Making the case for investing in sustainable electricity infrastructure

In his path-breaking research, Ross Collins uses the concept of inclusive wealth to evaluate the impact of investments in sustainable electricity infrastructure. 

My goal is to come up with real-world insights that can be put into action.

Ross Collins is part engineer, part policy wonk, but his passion is sustainability.

“What excites me is the opportunity to make a case for sustainable development by combining traditional methods of economic and policy analysis with advanced system modeling tools,” he says. “My goal is to come up with real-world insights that can be put into action.”

His dissertation is one of the first pieces of research to use the economic concept of inclusive wealth to evaluate the future impact of sustainable development policies. Inclusive wealth—which includes manufactured capital, such as buildings, roads, and factories; human capital, meaning the skills, health, and education of the adult population; and natural capital, such as oil, timber, and coal—is a measure of a nation’s productive base.

“Economists use inclusive wealth to track changes to human well-being,” he says. “Increasing inclusive wealth indicates sustainable development.”

Specifically Ross looked at electricity planning in oil-exporting countries in the Middle East. Domestic oil consumption in these countries, driven by increasing electricity use, threatens their long-term development.

Ross found that if these nations were to put money into non-fossil-based electricity infrastructure—in particular solar and nuclear power—they would see an inclusive wealth benefit greater than the cost of their investment.

“It’s certainly not costless, but when you consider the fact that these countries would benefit in other ways, such as vastly improved air quality and lower carbon output, which contributes to climate change, it’s a compelling argument for making investments in sustainable electricity infrastructure.”

During his research and writing phase, Ross got involved with the Sustainability Initiative at MIT Sloan out of professional interest. “I was curious about options for doing sustainability-related work in the private and public sector,” he says. “I went to every lunch series event and it opened my eyes to what’s out there.”

Ross now works at PA Consulting in Cambridge. “My team applies a system dynamics approach to challenges in business and government,” he says. “We're trying to help clients implement long-term, systemic change so they don't keep coming up against the same problems over and over. It’s the ‘teach them how to fish’ model, which is in line with the MIT approach and my worldview too.”