UMass Amherst Researchers Receive $6.3 Million to Ensure Energy Transition is Sustainable and Equitable

Program to explore and develop pathways to transition to sustainable energy while also promoting the socioeconomic equity of communities
Matthew Lackner
Matthew Lackner

AMHERST, Mass. – A new program at UMass Amherst has been awarded two grants totaling $6.3 million from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to ensure that the transformation of the electric grid is both sustainable and benefits all members of society equitably, an aspect of energy transition not often considered in policymaking or public discourse.

UMass Amherst has cutting-edge research experts in energy technology and climate science, as well as world-renowned scholars in equity and social justice, but these groups have rarely had a chance to collaborate. The new interdisciplinary program, Elevating Equity Values in the Transition of the Energy system (ELEVATE), brings these groups together to solve important technical and public policy challenges that emerge as nations shift to green energy. This program will use the multi-million dollar NSF awards to explore and develop pathways so that the transition to sustainable energy also promotes the socioeconomic equity of communities.

“This award provides a really exciting opportunity for UMass faculty and graduate students from across the campus to jointly solve critical energy transition challenges,” said principal investigator Matthew Lackner, professor of mechanical engineering and associate director of the UMass Wind Energy Center. “We will create technological and policy solutions to reimagine 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.”

With the price of wind and solar-generated electricity falling rapidly, and momentum gathering behind climate change mitigation and green infrastructure, it seems like a future that runs on clean electricity is just on the horizon. The COVID-19 crisis has also created enormous economic challenges, and some nations are proposing massive stimulus efforts with a focus on green energy.

However, developing the technology and reducing cost is only part of the solution. Many people are struggling to pay their energy bills, especially socially and economically disadvantaged people who were already burdened with high energy costs. The strong integration of social equity into research and training will help to ensure that new investment in green technology and infrastructure benefits all members of society.

“There are difficult questions that arise from a transformation of the electrical grid from centralized electricity production to a decentralized model with renewables and battery storage,” says Christine Crago, associate professor of resource economics and one of the co-researchers. “Who will own and control new electricity generation and storage assets? How will electricity prices change? How can electricity markets be designed to improve equity in its various dimensions? Our new program will ensure that issues of equity are at the forefront of the energy transition.”

The energy transition will occur as the global climate continues to change, which will profoundly impact the energy system in terms of both demand and production. “To date, energy planning practices have mainly relied on past experiences or assumed static environmental conditions, but these approaches are expected to become increasingly inadequate as climate change progresses,” says climate scientist Rob DeConto, co-director of the UMass School of Earth and Sustainability.

The UMass Amherst team will gain insight into equity issues and impacts by developing community-based research partnerships with stakeholders in Holyoke and other regional Massachusetts “gateway” cities. The team plans to hold workshops at Holyoke Community College and other sites to involve local students and the general public.

“The U.S. is facing overlapping crises of climate change, global pandemic and systemic inequality,” says Anna Goldstein, director of the UMass Amherst Energy Transition Initiative. “As we move toward a low-carbon energy system, we need to be intentional about righting the injustices in our current energy system, while also supporting job creation and economic recovery.”

The award takes the form of two five-year grants from the NSF Research Traineeship (NRT) and Growing Convergence Research (GCR) programs. The grants will support the training of more than 50 graduate master’s and doctoral students across 10 UMass departments in the College of Engineering, College of Social and Behavioral Science, College of Natural Science and College of Information and Computer Sciences. Overall, more than 100 graduate students are expected to participate in the program. The students will conduct research at the intersection of electricity technology, energy economics and policy, climate science and social equity, and will produce resilient and equity-driven innovations while developing effective leadership and communication skills ideally suited to engaging stakeholders.