Preparing for a warming world: CITRIS at the vanguard of climate tech research

Three-photo collage: A four-wheeled robot in a field, three men standing on and next to a tractor, three people holding earthen blocks.

By supporting interdisciplinary endeavors and seeding multicampus sustainability projects, CITRIS helps to keep the University of California at the forefront of climate mitigation and adaptation efforts.

In her plenary remarks at the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Glasgow, Scotland (COP26), Jennifer Granholm — current U.S. Secretary of Energy and former senior research fellow at the Center for Information Technology Research in the Interest of Society and the Banatao Institute (CITRIS) — said, “We face a great challenge in eliminating carbon pollution and avoiding the worst impacts of climate change, but the opportunity at hand is even greater.”

Since CITRIS was founded as a California Institute of Science and Innovation (Cal ISI) at the University of California (UC) in 2001, it has sought to catalyze IT solutions to society’s most pressing issues by uniting the unique strengths of the UC’s campuses at Berkeley, Davis, Merced and Santa Cruz under a single interdisciplinary banner. Developing sustainable energy technology to help mitigate the effects of climate change has been on the CITRIS roadmap from Day One. 

A person crouches in grass with green fields and mountains in the background behind him. Next to him is a four-wheeled robot with two arms, one green and one red, sticking up perpendicular to the ground.
UC Merced professor Stefano Carpin worked with UC Berkeley’s Ken Goldberg and UC Davis’s Stavros Vougioukas on the Robot-Assisted Precision Irrigation and Diagnostics (RAPID) project, which both conserves water and leads to healthier plants. Photo by UC Merced.

From enabling more accurate models of California’s water supply with Sierra-Net, to building resource-saving agricultural tools such as the Robot-Assisted Precision Irrigation and Diagnostics (RAPID) system, to launching transformative green tech startups, CITRIS researchers have seen a number of the challenges emerging in our warming world and risen to address the opportunities. 

Sustainability is, in fact, woven into CITRIS’s very infrastructure: Its Berkeley headquarters, Sutardja Dai Hall (SDH), has stood as a proving ground and “living laboratory” for green building technologies such as smart dust and distributed intelligence automated demand response (DIADR) since its construction in 2009. SDH also serves as a key facility in the UC’s CalTestBed partnership with the California Energy Commission (CEC).

Sutardja Dai Hall on a cloudy day with the UC Berkeley Campanile in the background.
Sutardja Dai Hall, CITRIS’s headquarters on the UC Berkeley campus, has served as a “living laboratory” for green building technology since its 2009 construction.

Many of CITRIS’s current research efforts in climate, energy and sustainability are centered in the CITRIS Climate initiative, which includes the California Institute for Energy and Environment (CIEE), a UC Berkeley-based organization with more than 30 years of history in advancing energy science, technology and policy. 

“CITRIS exists to bring cutting-edge, IT-based solutions to society’s most pressing problems,” said CITRIS Director Costas Spanos, Andrew S. Grove Distinguished Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Sciences at UC Berkeley. “CITRIS Climate brings together the best minds to work together across many disciplines to address this existential problem of our time.”

Designing a resilient energy grid and building the farm of the future 

One of CIEE’s hallmark energy innovation endeavors is the Oakland EcoBlock, a project to radically retrofit a four-acre block in the Fruitvale neighborhood and apply next-generation energy tools and technologies, including a solar-powered microgrid, to existing infrastructure. EcoBlock is intended to serve as proof of concept for a system that can be scaled up and adapted to cities across the world.

Funded primarily by the CEC’s Electric Program Investment Charge (EPIC) and featuring collaborations with public and private partners, EcoBlock is working to lower carbon emissions on the block to near zero while also reducing electricity consumption by over 80 percent and water usage by 50 percent. Its community microgrid was named an exemplar by PG&E. 

EcoBlock celebrated a number of milestones in 2022, including preparation for block-level construction, which is expected to begin this year, and the formation of a formal community association.

“Our experiences [with EcoBlock] can help guide the resolution of the kinds of challenges that we’ve encountered in the process of creating a block association,” said CIEE Director Carl Blumstein, executive director of CITRIS Climate.

In the Central Valley, CITRIS researchers are playing a role in the largest federal grant ever awarded to the region. In September, the White House announced that $65.1 million in Build Back Better funds would go to the Fresno-Merced Future of Food Innovation (F3) coalition. CITRIS at UC Merced campus Director Joshua Viers will help launch the F3’s Center for Research and Entrepreneurship in Agrifood Technology and Engineering (iCREATE), an institution designed to facilitate discoveries in “climate-smart” agriculture, food and water systems.

One person stands on a large tractor that is pulling a rotary tiller, holding a map printed on fabric. Two other people stand next to the tractor’s rubber tracks, where another map hangs.
Farm coordinator Danny Royer, CITRIS at UC Merced campus Director Joshua Viers and professor Thomas Harmon celebrate the inaugural tilling of the UC Merced Experimental Smart Farm. Photo by Veronica Adrover/UC Merced.

Sustainable agriculture and food technology, or ag-food-tech, is a major focus for CITRIS’s UC Merced campus, where CITRIS affiliates lead and support efforts such as the AI Institute for Transforming Workforce & Decision Support (AgAID), a research collaborative funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) to develop artificial intelligence (AI) solutions for agricultural challenges; Labor and Automation in California Agriculture (LACA), an interdisciplinary UC Multicampus Research Initiative (MRPI) focused on food system resilience and human-centered ag tech; the USDA-backed Secure Water Future (SWF) program, which develops water management strategies for drought-affected agricultural areas; and the UC Merced smart farm, newly designated the campus’s agricultural experiment station (AES) facility

Engineering greener aviation and improving environmental monitoring tools 

Air travel currently accounts for approximately 2.5 percent of global carbon dioxide emissions, and the industry is rapidly becoming a top source of greenhouse gas emissions as flight demand continues to increase. CITRIS Aviation, a research initiative alongside CITRIS Climate, is prioritizing low-cost, sustainable transportation and drone technology that can be used to monitor the effects of climate change. 

CITRIS Aviation Director Ricardo Sanfelice, a UC Santa Cruz professor of electrical engineering and computer science, is among the many CITRIS researchers working on environmental monitoring tools. In March, his team received $100,000 from the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL) to create a position, navigation and timing (PNT) system for aerial vehicles to serve as a safer and more accurate alternative to GPS in remote, wildfire-prone forested areas.

A black drone with multiple rotors hovering in a blue sky.
Developing tools to help researchers track and adapt to the effects of climate change is a strategic priority for the CITRIS Aviation initiative.

“In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, aviation is adapting its infrastructure to the new normal,” said Sanfelice. “Understanding sustainable solutions for propulsion, power and autonomy is at the core of CITRIS Aviation activities. 

“We are collaborating across the University of California and with our industry partners to create more efficient, effective and sustainable technologies and policies.”

CITRIS Aviation affiliates are developing a firefighting “toolkit,” currently under review for UC climate action support, that combines aviation, sensing and decision-making technology to help first responders easily access real-time wildfire progression information and effectively guide the deployment of emergency resources.

CITRIS’s flagship Seed Funding program has also supported research that improves wildfire detection with uncrewed aerial vehicles (UAVs), such as the EUREKA project led by UC Santa Cruz’s Katia Obraczka, and creates drone-based remote sensing tools for post-wildfire landscape surveys, such as an ecological resilience project led by UC Davis’s Gary Bucciarelli. Additional awards have gone to work that advances energy savings in aviation, including a bioinspired, AI-optimized materials project led by UC Berkeley’s Grace Gu.

“Understanding sustainable solutions for propulsion, power and autonomy is at the core of CITRIS Aviation activities.”

Ricardo Sanfelice, Director of CITRIS Aviation

The 2021 UC Santa Cruz campus seed awards focused on drone technology specifically, supporting projects that featured drones creating spatial “heat maps” to measure snowmelt and detecting agricultural disease outbreaks with multispectral sensors and machine learning.

Decarbonizing off-road transportation and developing better irrigation maps

CITRIS Seed Funding has seen sustainability as a strong throughline, particularly in recent years. The 2022 UC Santa Cruz campus awards, themed around climate resilience, funded projects addressing green sources for hydrogen, ecological monitoring with robotics, net-zero home water systems and more.

A 2021 CITRIS Seed Award to a team led by UC Berkeley’s Paolo D’Odorico showcases the CITRIS research community’s ability to pursue massive data problems at scale: The group aims to develop high-resolution, near-real-time models of irrigation systems worldwide with satellites and artificial intelligence. These models will help guide policy decisions on water management and investment.

A tractor tilling a field with dirt flying into the air behind it.
Almost all agricultural vehicles in current use rely on fossil fuels. A multicampus research team led by UC Merced’s Ricardo de Castro is identifying pathways to more sustainable farming operations.

The electrification of agricultural equipment has received support from CITRIS’s core Seed Funding as well, in line with California’s efforts to transition all off-road vehicles to zero-emission propulsion by 2035. In 2021, a research team led by Ricardo de Castro of UC Merced won an award to develop a data-driven tool to help farmers manage mixed fleets of electrical and diesel tractors to balance performance, cost and local air pollution levels. 

“Off-road vehicles will surpass road transportation as the largest source of smog-forming nitrogen oxides,” said de Castro. “This is particularly problematic in the Central Valley, where more than 50 percent of California’s agriculture equipment is in use.”

Construction vehicles are anticipated to be another major market for electrification. A 2022 CITRIS Seed Award to Shima Nazari of UC Davis aims to help her team create system-level models for heavy machinery and their batteries, as well as alternative battery designs for electric construction vehicles such as loaders and excavators.

Meeting challenges and seizing opportunities

As the heart of CITRIS’s climate, energy and sustainability technology research, the CITRIS Climate initiative works to confront the harmful effects of climate change, especially those burdens that disproportionately fall upon underserved communities, through multicampus, multidisciplinary activities.

“There is no climate solution without climate justice,” said Michele Barbato, professor of civil and environmental engineering at UC Davis and director of CITRIS Climate. “If we do not address the problem of climate change now, we will see these problems grow exponentially and be more painful in the future.” 

Under Barbato’s leadership, CITRIS Climate is focusing its efforts on climate mitigation, or reducing the negative effects of climate change, and climate adaptation, or adjusting society to the effects that we see now and expect to see in the future. 

“There is no climate solution without climate justice.”

Michele Barbato, Director of CITRIS Climate

Current areas of dedicated research for the initiative include lessening the severity and impact of wildfires, building sustainable and resilient communities, and, in alliance with CITRIS Health, developing resources for healthy aging in a warming world.

Indeed, CITRIS Climate holds thoughtful collaboration as a fundamental strategy of its work. Beyond the four CITRIS campuses and associated centers such as the UC Davis Climate Adaptation Research Center (CARC), the initiative has partners across the University of California, as well as the California State University system, state and federal agencies, nonprofit organizations, for-profit companies, and national laboratories. 

“When addressing the problem of climate change, you cannot do it in a vacuum,” said Barbato. “We need to build a community across disciplines. 

“The superpower of CITRIS is putting together people in very different fields who otherwise would not have an opportunity to work together.”

These relationships are often between individual investigators and partner organizations, but Barbato is excited to explore more formal institutionalization, since these outside institutions offer valuable perspectives in solving problems.

“The capacity to look at the problem from different angles is a major benefit of working within CITRIS,” he said.

Four people wearing face masks and hard hats pose with earth blocks.
CITRIS Climate Director Michele Barbato, second from left, and his research team are developing compressed and stabilized earth blocks to serve as disaster-resilient construction material. Photo by Karin Higgins/UC Davis.

He also identifies workforce development as an essential tactic for tackling climate change. Having a climate-specific track in the CITRIS Workforce Innovation Program and similar initiatives trains college students for jobs that require climate mitigation knowledge, including those at the local and federal policy levels.

In support of UC’s sustainability goals, CITRIS Climate aims to use its silo-busting superpower to convene UC faculty, staff and students to drive progress in critical climate and energy technology. With the potential to accelerate this work through climate action funding from the state, CITRIS’s holistic approach is poised to lead the transition to a more sustainable future.

“As researchers, engineers and educators,” said Barbato, “we are doing the best we can to provide the tools to address the problem now and in the decades to come.”