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UMass Amherst researchers receive $6.3M for transition to more sustainable energy

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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 sustainable and benefits all members of society equitably.

UMass Amherst has research experts in energy technology and climate science, as well as scholars in equity and social justice, but these groups have rarely had a chance to collaborate. The new interdisciplinary program, Transition to a Sustainable Energy Future, brings these groups together to solve technical and public policy challenges that have emerged during the green energy shift. This program will use NSF awards to explore and develop pathways so that this transition also promotes the socioeconomic equity of communities.

Principle investigator Matthew Lackner, professor of mechanical engineering and associate director of the UMass Wind Energy Center, stated, “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, a future of clean electricity is just on the horizon. COVID-19 has also created 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. The 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.

The UMass Amherst team aims to gain insight into equity issues and impacts through 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 is two five-year grants from the NSF Research Traineeship (NRT) and Growing Convergence Research (GCR) programs. The grants will support the training of 50 graduate 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. 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 engage stakeholders.