Faculty Spotlight: Juan Moreno-Cruz

Juan Moreno-Cruz

Name:  Dr. Juan Moreno-Cruz

Fields of Specialization: My specialization is Energy and Environmental Economics. My areas of expertise are on Climate Geoengineering Economics and Spatial Energy and Environmental Economics.

Tell us about yourself.  Where are you from originally and why did you decide to study Economics?

I was born in Bogota, Colombia in 1979.  Colombia is a beautiful country filled with wonderful people and majestic scenery, one of the most bio diverse countries in the world, and enjoys vast amounts of resources. By all those metrics it should be an economic powerhouse.  But we have been plagued by violence since 1940 and have fought an internal war ever since.  We are hopefully reaching a new stage where peace is a real possibility. The result of all this violence is a highly unequal society where internally displaced people live in extreme poverty whilst the rich enjoy luxuries that the average person cannot even fathom.  Growing up at this time in Colombia, and being raised by socially responsible parents, created a sense of responsibility in me to make society better.  At the time, I thought the problem was one of access to goods and services. Thus, I decided to study Electrical Engineering with a specialization in power systems.  After graduation, I worked at the Energy Regulatory Commission in Colombia with the task of bringing electricity to rural areas in Colombia.  I thought that if poor people had access to electricity I could improve their lives, albeit slightly. But then I realized that violence and corruption was getting in the way of actually bringing electricity to them, and even if electricity was brought to those regions, only a few and powerful groups would enjoy it.  Rather than improving conditions, it would create more violence and make society more unequal.  At that time I realized I needed to know more about social norms and economic institutions.  When I applied to do my PhD at the University of Calgary, I was accepted to work on an interdisciplinary program mainly focused on engineering but with some strong social component.  My first class in social sciences was Microeconomics at the PhD level. That was my first ever class in economics. I loved it and I was fortunate enough that Economics loved my back.  I was asked to migrate from the interdisciplinary program to Economics, and my advisor David W. Keith, who is also quite interested in economics, agreed it was a good idea.  Switching to Economics has been one of my best decisions. It has been a very long journey to be where I am, but now I feel I understand better the conflicts and limitations facing Colombia, but I also understand the unlimited potential that can be generated if we resolve those issues.  Economics is an avenue towards that understanding.

What brought you to the SOE at Georgia Tech?

The market.  SOE wanted what I was offering and I liked the opportunities offered by an institution such as Georgia Tech.  I think my arrival to SOE is a textbook example of a matching equilibrium.

What is your favorite class to teach and why?

I like teaching Macroeconomics of Innovation.  It allows me to put the past, present and future of humankind in an economic perspective.  I can teach students about Malthusian economics, how we broke free from the limits imposed by land, and how we are facing similar limits now in terms of environmental problems such as climate change.  It also allows me to teach economics in a way that moves away from the dismal science to one that offers hope to the future of human kind through human ingenuity.

Talk briefly about your current research.

As I mentioned before, my research is divided in two main areas: climate engineering and spatial energy economics.

Climate Engineering:

Considering the possibility of a climate crisis and the inability of nations to coordinate effectively on the climate change problem, scientists are now exploring a new set of technologies designed to quickly lower temperatures without lowering greenhouse gas concentrations. These technologies fall under the category of climate geoengineering.  Climate geoengineering is defined as an intentional manipulation of the climate system that is global in nature. Climate geoengineering technologies are inexpensive and the climate system responds rapidly after they are implemented. However, geoengineering will introduce new risks in the climate system, such as a weakening of the hydrological cycle that increases the possibilities of droughts. Climate geoengineering will also affect the geopolitical system due to the risk of unilateral implementation and the uneven distribution of costs and benefits of its use. These risks need to be anticipated and addressed by the international community before deciding whether or not to use these technologies.  With my research I explore scenarios where deployment is preferred, but can lead to unintended consequences.  I consider normative issues using theory and numerical simulations and positive issues related to the international governance of this new set of technologies.

Spatial Energy Economics

The energy industry is the largest industry in the world.  Access to high quality energy sources has transformed our civilization and one could attach many important events in history to the discovery and use of new energy sources.  My research in this topic focuses on what I call energy economic development, which tracks how access to energy determines the location and magnitude of economic activity.  My research shows that our current economy exhibits large degrees of concentration of wealth and economic activity as a direct result of the use of very dense energy sources. To answer questions regarding the spatial use of energy resources, I have developed a set of theoretical models and empirical tests.  My coauthors and I have found that the discovery of coal in England lead to a large movement of people towards the north and away from the depleted forests in the south.  We have also found that the introduction of maize in Africa lead to an increase in population that had a large effect in the supply of slaves to the West, and that the regional industrial composition leads to a very large difference in the use of energy in the United States and the world. With this research we look to inform policy regarding future energy transitions towards more renewable sources.

You were recently selected as one of twelve BBISS fellows on campus. What work will you be doing with them?

This is very new to me and we will know more as the appointment progresses.  This is also the first generation of appointees so everything is learning as we go.  But in general what I have to do is to further research on sustainability inside GaTech, while also trying to inform policy and the general public.  My appointment gives me access to some of the best people on campus doing sustainability research. I also have some funding that allows me to help students go to conferences or to invite speakers to town working on issues of sustainability.

What do you consider to be your largest accomplishment?

My largest accomplishment is my beautiful little family.

What is the most interesting and/or challenging part of your job/research?

I love solving puzzles.

I think of my research as if it was a crime.  The overall research idea is the crime scene. First, you need to identify the crime.  This is done by looking into the data, looking for some sign of something that changes around the time and place where your crime scene is. Once you identify the crime, you need to find a set of possible suspects.  For this, you need to read history (very old, or very recent) and try to identify situations that can explain what you observe in the data.  Once you have a set of suitable suspects, you need to narrow it down.  This is called intent and opportunity.  Across all the possible events in history that could’ve caused the behavior you observe in data, which ones are plausible? What is the story?  Once you have your main suspect, you need to build your case.  For this I need evidence. I build my case using statistical methods, theoretical models and when the question calls for it, historical references.  Every piece has to be set so that you convince the jury your suspect is in fact guilty.  That is, you get published. Of course, this is not a linear process, I have to go back and forth trying new suspects, finding new evidence, building new cases.  

This process, which is all I do constantly at work, is the most interesting, challenging and rewarding aspect of my work.

What do you enjoy doing in your spare time?

In my spare time I read new research coming out in general interest journals like Science and Nature.  At this point in my career, if I am given the choice of reading a novel or reading some history book, I would pick the history book.  Not because I have to, but because I am a nerd.

What is your favorite book and/or TV show?

I like crime and sci-fi.  I liked “the girl with the dragon tattoo” series and I am looking forward to the new book on the series, even if with a different author.  Right now I am watching Agents of Shield, Buffy, Dexter and Breaking Bad.  I also watch “So you think you can dance” and “The Voice.”  The talent in those shows is pretty impressive.

What advice do you have for potential and/or current students in Economics?

Enjoy learning, I wish I were told not to worry about grades. I know this is standard advice that sounds cliché, but learning takes on a whole different level when you do it to feed your thirst for knowledge.

Read a lot.  Read everything.  Reading keeps your imagination active and allows you to create.  Creativity is the scarcer input into your production function, no matter what you do.