Footnote: Open SESAME, energy career paths, and the war in Ukraine


Energy researcher Ian Miller joins us to discuss modeling renewable energy, living in an active combat zone, energy and its connection to the war in Ukraine, and how he’s helping to deliver aid to Ukrainians on the frontlines.

Dig deeper into our article Responding to Ukraine’s “ocean of suffering” in this footnote edition of Energy Reads.



Kelley Travers: Hello and welcome to Energy Reads. My name is Kelley Travers. I’m your host and I’m speaking to you from the MIT Energy Initiative.

Sometimes when we read these articles to you on the podcast, there’s just a bit more to the story that we’re dying to tell you, and now we can. Today is our first footnote edition of the podcast where we will be digging a bit deeper into some of our articles.

In our last episode, Responding to Ukraine’s “ocean of suffering”, we introduced you to Ian Miller. He’s an MIT alum, as well as a former colleague of mine at MIT. While at the Energy Initiative, Ian researched electric vehicles and also worked on a modeling tool called the Sustainable Energy System Analysis Modeling Environment, or SESAME. This tool allows us to study the carbon footprint of the energy system as a whole. Plus, if that’s not enough, Ian’s also an expert on photovoltaics and wind power.

As we learned in the article, within 72 hours of the first Russian missile striking Kyiv, Ukraine, Ian was on a plane to Poland. He’s been working tirelessly to aid the Ukrainian people ever since. He co-founded Zero Line, a non-profit dedicated to delivering medical aid, vehicles, and equipment to Ukrainians on the frontline.

Today I’m joined by Ian to talk more about his work, his interest in energy, and how he got to where he is today. Thank you for being here, Ian, and for taking the time to share more about your life with us.

Ian Miller: Thanks a lot for having me. It’s an honor.

KT: There is a lot to talk about. Your story is so interesting and so inspiring. Let’s just dive right in. I’m going to start with an obvious question. How did you get involved in energy?

IM: I first got interested in energy in college. I was majoring in government at Georgetown and I took an energy policy class, which was focused on policies to fight climate change. That was very interesting to me, but it didn’t really go anywhere energy-specific just yet. But it did start an interest, a simmering interest. Then after college, I became a science teacher. I started a afterschool science program called Young Scientists. I taught that in Uganda, New York, and Boston. A big part of that curriculum was about energy. It was focused on energy. Now, it was for little kids, sometimes high schoolers, but still describing the science of energy and of conversion of chemical energy into fuel and electric energy for middle schoolers and above. That built my interest further.

Gradually, I realized that there was a engineering desire in me and that I wanted to work in energy technology somehow. I looked at ways to do that. Chemical engineering was a very appealing way because there’s so many applications in energy within chemical engineering. Whether it’s designing materials for better photovoltaics or biofuels, or the software modeling world, which is so important to electric vehicle adoption and many other areas of renewable energy growth.

I looked at how to get into chemical engineering and the short answer was graduate school. I got some coursework under my belt in chemical engineering, some of the prerequisites I was missing. I got myself into a couple laboratories at MIT as a lab assistant to get some real wet lab experience with professors Doyle and Gleason. Then I applied and focused on energy in my master’s in chemical engineering at MIT.

KT: Do you think any of your early experiences also set you on this path, or do you think it was really that energy policy class that kicked it off for you?

IM: It was a big part of it. There was a more general interest. Why did I take the energy policy in the class in the first place? Learning about energy challenges and climate change concerns and staying informed on those topics, and getting really excited about growing electrification, not just in transportation, but in other areas like home heating and beyond. That was a motivator as well.

KT: When you started working on your master’s in chemical engineering, you were pursuing studies in solar and wind energy. Then your research moved more into electric vehicles and modeling greenhouse gas emissions across the energy spectrum. Can you tell us a bit about your research trajectory and how it’s shifted over time?

IM: I started in wet labs before the master’s. I was working on micro batteries in Professor Karen Gleason’s lab. Then in my master’s and then into my thesis research with Professor Bob Armstrong, I shifted more towards modeling. They were surely related because experiments always involve some amount of modeling, whether it’s in the predictions or the measurements or the analysis or a combination. I had always been interested in renewables. Bob, and MITEI more broadly, are doing so much exciting essential work in modeling of renewables.

I was immediately interested in that. When Bob and Dr. Frank O’Sullivan described to me the modeling work they were doing and the SESAME work that was just nascent—it was just starting with Dr. Emre Gençer—I was really interested. So they took me on. The wind and photovoltaics analysis related really smoothly to the electric vehicle work. Because as the SESAME group grew and our research grew, I got to see the big picture of how renewables and electric vehicles can interact.

KT: We’ve mentioned SESAME a couple times now. Do you mind just running through what SESAME actually is?

IM: Sure. SESAME above all is a fun name for a software platform so that people can say, “Open sesame.” That’s my bad joke.

KT: That’s good. I like it.

IM: “Sustainable Energy System and Modeling Environment” is the acronym. SESAME focuses on analyzing questions like, “If electric vehicle share of the fleets in a country, say the U.S., grows to 50% by 2040, what does that mean for electricity demand? What does that mean for the shape of electricity demand? How does that affect the possibilities for the power generation mix?”

Scenario analysis is a really big focus of SESAME. Look at that high EV future with high renewables with no manipulation of when people charge. Just assume it matches when they charge today. Then compare that to a scenario where virtual power plants and other intermediary companies shift when electric vehicles demand energy and estimate which scenario has higher costs, which scenario has higher emissions. Those are the two most important outputs of the SESAME model when it’s analyzing any future scenario. The greenhouse gas emissions associated with that scenario and the costs associated with that scenario.

I don’t want to jump the gun here, I can’t resist just a little. It might not be widely known how much the war in Ukraine has generated interest in renewables.

KT: I’m glad that you made that segue because I was actually just going to ask you about your work in Ukraine. Because it really does seem like, one, energy is such an underlying thread in this war, but also, you are there doing great work. When the war in Ukraine broke out, you immediately flew to Poland to see how you could help. I think a lot of people wish that they could help in those moments but few actually get on the airplane and do it. Can you tell me what it was like making that decision?

IM: I made the decision for three reasons: inspiration, ease, and impact. The inspiration part was watching the news on February 26th, the third day of the invasion, on my couch in Boston. I was horrified by what Russia’s army was doing. The attacks on civilians. The indiscriminate bombing was a feature, not a bug, from day one. I was inspired by Zelensky’s calls for help among others. He was begging not just governments, but explicitly, private foreign citizens to come help in any way they could. I had the thought, “Maybe I could go try to help.”

That light bulb then became a more rigorous analysis. I wrote it down and looked at the pros and cons. That’s where the ease part kicked in. I knew that I could go to Poland and try to help. It was, in that sense, somewhat low stakes. I didn’t need to know that I’d be able to help or need to know what the coming months held to try it out. I figured if I failed to be helpful, I’d turn around, visit my sister in France where she lives, and come back and call it a trip. The third part, the impact part, was why I didn’t turn around and I stayed there and kept working.

KT: What was it like in those first days? You were still working at the Energy Initiative, balancing that job, but then also, I think, sitting in lobbies of hotels seeking out opportunities?

IM: You’re exactly right. I was posting up in the cafe lobby of my hotel, working my MIT job on my laptop, and hoping to overhear some of the hundreds of volunteers and reporters who were working out of the hotel and surrounding the train station. I mentioned that I encountered thousands of refugees. I also encountered hundreds of volunteers, some with preexisting NGOs, some not, like myself.

One day, I think it was my second day there, I overheard a Finnish man interviewing with a reporter about the aid work he had been doing. He beat me by a couple of days. On the first day of the invasion, he was working at Oracle in Finland in logistics. He decided, along with a couple colleagues, to drive a van down full of bulletproof vests and bulletproof helmets. The reporter was asking him about that work. I interrupted and we verified identities. Then I asked if I could maybe shadow him and his colleagues, and he said, “Absolutely.” In that shadowing, quickly, we realized that I could help and began doing so. It started with helping procure and fulfill delivery of some observation drones that were going to Kyiv’s northern suburbs that week, which at the time were the front lines. They were under attack by that 40-mile convoy of Russian troops. We kept on iterating and growing. I can say more about that, but that was the start.

KT: Since then you’ve co-founded a non-profit called Zero Line that’s aiding Ukrainians on the front lines. Can you tell us about Zero Line and the work that you’re doing?

IM: Yes. Zero Line has a mission and a method. The mission is saving Ukrainian lives and doing our small part to accelerate the end of the war. Our method is helping Ukrainians avoid Russian bombs. Russian artillery is the number one cause of Ukrainian deaths in this war, responsible for approximately 80% of the over 100,000 Ukrainians who have been killed since February 2022.

We provide that help partly through research. Through heavy front-line research—boots on the ground interviews and observations—we try to identify important gaps in government aid, in government capacities, and also homegrown Ukrainian programs who are filling those gaps but not getting the support they deserve. Then Zero Line provides that support, injects private donations to provide desperately needed equipment and other aid, and also does what we call partner coordination. Basically, trying to attract bigger, more institutional supporters for these really lifesaving, impactful programs.

We’re the tiniest bit like a venture capital firm or an incubator. In that, there is this huge need, this valley of death. Ukrainian civil society is doing amazing work, but because of what Putin is doing, because of the industrial-scale war crimes and attacks, the Ukrainian government can’t possibly do everything. We have attracted some in-kind donations from corporations, including a 300 large lithium battery shipment from a Finnish company, and some others. So that avenue is not a closed door. We absolutely want to engage more companies, maybe some more technology-focused ones, maybe some institutions like MIT, honestly, about their used laptops.

The aid that Zero Line provides—we’re a 501(c)(3). We’re not a military contractor. The physical items we’re providing are things like tourniquets, rugged laptops, communication equipment is a big focus.

KT: I thought it was really gripping to read about how you quantified lives saved per dollar. What you’re talking about is these things that you need on the front line—$100 buys for tourniquets, $1,000 adds crude steel armor to a Jeep. It just really made an impression.

IM: Big time, yes. We try to make it concrete, both in our analysis and in our donor-facing communications. People need and deserve to know how their donations are actually going to save lives, what concretely they’re going to become.

KT: Yes, absolutely. What has it been like living and working in a combat zone?

IM: It’s a weird mix of normal and New York City post-9/11. I lived in New York City when the Twin Towers were struck. I’ll never forget being there and walking around the days and weeks after. Everyone you looked at, the feeling of having the same thoughts was insane and intense. Basically, it feels like that every day in Kyiv. Yes, millions of people are going about their jobs, but almost all of them have a family member on the front lines or in the military, or who has been killed or wounded, or who’s in Russian army-occupied territory living a nightmare, or who was forced to dig trenches for the Russian army. The majority of them are putting a big chunk of the paychecks from those jobs that they’re walking to, towards the defense. It’s obviously very different from the normal that we know in the U.S.

KT: Yes. I can’t even imagine. It’s incredible what you’re doing. We talked a little bit a moment ago about energy and how it’s a big theme in this war, from Russia cutting off energy supplies to Europe to they’re targeting Ukraine’s energy infrastructure. Can you speak a little bit more to this, from your perspective as both an energy researcher and as someone who’s there in the thick of it?

IM: Like you said, this war is largely about energy. Energy was one of the biggest factors that caused the war, tragically. What I mean by that is, Putin invaded Crimea and the eastern Donbas in 2014. The free world and Germany’s government responded by increasing energy imports from Russia. Germany’s government was definitely hoping that engaging with a dictatorship was going to, not only help their own economy, but also help that dictatorship become less malevolent. It’s not a crazy idea. Many countries, including South Korea and Singapore and others, over decades after World War II, did go from more autocratic governments to more democratic governments while increasing trade with the freer world.

Now, it all ties back to renewables and nuclear as well. Because one reason Germany was so desperate for energy supplies and natural gas from Russia was because they shut down their nuclear power fleets in the aftermath of Fukushima. It went from roughly 20%, maybe a little less of Germany’s electricity supply, to nearly 0%. The replacement has to come from somewhere. A lot of it has come from renewables’ growth, but not enough.

The last energy component I would mention would just go back to what we talked about a little at the start. Zero Line is all about filling these holes in government capacity. Naturally, we coordinate with government, and that includes members of parliament, to work in energy, including the chair of Ukraine’s parliament’s Energy Committee. These people are really interested in increased renewables, not just for the environmental benefits we talked about before, but for the resiliency benefits.

KT: Thank you so much for telling us about that. The work you’re doing in Ukraine through Zero Line is super important. I want to give you an opportunity to tell any listeners who might want to support your cause how they can help.

IM: Donations to Zero Line really are like a turnkey way of saving lives in Ukraine. Now, there are other ways of saving lives in Ukraine, and there are many good organizations. But for anyone listening, if you’re looking for an effective way, you don’t have a week to do research. Zero Line is a very effective way to help Ukraine. zeroline.org is our website. It’s fully tax-deductible, if you care about that. We’re grateful for all the help anyone can provide, and we reciprocate with operational updates that show photos and media of the ways that your donations become high-impact aid.

KT: Thank you for sharing your story with us today, Ian.

IM: Thanks so much, Kelley.

KT: To our listeners, thank you for joining. I am Kelley Travers, and this is Energy Reads.

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