Resources for the Future welcomes three new fellows to the research team whose work spans electricity markets, international climate policy, state and local policies, and environmental justice: Jenya Kahn-Lang, Milan Elkerbout, and Suzanne Russo.
As climate and energy issues evolve over time, research at Resources for the Future (RFF) likewise evolves to meet those challenges—which includes building up our team of scholars. In recent years, RFF has heightened its focus on environmental justice and on the tricky challenges of the energy transition, such as decarbonizing heavy industry.
Bearing expertise in these fields and more, new RFF Fellows Suzanne Russo and Milan Elkerbout have joined this fall, and Jenya Kahn-Lang will join in 2024. Let’s take a look at how these new fellows may inform policy and the field of environmental economics as they start their work at RFF.
Before finishing her PhD in May 2023, Jenya Kahn-Lang already was making news with her research. A pair of articles published last spring cited Kahn-Lang’s study on price discrimination in residential electricity markets in Baltimore, Maryland. Energy suppliers in the city may have targeted their marketing toward lower-income households, resulting in higher electricity prices for those households.
To uncover these pricing inequities in Baltimore, Kahn-Lang collected consumer data, surveyed electricity ratepayers, and modeled the electricity market. The data suggest a few explanations. Unlike most US states, Maryland’s electricity market includes multiple firms that supply electricity to consumers. Higher-income households tend to find and choose options that are less expensive, perhaps because these households can afford to spend the time to search for better deals. Once households become customers at one firm or another, lower-income households may be less likely to monitor monthly price changes. Firms that raise rates after a few months tend to retain lower-income households that don’t notice the increase, while higher-income consumers more often change electricity providers.
Lower-income households may be more likely to buy electricity from firms that raise rates over time, in part because these firms target their in-person marketing efforts at those households. Lower-income households tend to be closer together, so these efforts cost less for firms. The result? “More households in those areas are signing up through direct marketing, and they sign up at relatively high prices when they do,” Kahn-Lang says in an article for Inside Climate News.
I’m especially excited to work with policy leaders and help grow RFF’s Environmental Justice Initiative to advance an equitable climate transition.Jenya Kahn-Lang
This work on pricing inequities reflects Kahn-Lang’s interest in energy justice, which she plans to explore in her research at RFF. Kahn-Lang draws on five years of experience consulting for state agencies and electric utilities; she’s built a wide network of contacts in industry and government. “Above all, I aim to impact energy and environmental policy through rigorous economic research,” she says. “This goal aligns exactly with what RFF is built to do, and I’m especially excited to work with policy leaders and help grow RFF’s Environmental Justice Initiative to advance an equitable climate transition.”
Kahn-Lang earned her PhD from the University of California, Berkeley, and currently works as a postdoctoral researcher at Stanford University, where she’s spending half her time engaging with RFF researchers.
Initially, Milan Elkerbout had the longest commute of the new fellows, relocating from Brussels, Belgium, to Washington, DC. He worked for almost a decade at the Centre for European Policy Studies, most recently as the head of its climate policy program. Elkerbout’s research on EU climate policy has earned attention from policymakers. In 2022, the European Parliament commissioned Elkerbout to coauthor a report on the extent to which the Fit for 55 package (the bloc’s signature set of climate policies) addresses gender equity.
Recent US climate policy drew Elkerbout’s attention from Brussels across the Atlantic, and his experience with EU policy is a welcome addition to RFF’s International Climate Policy Initiative. “With the adoption of the Inflation Reduction Act, I believe that the United States can become the driving force for industrial decarbonization across the globe,” Elkerbout says. The Inflation Reduction Act, which became law in 2022, contains provisions that aim to decarbonize industries, such as steel and cement, that historically have relied on carbon-intensive technologies.
With geopolitical volatility, energy crises, and accelerating climate change, contributing to effective and efficient climate policy on both sides of the Atlantic never has been more important.Milan Elkerbout
Elkerbout has worked on the implementation of low-carbon technologies with stakeholders in the steel and cement industries. He is wrapping up a project on the potential for carbon capture, utilization, and storage in the steel industry, and he recently completed an analysis on the development of clean hydrogen (produced using renewable energy) in the European Union. Tax credits in the Inflation Reduction Act incentivize both carbon capture and clean hydrogen, and RFF in the past year has prioritized research on these technologies.
Elkerbout has closely followed the European Union’s response to the Inflation Reduction Act, as well. Last winter, the European Union proposed its Green Deal Industrial Plan, which aims to boost the bloc’s domestic clean energy industry. “We [wouldn’t] have these proposals without the shock and awe triggered by [the Inflation Reduction Act’s] generous subsidies,” Elkerbout says in an article he published with the Centre for European Policy Studies.
At RFF, Elkerbout looks forward to informing policies on both sides of the Atlantic, particularly around industrial decarbonization and trade. “With geopolitical volatility, energy crises, and accelerating climate change, contributing to effective and efficient climate policy on both sides of the Atlantic never has been more important, nor more interesting,” he says.
Suzanne Russo has built her career around communities—what climate policy and sustainability look like for households and neighborhoods. After earning a master’s degree in community and regional planning from the University of Texas in 2007, she joined the New York City Department of Housing Preservation and Development. When the city experienced a slew of foreclosures in 2008 as the housing bubble burst and the financial crisis hit, Russo discovered that some households that were at risk of foreclosure found themselves choosing between paying mortgages or their energy bills.
“[These households] ended up foreclosing, because you can’t live without power,” Russo says on the Climate Champions podcast. “If we can get energy bills more affordable—if we can tackle energy efficiency and housing—we can help make living more affordable.”
Russo organized a team of researchers that collected data on energy poverty in the city and recommended investments in energy efficiency and affordable housing. City officials bought in and developed a set of policies to bolster residential energy efficiency. The experience convinced Russo of the value of community-level data, both as a tool to demonstrate that a problem exists and to inform potential solutions.
I’m excited to be close to the policy world at RFF and contribute to a broader understanding of climate solutions and the economic pathways that produce equitable outcomes across society.Suzanne Russo
Pecan Street, the nonprofit at which Russo served as CEO before joining RFF and still serves as a board member, embodies this devotion to data. The organization collaborates with households and communities to measure home energy use and generation (for households with rooftop solar) and then provides that data to researchers and firms. Under Russo’s leadership, Pecan Street expanded from collecting only energy data to also collecting data on water consumption, transportation, and agriculture.
Russo also established the Center for Race, Energy, and Climate Justice at Pecan Street to help ensure that benefits from climate solutions can accrue to communities that historically have been marginalized. “Equal access to energy (and its many benefits) is a fundamental tenet of equity in a modern economy,” says Russo in a case study she published on race and energy.
Russo joined RFF in September and will work on state and local policies, environmental justice, energy efficiency in buildings, and electricity markets. “The technologies that we need exist, or are close to existing,” says Russo. “Now, we have to get the policy right. As the country decarbonizes, I’m excited to be close to the policy world at RFF and contribute to a broader understanding of climate solutions and the economic pathways that produce equitable outcomes across society.”