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Sustainable Communities Catalyzer Is Advancing Equitable Energy Transitions Through Collaboration

Photo of affordable housing in Denver with rooftop solar.

Denver affordable housing with rooftop solar photovoltaics (PV). Photo by Dennis Schroeder, NREL

November 10, 2021—A widespread shift is taking place to better include and consider diverse communities in clean energy research, development, demonstration, and deployment.

“Scaling up clean energy integration, electrifying economies, and transforming energy systems will all occur at the community level,” said Megan Day, analyst at the Joint Institute for Strategic Energy Analysis (JISEA). “Therefore, it’s essential that we partner with communities to really listen and understand their energy needs, challenges, and goals. We have to include everyone in this transition.”

Day leads the Sustainable Communities Catalyzer—one of the two inaugural JISEA catalyzers launched in May this year—that is mapping pathways for communities, particularly rural and disadvantaged communities, to achieve sustainable and equitable clean energy transitions.

Catalyzing Research Capabilities for Progress

JISEA launched the JISEA catalyzers to accelerate the clean energy transition through collaboration. The catalyzers are operated in partnership with JISEA’s founder and partner, the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL).

Each catalyzer brings together thought leaders from JISEA and NREL to leverage energy analysis, projects, data, and tools within specific research areas. Each catalyzer will be led by a principal investigator and incubated for 1–2 years before advancing into a new NREL-led program.

The Sustainable Communities Catalyzer supports several NREL's critical objectives, including integrated energy pathwayscircular economy for energy materials, and electrons to molecules. Since the launch in May, Day and her team have brought together people at NREL and JISEA who are working in sustainable communities to align capabilities and best practices and to identify future research needs.

Importance of Equity in the Energy Transition

Historically, renewable energy technologies have been designed for first adopters with the hope that adoption will trickle down as costs drop. However, communities most in need of clean energy, economic development, and employment opportunities have seen much lower levels of renewable energy deployment and associated benefits. In addition, disadvantaged communities disproportionately face negative impacts from climate change and exposure to energy system environmental hazards.

Energy equity has emerged as an urgent need within the energy transition. It was the keynote discussion of the virtual 2021 JISEA Annual Meeting in April that featured the U.S. Department of Energy’s first-ever deputy director for Energy Justice, Shalanda Baker. “We have to meet our neighbors and our communities where they are,” Baker urged at the meeting. “It means bringing experts from the community into our work. Let's do this together. Our time to change the world is short.”

In January, President Biden enacted the Justice40 Initiative, a federal program designed to deliver 40% of the overall benefits of relevant federal investments to disadvantaged communities and track progress through an Environmental Justice Scorecard. In alignment with the Justice40 Initiative, NREL is projected to take a leadership role in multiple new programs over the next few years that will work directly with disadvantaged communities.

“Communities are setting ambitious goals for equitable energy transitions,” Day said. “Now is the time to match their needs with our expanded modeling and analysis and applied research capabilities.”

A group of people standing at solar project in Arizona.

The Navajo Tribal Utility Authority’s Kayenta Solar project on the Navajo Nation in Arizona is an example of a project that expands more equitable access to clean energy. Photo by Megan Day

Renewable Energy Potential To Transform Communities

As part of the Sustainable Communities Catalyzer, JISEA/NREL performed new energy justice analyses to identify disadvantaged communities that have high potential for low-cost renewable energy deployment that could also bolster economic development and job creation.

Using geospatial mapping, the team intersected data on energy burdens, environmental hazard exposures, income, and education with areas with high technical generation potential and low levelized cost of energy for multiple renewable energy technologies.

Data were sourced from the U.S. Department of Energy's Low-Income Energy Affordability Data tool and State and Local Planning for Energy platform, NREL's Renewable Energy Integration and Optimization model, and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Environmental Justice Screening and Mapping tool.

“A key piece of the analysis are the metrics that we came up with based on evidence of distributional injustices,” said Liz Ross, JISEA intern and lead of the analysis. “By examining technical potential in conjunction with the metrics, energy planners can deploy renewable energy technologies to benefit disadvantaged communities.”

JISEA/NREL found several correlations between indicators of disadvantaged communities, renewable energy potential, and technology costs. For example, utility-scale PV has significant development potential in communities with more employment in mining, quarrying, and oil and gas extraction, and in counties with higher concentrations of ozone.

In a similar way, land-based wind has great potential in rural areas. There is more opportunity for residential and commercial PV development and associated job creation potential in urban areas, areas with higher minority populations, and areas exposed to certain environmental hazards. Findings of the analysis will be published in a forthcoming journal article.

What's Next for the Sustainable Communities Catalyzer

The Sustainable Communities Catalyzer has grown into a robust network of JISEA/NREL researchers who are integrating equity into the energy transition. Day and her catalyzer team are working with several communities to model and analyze their energy transition questions. And in the next year, the Sustainable Communities Catalyzer will “graduate” into a new NREL capability.

“We couldn’t have done this research without the catalyzers,” Day said. “We have a lot to offer communities, but the catalyzer has allowed us to pause, bring together the people involved, and reflect on what we’ve learned to inform work moving forward and be as effective as possible for communities.”

Learn more about the JISEA catalyzers.

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