year price differentials between EVs and ICEs. My supervisor assigned me two tasks: finding electricity and gas price sensitivity to the fluctuating market and discovering break-even EV battery prices to make them economically sustainable in Singapore.

While performing calculations to input into the spreadsheet, I found myself floating in a sea of numbers. A related anecdote: last week, hours upon hours of if-else statements and VLOOKUP functions in Excel left me feeling like a zombie, low on sleep and social interaction. Many cups of rooibos tea and plates of Ritz crackers were consumed in stealth. I was anxious at the time being, but the knowledge I have stepped away with is priceless.

Now that the file is nearly complete, we are ensuring that all loopholes are closed. Just like any other research, there is a margin of error here; in our publication, we must clarify this and account for potential skew. I plan on doing this by modeling data uncertainty using research by Dr. Joseph Spadaro, an expert in the field. My team and I will be chatting with him via Skype to gain insight on how to perform our last steps in the project.


Nidhi learning about Singapore power plant data.

Even after these tasks, I realized that I had some free time on my hands. Since my supervisor realized how enthusiastic I was about renewable energy, he placed me on his Solar PV project. This team is currently studying various countries across Asia to determine which is using solar photovoltaic fiscal policy (known as “feed-in tariffs”) most efficiently to mitigate carbon. As others are acquainting themselves with policies of Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, and China, I’m working on becoming a Japan solar policy expert.

Before arriving at ESI, I thought that spending 10 weeks as a Cal Energy Corps fellow would be more than enough to produce quality results and complete publish-worthy research. Oh, but how wrong could I have been? There are only three weeks left now! The clock is ticking, and I’m working as fast as I can. You know the saying: “Procrastinators unite…tomorrow.”

Fortunately, that motto has no business in my life right now. We are so close to the end; I can almost see the light at the end of our EV tunnel. So, for now, I must resume my current schedule. Back to papers, research, and writing galore!

June 24, 2013

After encountering a couple of small obstacles in the past two weeks, the number-crunching portion of the EV project is finally up and running! In fact, my supervisor has created a pseudo-deadline for July, so maybe I will have time to gain exposure to other energy related topics during my time here.


Nidhi with an EV charging station.

The one EV team member who knew how to use our pollutant emission software was gone on extended leave for a few weeks. Now that he is back, he is slowing acquainting me with the (seemingly archaic yet unique) analysis program. Unfortunately, technical incompatibilities with Mac OSX have rendered me reliant on the large, sans-internet Dell CPU in my cubicle. In a way, this is a blessing – it motivates me to optimize productivity in the office so I can enjoy evenings without worrying about the viability of renewable energy grids in global markets.

Currently, my research requires me to mine through Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change data for PM 10 emission factors. Simultaneously, I am writing an informative sub-article that will be delivered to officials at the Government of Singapore! Hence, I have been taking my time to gather credible sources and compose a holistic review of the difference between measuring social costs of EVs (whose emissions are only from power plants) and ICEs (whose emissions also come from tailpipes).

Work has not been the only source of excitement lately. Recently, I witnessed environmental history evolve before my eyes (or shall I say, nose). Last Monday, I woke up to what I had thought was incredible fog; in reality, it was lethal haze from “transmigrational” forest fires originating in Sumatra, Indonesia. This haze contained incredible concentrations of particulate matter, PM 2.5 and PM 10, and it was steadily increasing. One day at work, my teammate burst through the door, tossed me a surgical mask, and informed me that Singapore’s pollutant standard index had climbed from 100 (moderate) to 400 (toxic) in the matter of hours.


The “haze” in Singapore.

We exchanged looks, and I already knew what he was thinking. My first weeks of literature review on vehicle pollutants were finally coming to use; PM 2.5 was not only causing unpleasant coughing and sneezing but also long term health effects such as respiratory and pulmonary diseases, lowered life expectancy, and even death (for those with pre-existing conditions).

I closed my eyes, trying to remember what clean air smelled like. What a hands-on way of experiencing my research, I thought to myself as I stowed away the mask for outside use.

Recently, the haze has cleared, finally allowing me to breathe in open air. I have since been able to attend a guest lecture on monitoring systemic risk by Robert Engle, the 2003 Nobel Laureate in Economics; I have connected with my colleagues over numerous dinners; I have explored the markets, “quays,” concerts, orchid gardens, and skyscrapers of Singapore; I have fiddled with a Bosch EV charging station at the Energy Market Authority of the Ministry of Trade and Industry; I have even seen this year’s super-moon under the luminance of Singaporean “supertrees” that use PV cells to harvest solar energy.


The Supertree Grove at Gardens by the Bay.

My experience here has been so wholesome, and, despite the scare caused by Indonesia, I cannot help enjoying every minute of it. Not all researchers are able to experience their written work in real life, and I have had the rare opportunity to understand how detrimental vehicle emissions can be for human health. If anything, these experiences are further motivating me to discover what renewable methods are economically viable so policymakers can start implementing new “green” ideas.

These are just baby steps. Yet chills run down my spine as I think about how, soon enough, countries will be pushing the status quo to achieve social optimums (think: demand and supply curve intersections).

How inspiring! Who ever said economics and environmentalism couldn’t go hand in hand anyway?

June 9, 2013


NUS Energy Studies Institute

So much has happened in the seven days that I have been in Singapore; yet, I still vividly remember my emotional highs and lows as I was packing in Berkeley last week. How humid is “humid”? Will the people there be accepting of me? What exactly will I be researching?

Here I am now; I’ve just finished my first week as an intern at the National University of Singapore Energy Studies Institute and it’s sufficient to say that “humid” is…at least 70%. (You won’t know it until you truly experience it.) People here are extremely friendly, and the research I’m beginning to learn about here is phenomenal!

Understanding that there is a learning curve to economic policy research, I have been spending my whole week reading hundreds of pages of literature on electric vehicles (EVs) and an externality methodology known as the Impact Pathway Approach.


Marina Bay Sands pool

I hope that gaining all this knowledge will help me apply myself in a more informed manner to achieve my end goal. By August, I aim to, through comparison of data from EVs and internal combustion engines (ICEs), quantify the economic viability of EVs in Singapore. In detailed terms: even though there is a heftier capital investment for EVs, the “social cost” of greater emissions (a negative externality) from ICEs, will equalize or even surpass the total cost of EVs. I will be working to boil down all the emissions from ICEs (such as sulfurous oxides, nitrous oxides, and particulate matters) to numbers in dollars per kilometer of “social cost.”

Sounds confusing? It most definitely is, but I am working with my supervisors who have assured me that I am the right woman for the job. I’m tackling this, one step at a time, in the air-conditioned confines of my cubicle – a rarity and leisure, as the temperature peaks around 93 degrees Fahrenheit outdoors.


Streets of Little India

Singapore hasn’t been all work and no play for me. I’ve done a fair amount of traveling with Jae, the other Cal Energy Corps participant. So far we’ve been to the Marina Bay Sands infinity pool. This was sheer luck as it is only open to hotel guests, but my friend happened to be staying there and she brought us in!

Recently, Jae and I met a group of students from University of Toronto and joined them on a trip to Little India.  It did not disappoint. Just as its name suggests, it fully epitomizes the environment of my family’s home country.

There is much more exploring to do and I can’t wait to delve in deeper – into both my research and the intricacies of the Singaporean island.

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