Catherine Wolfram is the Cora Jane Flood Professor of Business Administration at the Haas School of Business, University of California, Berkeley. She is also Faculty Director of the Energy Institute at Haas and of The E2e Project, a research organization focused on energy efficiency. She is the Program Director of the National Bureau of Economic Research's Environment and Energy Economics Program and an affiliated faculty member in the Agriculture and Resource Economics department and the Energy and Resources Group at Berkeley.
Catherine's research focuses on energy markets and regulations designed to improve environmental outcomes. Her work includes randomized evaluations in the United States, Kenya, and India.
Catherine holds a PhD from MIT.
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If you look at current forecasts for world energy use, the most rapid growth is expected to come from developing countries. In order to understand any energy-related global issue, including climate change, we have to understand energy in this context.
What got you interested in energy markets and environmental economics?
I’ve always been interested in math and in applying it in a practical, useful way. After finishing my undergraduate degree, I worked at the Massachusetts Department of Public Utilities, where I got to really dig into the economics of the electricity industry. I liked the fact that electricity is used in so many different economic activities—it is really fundamental to our life. I also saw that economics had a lot to offer to real, current policy discussions. I decided a few years later to pursue a PhD studying electricity markets.
My research initially focused on markets in developed countries, but recently, I’ve been studying energy markets in developing countries. If you look at current forecasts for world energy use, the most rapid growth is expected to come from developing countries. In order to understand any energy-related global issue, including climate change, we have to understand energy in this context. It was natural that my work studying energy markets takes these emerging areas into consideration.
Is there a current research project in the energy and environment sector that you're particularly excited about?
I’m very excited about the Rural Electric Power Project in Kenya and India. In Kenya, rural households were offered connections to the electricity grid, then randomized to receive different levels of subsidy for the connection cost—anywhere from a 30 percent subsidy to a free connection. We just wrapped up a survey round to measure the impacts of electrification on these households. For example, we looked at whether kids study more at night, how much household income increases (if at all), and whether health improves. In India, we’ve partnered with Gram Power, a smart meter provider, to do similar research. It’s all very exciting!
Is there a burning question in energy and environment that you'd like to investigate?
A “dream evaluation” of mine would be to measure the impact of electricity reliability across the economy. Not just the impact on households, but also on hospitals and commercial businesses. One thing that anyone who has traveled to or lives in low-income countries knows is that in many cases, the electricity connection is there, but there are frequent outages—sometimes lasting half the day. I would love to conduct research to help understand how much of a drain this is putting on the local economy.
What is your most memorable story from the field?
My most memorable field experience was in Kenya with the Rural Electric Power Project. On the day that we connected the first household to the grid, the woman was so excited to get electricity that she gave me a live chicken as a thank you gift. I was honored, but I didn’t know what to do with it!
Are there any other new research projects or partnerships on the horizon for you?
I’m very excited about a new, multi-year applied research program funded by the UK’s Department for International Development that focuses on energy and economic growth. We’re exploring how investments in large-scale energy systems contribute to poverty alleviation and economic growth, specifically in sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. We’re in the agenda-setting stage this year and we hope to be issuing calls for researchers to submit project proposals in late 2017. There’s still a lot we need to learn about energy in the developing world.