Energy Transition Institute artwork at World Cafe Event displays numerous slogans, such as Climate Change + Collaboration, and Urgent Action is Necessary.

Facilitating a Fast and Fair Energy Transition

The Energy Transition Institute is paving the way for a more environmentally sustainable and just energy system.

Governments and institutions around the world are increasingly recognizing climate change as an existential threat and striving to reduce carbon emissions. Massachusetts has committed to achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, in part by improving energy efficiency and transitioning away from fossil fuel use.

This energy transition may feel a bit daunting, but it also presents an extraordinary opportunity. That’s because today’s energy system is not only environmental unsustainable, but also unjust. And with a strong track record of innovation in renewable energy as well as broad expertise in issues of equity, UMass Amherst is poised to lead the way on facilitating a fast and fair transition to a decarbonized energy system.

For decades, UMass faculty in a variety of academic disciplines have done cutting-edge work on these topics. In 2019, an initiative was launched to bring these experts together to maximize their impact through interdisciplinary research. In January 2021, the Energy Transition Institute (ETI) was formally established.

“We realized this is a multi-dimensional challenge,” said Erin Baker, professor of industrial engineering and ETI faculty director. “It’s not enough to design cool new technologies, and it’s also not sufficient to design policies around today’s energy systems, because the energy system of tomorrow is going to look a lot different. At ETI, we have the engineers, the scientists, the social scientists, and the business and humanities experts to bring this together in a really integrated fashion.”

Unsustainable and Unjust

Not only is today’s energy system environmentally unsustainable, it disproportionately benefits those who are already well-off and harms those who are disadvantaged in numerous ways. For example, polluting power plants are far more likely to be located near low-income communities of color. Meanwhile, even well-intentioned policies and systems meant to promote adoption of renewable energy technologies serve to benefit higher-income households.

A lot of people know a little bit about clean energy, energy efficiency, and electric vehicles, but tying it to their lives is not always clear, especially for very low-income or unhoused individuals. What does it mean to them?

Anna Goldstein, ETI executive director

For example, Massachusetts, like many states, offers residents subsidies for powering their homes with solar, which is funded by a surcharge on the bill of every ratepayer in the Commonwealth. But the beneficiaries of these subsidies are primarily upper-income people who own homes (and thus, roofs), explained Baker. Another policy, called net metering, allows homeowners with rooftop solar panels to roll their meters backwards by selling excess energy back to the grid.

“These are really inequitable policies,” said Baker.

ETI’s researchers are working to find more equitable solutions. For example, ETI has teamed up with UMass Clean Energy Extension, which has examined solar financing and ownership options and found that solar ownership by third parties (the most common arrangement in the industry) funnels substantial gains to wealthy investors. Policies to enable new business models are now being evaluated to support local ownership of solar panels, especially for low-income families.

Massachusetts also has set ambitious goals to promote installation of electric heat pumps, which are extremely efficient alternatives to traditional heating and cooling systems. These devices take advantage of temperature differences to move heat around and either heat or cool indoor spaces. ETI’s experts are investigating air-to-water—rather than air-to-air—heat pumps, which rely on ubiquitous hot water tanks. This makes the technology available to lower-income households, so they can save on their bills by participating in demand response programs, helping to stabilize the grid, said Baker.

“It’s a complicated problem that demands engineers who understand the heat pump and grid technologies, as well as computer scientists to write the algorithms to run them,” said Baker. “Also, because this solution requires people to relinquish control of their heating, it’s important to involve those in the social sciences and humanities who can design effective programs and educate communities about the benefits. This kind of complex, cross-disciplinary challenge is a very good example of what ETI can do.”

Engaging Communities

A key focus of ETI and its associated PhD fellowship program, Elevating Equity Values in the Transition of the Energy System (ELEVATE), is conducting stakeholder-engaged research across disciplines. Faculty and graduate students hold focus groups and build ongoing relationships with people in local communities that have been traditionally excluded, with a goal of both empowering community members with information about the transition to renewable energy and listening to their perspectives to inform research.

ELEVATE faculty meet with community members in Holyoke, Mass.
A group of ELEVATE faculty and students gather in front of Nueva Esperanza after a tour of El Corazón de Holyoke, a placemaking project celebrating Holyoke's Puerto Rican and Latinx art and culture. (Photo by Michael Ash.)

This year, faculty mentors and grad students in ELEVATE have worked with the nearby city of Holyoke, holding four focus groups to date.

“The questions we’ve asked center around better understanding how residents of Holyoke experience energy use in their daily lives. What are their thoughts, feelings, and preferences about fairness and justice in the transition?” said Anna Goldstein, ETI executive director and research assistant professor of environmental conservation. “A lot of people know a little bit about clean energy, energy efficiency, and electric vehicles, but tying it to their lives is not always clear, especially for very low-income or unhoused individuals. What does it mean to them? Will they have any chance to benefit from this transition, or is it just another way they’re being excluded?”

The faculty and students will continue to build relationships in the community over time, and ultimately, the research will help them map out various measures of energy equity. This project will combine the skills and perspectives of social scientists, computer scientists, and engineers, and the results will be made publicly available to policymakers, activists, and community members.

Goldstein hopes that projects like this can serve as a model for the importance of stakeholder-engaged research in academia, “where the lived experience of community members is valued along with the technical and scholarly expertise of researchers.”

Convening Experts, Setting the National Agenda

ELEVATE Fellow John Wamburu, a PhD student in computer science at UMass, talks with ETI Faculty Director Erin Baker on Main Street in Holyoke. (Photo by Anna Goldstein.)
ELEVATE Fellow John Wamburu, a PhD student in computer science at UMass, talks with ETI Faculty Director Erin Baker on Main Street in Holyoke. (Photo by Anna Goldstein.)

Convening researchers and scholars across disciplines is a key focus of both ETI and ELEVATE. As a PhD fellowship program, ELEVATE builds diverse cohorts of students from different academic departments—including anthropology, computer science, economics, geosciences, and multiple fields of engineering—and trains them to apply their skills to questions of equity and resilience in the energy transition through collaborative research projects and game-type exercises. The program has a strong emphasis on educating women as well as students from underrepresented racial and ethnic backgrounds.

“The ELEVATE program provides a really exciting opportunity for UMass faculty and graduate students from across the campus to jointly solve critical energy transition challenges,” said Matthew Lackner, professor of mechanical engineering and director of both the ELEVATE program and the UMass Wind Energy Center.

ELEVATE was established with two large grants from the National Science Foundation (NSF). The focus of the program is on creating technological and policy solutions that could not be achieved by any one academic discipline on its own. “We want to re-imagine the electricity sector in a way that is both equitable in its impacts on society and resilient to uncertainty in future climate trends and energy demands,” said Lackner.

ETI also serves as a hub for national leaders at the intersection of energy transition and social justice, including hosting workshops with funding from NSF. These workshops will be the basis of a white paper that ETI will produce to advise NSF and the Department of Energy (DOE) on the national agenda for research on these topics.

This story was originally published in December 2021.