Venkataraman Bridging the Clean Energy Gap

Prof. Venkararaman in his lab

Prof. Dhandapani Venkataraman (DV) is passionate about an interdisciplinary approach to solving problems. “I tend to explore issues at the edge of my field of expertise because it helps push the field forward into new directions,” he says.

One of his new directions is at the intersection of energy and equity. Working with The Energy Transition Institute (ETI) at UMass Amherst, DV recently served as the principal investigator for a series of two National Science Foundation-funded workshops called NSF2026 that were focused on identifying energy technology research priorities as they relate to social justice.

The workshops were led by an interdisciplinary team including DV, CNS Associate Dean for Research Mark Tuominen, ETI Faculty Director Erin Baker, and Economics Professor Michael Ash. “By bringing together social scientists, equity scholars, and other stakeholders, we were able to ensure that clean energy research priorities include a just and equitable approach,” DV said.

Equity and the energy transition

The dire state of global climate change necessitates a rapid and effective transition away from fossil fuel dependency. While clean energy solutions exist, if not implemented properly they have the potential to cause or exacerbate financial and access inequalities for marginalized groups. For example, paying for solar energy often requires a higher percentage of a low-income household’s annual salary than that of a moderate-income household.

Another challenge is a lack of access to renewable energy sources. Oftentimes, low-income or marginalized communities don’t have access to clean energy opportunities that are readily available to wealthy communities.

In addition, several approaches to clean energy implementation solely focus on income-based inequity challenges. This single-lensed approach fails to consider the many other aspects tied to inequity like race, ethnicity, or gender.

DV noted that it's also a priority to ensure that equity issues are raised early in the planning and design process. “Rather than trying to speak for communities, we need to seek input and involve impacted communities in early phases of the projects,” he said.

Based on the workshops, DV and his team published an opinion piece in Nature Energy detailing five key factors for government agencies and philanthropic institutions to prioritize moving forward. These include: defining equity more broadly, better engaging with stakeholders, resolving competing equity interests, expanding the criteria for funding, and achieving long-term structural reforms such as ensuring that equity criteria are built into funding opportunities. The team is slated to produce a final report in April 2023 with in-depth recommendations for where the NSF should dedicate research resources. “These NSF2026 workshops are just the start,” says DV. “We are very much looking forward to the next steps and eventually, to operationalizing an equity-based approach for energy research.”