Valerie Thomas

Anderson Interface Professor of Natural Systems

Member Of:
  • Center for Urban Innovation
  • Climate and Energy Policy Laboratory
  • School of Public Policy
  • Technology Policy and Assessment Center
Office Phone:
404-385-7254
Office Location:
Groseclose 415
Related Links:
Overview

Valerie Thomas is the Anderson Interface Professor of Natural Systems, with a joint appointment in the School of Industrial and Systems Engineering and the School of Public Policy. Her research interests span energy systems, sustainability, industrial ecology, technology assessment, international security, and science and technology policy. Current research projects include the environmental impacts of alternative fuels, assessment of renewable electricity options, evaluation of alternative vehicle technologies, and energy development in Africa. Thomas received a B. A. in physics from Swarthmore College and a Ph.D. in theoretical physics from Cornell University. From 1986 to 1989, she was a post-doctoral Research Fellow at the Department of Engineering and Public Policy at Carnegie Mellon University. From 1989 to 2004, she was a Research Scientist at Princeton University, in the Princeton Environmental Institute and in the Center for Energy and Environmental Studies, and was a Lecturer in the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs. In 2004-05, Thomas was the American Physical Society Congressional Science Fellow. Thomas is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and a Fellow of the American Physical Society. From 2003 to 2009 she was a member of the US EPA Science Advisory Board. She is currently a member of the USDA/DOE Biomass R&D Technical Advisory Committee. 

Education:
  • PhD, Physics, Cornell University
  • BA, Physics, Swarthmore College
Awards and
Distinctions:
  • Georgia Tech Class of 1934 Outstanding Interdisciplinary Award, 2018
  • Fellow, AAAS
  • Fellow, American Physical Society
Areas of
Expertise:
  • Energy
  • Industrial Ecology
  • Lifecycle Analysis
  • Sustainability
Interests
Research Fields:
  • Clean Energy
  • Climate Change Mitigation
  • Energy Efficiency
  • Energy, Climate and Environmental Policy
  • Transportation
Geographic
Focuses:
  • Africa (Sub-Saharan)
  • Middle East
  • United States
  • United States - Georgia
  • United States - Southeast
Issues:
  • Energy
  • Environment
  • Environmental Performance
  • National Security
  • Science and Technology
  • Sustainability
Courses
  • PHIL-6000: Responsible Conduct-Res
  • PUBP-6701: Energy Technol & Policy
Recent Publications

Journal Articles

  • Infrastructure Ecology: An Evolving Paradigm for Sustainable Urban Development
       In: Journal of Cleaner Production [Peer Reviewed]

    October 2017

    Increasing urbanization places cities at the forefront of achieving global sustainability. For cities to become more sustainable, however, the infrastructure on which they rely must also become more productive, efficient and resilient. Unfortunately the current paradigm of urban infrastructure development is fragmented in approach lacking a systems perspective. Urban infrastructure systems are analogous to ecological systems because they are interconnected, complex and adaptive components that exchange material, information and energy among themselves and to and from the environment, and exhibit characteristic scaling properties that can be expressed by Zipf's Law. Analyzing them together as a whole, as one would do for an ecological system, provides a better understanding about their dynamics and interactions, and enables system-level optimization. The adoption of this “infrastructure ecology” approach will result in urban (re)development that requires lower investment of financial and natural resources to build and maintain, is more sustainable (e.g. uses less materials and energy and generates less waste) and resilient, and enables a greater and more equitable opportunities for the creation of wealth and comfort. The 12 guiding principles of infrastructure ecology will provide a set of goals for urban planners, engineers and other decision-makers in an urban system for urban (re)development.

  • Parametric Modeling Approach for Economic and Environmental Life Cycle Assessment of Medium-Duty Trucks
       In: Journal of Cleaner Production [Peer Reviewed]

    January 2017

    Using a parametric modeling approach, we evaluate economic and environmental life cycle trade-offs of medium-duty electric trucks in comparison with nine non-electric technologies.

    In terms of cost, whether total cost of ownership or also including health and climate impact costs, model year 2015 battery electric trucks in severe applications such as urban driving provide positive and robust net benefits in many areas of the U.S. However, for typical operations, petroleum diesel with idle reduction or hybrid-electric technology provide the largest overall life cycle cost benefit.

    Battery electric, idle reduction, and hybrid trucks emit lower life cycle greenhouse gas emissions across the board in comparison with the other technologies. Despite lower carbon-intensity, electric trucks tend to be water-intensive because of cooling water consumption for thermo-electric power plants. 

Working Papers

  • The Economics of Four Virginia Biomass Plants

    April 2018

    Global electricity generated from biomass more than tripled between 2000 and 2016, and it is forecast to grow at an increasing pace through 2050. Electricity generation from biomass is also expanding in the United States, particularly in the Southeast. Given the continued growth and policy support for biomass electricity generation, this paper assesses the economics of four Virginia biomass plants, three converted from coal plants in 2012 and one purchased and expanded in 2004. The goal is to estimate the levelized cost of electricity (LCOE) generated from the plants as a metric of their level of competitiveness with respect to alternative ways of meeting electricity demand in the region. The LCOE of the four plants range from $93 to $143/MWh, about 40-53% more expensive than new solar and wind today and is double the cost of energy efficiency. Even with the inclusion of federal subsidies and environmental credits, Dominion’s biomass conversions are not competitive. Overall, our analysis underscores the risks associated with investing in large, long-lived generation assets at a time when technologies and markets are rapidly evolving.

  • The Economics of Four Virginia Biomass Plants

    March 2018

    Global electricity generated from biomass more than tripled between 2000 and 2016, and it is forecast to grow at an increasing pace through the year 2040. Electricity generation from biomass is also expanding in the United States, particularly in the Southeast. Given the continued growth and policy support for biomass electricity generation, this paper assesses the economics of four Virginia biomass plants, three converted from coal plants in 2012 and one purchased and expanded in 2004. The goal is to estimate the levelized cost of electricity (LCOE) generated from the plants as a metric of their level of competitiveness with respect to alternative ways of meeting electricity demand in the region. The LCOE of the four plants range from $93 to $143/MWh, about 40-53% more expensive than new solar and wind today. Even with the inclusion of federal subsidies and environmental credits, Dominion’s biomass conversions are not competitive with several other established sources of electricity and affordable energy-efficiency options. Overall, our analysis underscores the risks associated with investing in large, long-lived generation assets at a time when technologies and markets are rapidly evolving.