In honor of the 45th anniversary of Earth Day, Berkeley will observe Earth Week April 19-25 to raise environmental awareness. But for some Berkeley students, conservation is always a topic on their minds. Two Energy & Resources Group (ERG) students, Daniel Sanchez and Erica Newman, recently earned national recognition for their groundbreaking studies related to climate change.

Daniel Sanchez at a test plot of Giant King Grass — a hybrid energy crop — for a biomass power plant in Nicaragua.
Daniel Sanchez at a test plot of Giant King Grass — a hybrid energy crop — for a biomass power plant in Nicaragua.

Sanchez, a 4th year ERG student who focuses on bioenergy, released a study detailing the positive effects of Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Sequestration (BECCS) — a technology that converts biomass such as wood and grasses into energy. It then captures the carbon released from the power plant and stores it underground so that it’s not released into the atmosphere. The process creates carbon-negative electricity that could help California meet its goals of reducing carbon emissions by 80 percent by 2050.

This is the first time that scientists have created an in-depth model that looks at the implementation of carbon-negative power plants in Western North America. Scientists have been trying to harness biomass power for centuries, but “using this to create energy at a commercial scale is new,” Sanchez explains. The results from the study were published in Nature Climate Change and were also featured in Vox.

Currently, a lot of biofuel derives from food sources. According to Sanchez, 40% of U.S. corn production goes into creating ethanol, which can be used for fuel. Sanchez was prompted to create the study because of his deep interest in climate change and finding different energy solutions. “We only have so much arable land in our world and the food that we grow on it should primarily be used to feed people,” Sanchez adds.

Sanchez first became interested in climate change while he was conducting energy research as a Chemical Engineering undergraduate at University of Pennsylvania. He enrolled in the ERG program at Berkeley because its interdisciplinary approach allowed him to apply his chemical background to real-world energy issues. After graduation, he’d like to work in federal energy policy and politics to inform energy sector reforms — he notes that carbon reduction will be a necessary incentive for any changes. “Energy touches on all aspects of life,” Sanchez notes.

Erica Newman, a Ph.D. Candidate in ERG.
Erica Newman, a Ph.D. Candidate in ERG.

Erica Newman, a Ph.D. candidate in ERG who researches disturbances in ecosystems, also looks at how climate change impacts ecology. This February she released a study in collaboration with Dr. Robert Lane showing that birds can be major hosts and potential spreaders of Lyme disease in California. Her discovery was written about in the LA Times, the Tech Times, and other national news sites.

“People have a misunderstanding that there’s no Lyme disease in California, although there is,” Newman says. While it’s not as pervasive as on the East Coast, she says that about 300,000 cases of Lyme disease are diagnosed in the country per year.

The study is also significant because it looks at how the habitat of a bird can contribute to its role as a carrier of infectious diseases.

“As the climate changes, we expect birds to be able to spread Lyme disease much more than small mammals, simply because they fly long distances. Birds have the potential to mediate the geographic spread of Lyme disease.”

Newman says that her interest in climate change was her greatest incentive for studying ecological issues. After receiving an A.B. in Physics from Amherst College and an M.S. in Physics from University of Michigan, her passion for ecology led her to work in bird conservation. She admires the songs and histories of birds, and is intrigued that they’re descendants of dinosaurs. While she was conducting fieldwork, the birds’ songs echoed throughout the fields and savannahs. “I love the way that they make an ecosystem come alive for your senses,” Newman says.

She adds that the classes at Berkeley have influenced her perspective on climate change and ecological management practices. “We need to focus on and fund research in ecosystem sciences and ecology if we’re going to have any hope of preserving the species that live on the earth with us,” Newman says. “I feel positive about dedicating my life to these efforts.”

To learn more about events happening around campus during Earth Week, visit the Student Environmental Resource Center website.