Out of a fascination with bike mechanics and the outdoors came an interest in energy and environmental policy.
By Calee Lucht
May 8, 2017
As an undergraduate in the mechanical engineering program at the University of Virginia, Todd Gerarden’s fascination with bike mechanics mingled with his love of cycling and the outdoors; what emerged was a budding interest in energy and environmental policy. To learn more about the environment, one of his professors suggested he read Economics of the Environment, a collection of selected readings edited by HKS professor Robert N. Stavins.
That suggestion changed the course of his future career. “That book, edited by Rob Stavins, one of the foremost academics in environmental economics, rooted my desire to transition from engineering to economics,” Gerarden says. “Today, several years later, I am studying under and working with Rob here at HKS in the PhD in Public Policy program. That’s pretty incredible.”
After graduation, Gerarden interned at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy where he came to understand the central role economics plays in policy making. He admired the ability of economists to bridge gaps between the experts and the decision makers and to analyze potential policies in a rigorous, quantitative manner.
In 2010, Gerarden took a position as research assistant at Resources for the Future, an environmental economics think tank in Washington, DC. Here, his love of economic policy and academic research blossomed.
“It was then that I decided I wanted to train as an academic in order to work at the intersection of academia and policy; HKS seemed like an ideal place to do that.”
Gerarden was drawn to the PhD in Public Policy program where he could work at the confluence of multiple academic disciplines while studying policy areas of import and tailor his coursework to his interests.
He was also attracted by the opportunity to draw on faculty across Harvard University, including both academic-minded economists in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences economics department and more policy-minded economists at the Kennedy School.
“The highlight of my experience at Harvard has been my relationships with faculty, many of whom have become both mentors and friends during my time here. They are really in tune with the relevant issues of the day.”
One of his mentors, Associate Professor of Public Policy Joseph Aldy, served as special assistant for energy and the environment to President Barack Obama, among other distinctions. His course Energy Policy Analysis gave Gerarden the tools to examine the process of energy policymaking framed by economic and geopolitical constraints. Gerarden collaborated with Aldy and Richard L. Sweeney PhD 2015 to research the implications of two different types of subsidies for wind energy. They discovered that output-based subsidies like the Production Tax Credit encourage wind farms to generate more electricity than upfront capital subsidies, highlighting the tradeoffs policymakers face when designing policy to address the environmental impacts of electricity generation.
And with Stavins, research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research and former chair of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Environmental Economics Advisory Board, Gerarden examined why energy-efficient technologies are not adopted by consumers and business even when they appear to reduce both financial costs and environmental damage.
Gerarden’s various research projects examine different types of energy—wind, solar, coal—but all grapple with his overarching question: “How can we create the policies that allow both the environment and the economy to flourish? The environment is not just a thing we affect; it also affects us as people. It’s a feedback cycle.” Gerarden is even more keenly aware of this having just welcomed his daughter into the world; he hopes she’ll feel the same connection to nature as he and his wife do.
Schooled in both the outdoors and the classroom, Gerarden will continue the cycle, planting seeds and cultivating the minds of future students and conducting energy research that protects both the economy and the environment. His professional goal is to teach at the college level and perhaps spend time in government.
“HKS has been a great place to get feedback on my research and dive into where economics and policy intersect. I have access to HKS’s many centers, and other PhD students with deep experience, similar interests, and passion. The program has provided me with the firm grounding I needed.”