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Plugged In

How UMass is helping to build a greener energy system

From dramatic wildfires to intensifying storms, the effects of climate change are inescapable. While society has been slow to make the necessary changes to mitigate the damage, there are signs of progress. Massachusetts has committed to achieving net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, in part by improving energy efficiency and transitioning away from fossil fuel use. UMass has made its own bold commitments to decarbonize the campus, and its faculty have been leaders in interdisciplinary research and innovation in areas such as energy, climate science, and sustainability.

Ensuring a “Fast and Fair Transition”

Not only is today’s energy system environmentally unsustainable, it is also unjust. Polluting power plants are more likely to be located near low-income communities, while policies meant to promote adoption of renewables tend to benefit higher-income households. However, the energy transition—a global shift from high-carbon energy generation, such as coal, to low-carbon (or zero-carbon) energy sources, like wind and solar—offers an opportunity to build a more equitable system, says Erin Baker. A professor of industrial engineering, Baker is faculty director of UMass Amherst’s Energy Transition Institute (ETI), an interdisciplinary initiative formally established in 2021 to promote a fast and fair transition to a decarbonized energy system.

ETI researchers are working to find more equitable solutions, including alternative solar ownership models, residential energy storage, and energy efficiency programs that account for equity.

Through ETI and its associated PhD fellowship program, Elevating Equity Values in the Transition of the Energy System (ELEVATE), faculty and graduate students are building ongoing relationships with people in local communities that have been traditionally excluded, with the dual goals of empowering community members with information and gathering their perspectives to inform research. ETI ultimately aims to help set the national agenda for research on the equitable energy transition.

Making Communities Greener

A few years ago, the town of Natick, Massachusetts, was confronting the need to repair failing and outdated HVAC equipment in its community library. The UMass Clean Energy Corps helped the town find a better solution. Today, it plans to install an innovative, efficient heat pump and thermal energy storage system in the library. “We are on track to make our main library a zero-carbon building and save money in the process!” says Jillian Wilson-Martin, Natick’s director of sustainability.

Natick is not alone in facing difficult decisions about aging energy infrastructure. In a Clean Energy Corps service-learning course taught by Ben Weil, UMass Amherst extension assistant professor of building and construction technology, undergraduate and graduate students learn diagnostic tools and energy auditing techniques through hands-on work with local municipalities. The students identify which facilities use the most energy, and then provide recommendations for cutting energy use and transitioning to renewable sources; armed with this data, municipalities can apply for grants to implement the recommendations.

As the world endeavors to transition its energy sources for the good of the planet, UMass will be engineering, computing, innovating, and teaching its way to a more sustainable future.

Simon Pereira ’20 took the Clean Energy Corps class as an undergraduate and later served as its teaching assistant. He has now returned to UMass to pursue a graduate certificate in sustainability science with a focus in renewable technologies and efficient design. “Working with the Clean Energy Corps gave me real-world experience in seeing how municipal buildings could be retrofitted to meet town needs and improve energy efficiency,” he says.

Cloud Computing, Carbon Free

From streaming music to document sharing, our daily computing activities rely on cloud-based platforms—but the power required to support cloud computing contributes nearly 2 billion metric tons of carbon emissions annually.

In spring 2021, a team of UMass computer science and engineering researchers was awarded $3 million in funding from the National Science Foundation and VMware, a cloud-computing company, to address this challenge. The CarbonFirst team “aims to find solutions that allow these carbon-intensive cloud-computing centers to transition to clean renewable energy sources such as solar and wind energy,” says Prashant Shenoy, distinguished professor and associate dean in the Manning College of Information and Computer Sciences, who leads the project.

Such solutions include building a renewably powered, decentralized network of computing hardware, solar batteries, and free cooling hubs that are widely distributed around the globe to take advantage of local renewable energy sources.

Fortunately, the tech industry appears to be a willing partner. Amazon, Google, and Microsoft have all pledged to be zero-carbon by 2030 or 2040. The CarbonFirst project will collaborate closely with industry partners in overcoming the technical challenges to achieve these ambitious goals.

As the world endeavors to transition its energy sources for the good of the planet, UMass will be engineering, computing, innovating, and teaching its way to a more sustainable future.

In April, the university unveiled UMass Carbon Zero—an ambitious vision to limit the dangers of climate change and power the commonwealth’s 1,500-acre flagship campus with 100 percent renewable energy by approximately 2032. Read more about the path to carbon zero, which includes and greatly expands upon the initiatives discussed above.