Accelerating the Future of Clean Energy
By the year 2050, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, a national leader in climate policy, has committed to achieving net-zero carbon emissions to combat climate change and protect vulnerable communities. Its strategy to achieve this goal centers around electrification—with transportation and heating as the main focal areas—and generating electricity needed from renewable sources.
“The good news is we see renewable energy technologies and markets are available to make that vision possible,” said Dwayne Breger, UMass Amherst extension professor of environmental conservation and director of the UMass Clean Energy Extension (CEE). Yet, he added, challenges remain in carrying out such a massive transition. These include the present shortage of trained workers in booming areas of clean energy, and the needs of under-resourced municipalities in advancing energy efficiency and electrification, and equitably addressing solar siting challenges and opportunities.
CEE was created to help the Commonwealth achieve its goals and accelerate the adoption of clean energy. Established in 2014 with support from the Massachusetts Department of Energy Resources, it provides expertise, academic rigor, innovation, and responsiveness to the needs of local communities in building a resilient, equitable, and flourishing Massachusetts clean energy economy.
As part of a broader clean energy and sustainability research and teaching ecosystem at UMass Amherst, CEE closely collaborates with other campus groups doing related work, including the Wind Energy Center, Energy Transition Institute, School of Earth and Sustainability, and others. CEE builds on the extension model that is integral to the university’s land-grant heritage of research and outreach to improve the Massachusetts economy.
According to River Strong, CEE associate director, CEE’s core work falls into three main areas: technical assistance and outreach services to communities and other underserved entities across the Commonwealth; collaborative applied research to advance clean energy markets and policies; and workforce development to fill the growing need for skilled workers in a range of clean energy-related industries. Since its founding, CEE has served thousands of stakeholders in municipalities around Massachusetts, developed outreach and educational materials, seeded UMass faculty research efforts and collaborations, and engaged scores of students in research and internship projects.
CEE is also supporting UMass Amherst’s own ambitious goals through its Carbon Zero initiative to power the 1,500-acre flagship campus with 100 percent renewable energy by approximately 2032.
CEE's Impact, 2015–2021
Massachusetts communities engaged
External funding secured
CEE’s applied research, training, and extension activities often work in tandem.
For example, beginning in 2019, CEE partnered with three Massachusetts towns—Blandford, Wendell, and Easthampton—on research to develop and pilot a new “Community Planning for Solar” toolkit.
“Planning for solar is complex, and there’s a concern that solar development may be depressed without well thought-out, proactive planning,” explained Strong. “Working with the pilot towns, we used GIS to map out their potential solar resources. We then collaborated on focus groups and town-wide surveys to gain a nuanced understanding of the preferences and perspectives of constituents. We also considered the town’s goals with regard to solar development; the financing and potential benefits associated with solar; and different ownership models to optimize economic benefits to the town. Ultimately, we put it all together in a planning document.”
Now, CEE is working to disseminate the resulting toolkit in other Massachusetts communities and states around the country. In the 2022-23 academic year, CEE and the UMass Integrated Concentration in Science (iCons) Program are offering a new course, the Clean Energy Living Lab: Community Solar Planning Teams (part of the Carbon Zero initiative) through which students are trained to support municipalities in deploying the toolkit.
“Students are applying their smarts and getting real-world, hands-on, practical experience that they can bring into the workforce when they graduate,” said Strong.
In another example of student training coupled with assistance to municipalities, CEE team member Ben Weil teaches a Clean Energy Corps service-learning course through which undergraduate and graduate students learn diagnostic tools and energy auditing techniques. Each spring semester, students in the course work with several Massachusetts towns and cities to identify municipal facilities that use the most energy, and provide a detailed report with recommendations for cutting energy use and transitioning to renewable sources. This free service allows the municipalities to then apply for grants to implement the recommendations.
Students trained through the Clean Energy Corps have gone on to work for energy and building consulting firms or as municipal sustainability directors; to manage utility energy efficiency programs; and to implement clean energy projects in the state with private sector construction firms.
Below, Clean Energy Corps students discuss potential space for a buffer tank that would enable their proposal to replace the boiler with an air to water heat pump at Colrain Elementary School.
In the training realm, CEE is also focused on workforce development for the offshore wind industry that is “exploding” right now in Massachusetts and the greater region, said Breger.
“The industry is trying to get its footing. It requires a workforce that’s familiar with how offshore wind projects are developed, which currently doesn’t exist in the United States,” he said. “We’ve created an Offshore Wind Professional Certificate designed to give a broad overview of major topics related to offshore wind, including engineering, environmental permitting, supply chain, etc.”
Approximately 75 percent of students in the certificate program are professionals coming from industry, Breger noted, while the rest are matriculated UMass graduate students. Each course in the program features several guest speakers from the wind power industry.
“It’s a program that’s very engaged in the industry, and one that the industry recognizes as really valuable to them. They hire our students as quickly as we can produce them,” said Breger.
Melanie Schultz was a member of the program’s first cohort. She recalled, “The course work was crucial, but the relationships I made with my classmates were essential for people to know who I was and consider hiring me.” Shortly after graduating, she was hired as program manager for the National Offshore Wind Research and Development Consortium.
Student Training and Professional Development, To Date
Students enrolled in Offshore Wind Professional Certificate
Students trained through Clean Energy Corps
Students engaged in CEE research and/or service internships
In addition to workforce training, CEE partners with industry on research and information sharing.
“We really value the industry perspective,” said Strong. “Part of supporting the Commonwealth’s goals around clean energy and climate change is working with and supporting industry.” For example, he pointed to a mutually beneficial research partnership between CEE and solar developers that are developing dual-use agrivoltaic sites around Massachusetts.
Looking to the Future
In the coming years, CEE aims to grow its impact and build on state and university commitments to support progress on climate, energy, and environmental sustainability. CEE also hopes to continue to add value to the university and its students, advance its services to the Commonwealth and its clean energy and climate goals, and expand the clean energy extension model more broadly across the region.
This story was originally published in September 2022.