Carnegie Mellon University

Research

The Green Design Institute (GDI) at Carnegie Mellon University seeks to conduct, foster, and promote research pertaining to infrastructure and systems growth in the developing world. While adequate infrastructure is a key building block in elevating quality of life and social welfare, it is critical to pursue a balanced development path cognizant of both the returns to investment in systems and the associated environmental and human impacts. Broadly, research at the GDI seeks to find this balance.

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Access to modern infrastructure services is critical to global development and human well-being. According to the International Energy Agency, over 1.2 billion people in the world do not have access to electricity, while 3 billion people lack access to modern fuels for cooking and heating. Similarly, the United Nation reports that 2.1 billion people lack access to safely managed drinking water services and 4.5 billion people lack safely managed sanitation services. International organizations are investing billions of dollars to support global development efforts.

Such efforts, which aim to combat poverty and promote human well-being, need to also consider the externalities associated with global development. Such externalities include degradation of air and water resources, cultural degradation, and climate change. At GDI, we aim to develop a research portfolio that supports decision-making for sustainable infrastructure systems and global development. 

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Such research focuses on four cross cutting themes:

Providing access to infrastructure and economic opportunities to billions of people around the world will require the use of a broad set of natural resources, including fossil fuels as well as renewable resources. Reducing the environmental externalities associated with global development will require the use of novel technologies. Through this research track, we propose to evaluate the viability of novel technologies/resources to provide infrastructure services for the developing world.

In the energy sector, such technology/resources include advanced biofuels, carbon capture and sequestration for fossil fuel systems, hydropower, and nuclear power, among others. In the water and sanitation sector, such technologies include advanced membranes for wastewater treatment and desalination. Similarly, the advancements in telecommunication and sensing technology offer an opportunity to develop infrastructure systems that can be implemented in order to optimize efficiency, reliability, and customer service while minimizing emissions.

At GDI, we aim to focus on research questions that are specific to the context of development. For example, while Nigeria is one of the world’s largest oil producers, its power system suffers from rolling blackouts. As a result, the country also has privately-owned diesel generators that are distributed through the system. This creates an opportunity to evaluate how the country could use its own oil and the distributed generating assets to improve the reliability of the power system. Furthermore, it would be important to see how the country could leverage its renewable energy potential to support growing demand for energy services.

Efforts to attract investment for infrastructure systems in developing countries have achieved only limited success due to institutional and policy barriers. These elevate risk while attenuating returns on investment. There is a need for rigorous quantitative analysis of the merits of these interventions from a public policy perspective and on their effectiveness in improving the risk-return profiles of infrastructure development projects.

In this research track, researchers at GDI aim to develop appropriate economic and policy analysis tools for decision makers to evaluate the potential effects of an array of alternative policy interventions designed to mitigate risk and increase the economic viability of infrastructure investments. As an example of this type of research, we are currently working on a project to evaluate a business model for rural micro-grids in which a large anchor customer, like a cell phone tower, can be leveraged to support providing energy services to local communities. By having an anchor customer, the private developer could reduce their financial risk.

This research aims to develop fundamentally new methods for developing integrated infrastructure systems in underserved communities around the world. These integrated systems will have two priorities: resiliency (including climate resiliency) and sustainability. Such infrastructure systems could provide energy, water, telecommunication, agricultural, and mobility services.

The strength and novelty of this approach is to focus on the integration of critical infrastructure systems as the key to realizing truly resilient and sustainable systems. As an example, developing countries have an opportunity to deploy distributed energy and water systems with synergistic operations. For instance, anaerobic wastewater treatment processes that produce a byproduct of methane gas are widely recognized as one potential technology for energy-neutral wastewater treatment, thus reducing the requirements on the power system.

Additionally, water and wastewater systems could be operated as a load response mechanism to support energy system operations. Finally, water and wastewater systems have the potential for becoming low-cost energy storage systems that enable renewable integration to the grid.

Climate change, resource depletion, and environmental degradation are key externalities associated with global development. On the other hand, global development aims to improve human health and welfare. It is thus imperative that decisions about infrastructure development aim to minimize negative environmental externalities (like climate change) while maximizing socio-economic benefits. Providing a connection to electricity is not sufficient to support development, if power delivery is unreliable and generation increases air pollution.

Through this research track, GDI aims to develop impact assessment models. Such models, which exist for developed economies, account for environmental and socio-economic impacts such as adverse effects on human health, food production, and ecosystem services. This approach helps to inform systems and infrastructure planning and evaluation by incorporating non-market, social costs. This fosters the dual priorities of resiliency and sustainability.