Energy researchers have historically studied how power systems can provide cheap, clean, and reliable energy. While these three attributes are critical for clean energy transitions, the energy justice movement supports an equally necessary focus on equity and justice. In recent years, research has sought to understand how decision-making and infrastructure design can enable fair socio-technical changes in energy systems, from production to consumption to retirement.
Stemming from the environmental justice and fuel poverty scholarship and advocacy that emerged in the 1970s in the United States and the United Kingdom, the energy justice research space has consolidated and evolved since the 2010s. Over the past decade, the energy justice literature has highlighted how the design and operation of energy systems can have unequal socio-spatial impacts and has illuminated opportunities toward more inclusive energy services.
A critical review is required to map out the obstacles and opportunities in this field at a time when a confluence of economic, social, and political trends have brought issues of equity and justice to the fore (e.g., US Executive Order 14008). In this article, we explore three challenges the energy justice field faces as it engages with research on clean energy transitions in the US: setting boundaries for its research agenda; developing generalizable metrics to assess energy justice claims; and implementing those metrics to inform policy. We identify promising developments in these areas and make suggestions for future work.
We present a case study of successful uptake of a productive use of electricity (PUE) co-located at an off-grid clinic powered by OffGridBox in Rwanda. We develop a techno-economic analysis of the standardized, modular, and redeployable power supply technology, characterizing cost components, revenue considerations, and key challenges. We present a technical characterization of system utilization based on remote monitoring of electricity consumption, power reliability, and power quality at a PUE intervention site, estimating system reliability at 81% over the study period. Lastly, we characterize socio-economic costs and benefits from the productive user’s perspective drawing on mixed-method interviews. We find that relatively low amounts of electricity consumption (10–30 kWh per month) command a high revealed willingness to pay (~$3 per kWh) for the solar-powered displacement of diesel-based welding, significantly improving the unit economics of the deployed system. This analysis and data provides a resource model for the standardization of mini-grid hardware, performance and cost frameworks, and metrics to assess off-grid, under-grid and ultimately grid interactive distributed generation systems. These models are urgently needed to meet the UN Sustainable Development Goal SDG 7 commitment to achieve universal energy access by 2030.
As governments and non-state actors strive to minimize global warming, a primary strategy is the decarbonization of power systems which will require a massive increase in renewable electricity generation. Leading energy agencies forecast a doubling of global hydropower capacity as part of that necessary expansion of renewables. While hydropower provides generally low-carbon generation and can integrate variable renewables, such as wind and solar, into electrical grids, hydropower dams are one of the primary reasons that only one-third of the world’s major rivers remain free-flowing. This loss of free-flowing rivers has contributed to dramatic declines of migratory fish and sediment delivery to agriculturally productive deltas. Further, the reservoirs behind dams have displaced tens of millions of people. Thus, hydropower challenges the world’s efforts to meet climate targets while simultaneously achieving other Sustainable Development Goals. In this paper, we explore strategies to achieve the needed renewable energy expansion while sustaining the diverse social and environmental benefits of rivers. These strategies can be implemented at scales ranging from the individual project (environmental flows, fish passage and other site-level mitigation) to hydropower cascades to river basins and regional electrical power systems. While we review evidence that project-level management and mitigation can reduce environmental and social costs, we posit that the most effective scale for finding balanced solutions occurs at the scale of power systems. We further hypothesize that the pursuit of solutions at the system scale can also provide benefits for investors, developers and governments; evidence of benefits to these actors will be necessary for achieving broad uptake of the approaches described in this paper. We test this hypothesis through cases from Chile and Uganda that demonstrate the potential for system-scale power planning to allow countries to meet low-carbon energy targets with power systems that avoid damming high priority rivers (e.g., those that would cause conflicts with other social and environmental benefits) for a similar system cost as status quo approaches. We also show that, through reduction of risk and potential conflict, strategic planning of hydropower site selection can improve financial performance for investors and developers, with a case study from Colombia.
A pro-health fuels and stoves agenda based on the World Health Organization standards can realign lagging
progress toward meeting the United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 7’s call for universal energy and
clean cooking access by 2030, combat the household energy crisis, and promote health and social justice.
Access to reliable, affordable and clean energy is increasingly recognized as the "golden thread" tying together and enabling many other Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Despite progress over the last decade in making solutions to energy poverty more accessible to the more than 800 million people currently without electricity (and the many more with intermittent or unaffordable energy) many gaps remain. In particular, the COVID-19 crisis has disrupted supply and demand for energy, both of which are necessary to meet SDG 7.
At the same time, transitioning to more renewable energy-based electricity systems requiring battery storage, whether in emerging markets or developed ones, will require massive amounts of mineral resources with significant human and environmental footprints. A paper published by USAID in late 2021underscores the urgency of addressing mining in the context of the green energy transition:
Recent global studies predict demand increases of up to ten times current production levels for minerals like cobalt, graphite, and lithium. No matter the mix of alternate energy sources the world turns to, the mining sector will be a key player in the years ahead.
To meet the ambitious goal of universal modern energy by 2030 — while grappling with the consequences of critical minerals demand growth — harmonized policies, coordinated investment and innovative research are urgently needed. Equally or even more important, however, are the understudied and undersupported partnerships that can catalyze and scale these efforts to make SDG7 both a lifeline and a means of economic empowerment and equity.
The Congo Power alliance represents one such innovative coalition approach. Initially launched by Google's Supplier Responsibility team in 2017 to reinforce responsible minerals trade and expand economic opportunity through clean energy, the initiative supports communities committed to the responsible sourcing of minerals that are ubiquitous in electronics and historically tied to conflict and human rights abuses. This mineral trade focuses on tungsten, tin, tantalum, gold and cobalt, making this issue particularly critical in the African Great Lakes Region, where much of the world’s supply of these minerals’ stock lies underground.
As part of its overarching sustainability strategy, Google committed to maximizing our use of finite resources, which includes supporting in-region programs that reinforce responsible supply chains, and increasing the use of recycled materials. These program commitments are also part of meeting the expectations of Section 1502 of the Dodd-Frank Act, which mandate that all publicly traded companies complete due diligence on their supply chains, and report on those measures.
In line with these commitments, the Congo Power team has invested in 14 community projects since 2017 and has brought a broad group of stakeholders along. On a Public-Private Alliance for Responsible Minerals Trade (PPA) delegation with the U.S. State Department in late 2019, for example, Google, Nokia, Intel, Apple, Global Advanced Metals, USAID, U.S. Department of State, GiZ, the Responsible Business Alliance and RESOLVE visited the Idjwi Island minigrid and spent time with the Panzi Foundation’s Denis Mukwege discussing the intersection of human rights and responsible sourcing in the region.
As a result of that trip, the Congo Power team focused on building a deeper relationship with the Panzi Foundation and put community health clinics at the center of addressing power, gender, energy equity along with reinforcing responsible supply chains. The team also continues to expand collaborations with conservation areas such as Garamba National Park, which is deploying clean power systems to support local economic activities (both mining and non-mining) in ways that reduce threats to the park's conservation and biodiversity goals.
The program’s launch highlighted the importance of deep relationships between development partners, consumer brands and NGOs with deep in-country operating expertise, such as GivePower and Resolve. This multi-sector approach is critical for drawing in further "downstream" conglomerates whose customers increasingly demand end products made with responsibly sourced materials.
This strategy has successfully brought on some of the world’s largest manufacturers to the alliance’s commitment to responsible sourcing. Intel has funded two additional phases, and other partners are in the process of making funding commitments. The alliance collaborates with platforms such as Cobalt for Development (BMW, Samsung, BASF, GIZ, Volkswagen, Good Shepherd International Foundation and others) and the Fair Cobalt Alliance(Tesla, Fairfone, The Impact Facility and others) to reinforce mutual objectives in responsible sourcing, and support organizations that are working on the ground.
Beyond public and private partners, academia plays an important role within this consortium. Through a collaboration with the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Lab (RAEL) at the University of California, Berkeley, the Congo Power initiative explores how innovative energy solutions can improve livelihoods and resilience across communities in East and Central Africa. Previously funded research has explored the intersection between energy poverty and conflict, the evolution of real-time monitoring of decentralized energy systems, operating models for mini-grids in urban informal settlements, the impact of solar-home-systems on energy, gender and social justice, and frameworks for understanding community participation’s role in mini-grid projects.
This is just the beginning, however. Many questions remain for the RAEL/Congo Power collaboration to uncover in improving the delivery of sustainable and appropriate energy solutions across the various supply chains that constitute the lifeblood of vulnerable communities around the world.
Chief among the initiative’s research ambitions is developing a deeper sense of how to make $1 of investment in renewable energy "go further." Benchmark impact metrics for innovative energy projects are lacking in the empirical literature, particularly for mini-grid technologies, increasingly recognized as the least-cost way to electrify hundreds of millions of those without power. Developing and documenting enabling partnerships also offers a key resource for nations, businesses, multinational aid / development organizations and civil society to interrogate potential solutions and scale up winning concepts that can help meet goals set in the Paris Climate Agreements and other SDGs.
Fundamentally, such a private-public-academic partnership boils down to exploring what kinds of impact — described both quantitatively and qualitatively — different energy delivery models can achieve across institutional and geographical scales. And beyond the evaluation of impact: Which narratives can most effectively communicate these insights into actionable support for promising solutions and their developers?
Guided by such academic research questions, these partnerships are able to fund implementation partners as well. Nuru, Equatorial Power and OffGridBox are three such partners in East and Central Africa, whose operations are providing critical insights into key techno-economic and operational challenges to scaling energy access.
These organizations have a wide and diverse footprint. Nuru builds and operates mini-grids across remote, rural, and urban areas of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Their principal installation is one of the largest mini-grids in Africa, supplying more than 1,800 customers through a 1.3 megawatt solar-hybrid installation in peri-urban neighborhoods in Goma, DRC. Congo Power supported Equatorial Power’s very first installation mini-grid, a 20 kilowatt-peak (kWp) installation on Idjwi Island on Lake Kivu (separating the DRC and Rwanda) supplying over 300 connections, including several small-to-medium enterprises. OffGridBox has deployed one of its 3.4 kWp containerized power and water installations in Walikale (a mining center in eastern DRC), with more than 80 identical such deployments around the world.
To gain deep yet broad insights into the challenge of strengthening the "golden thread," RAEL researchers within the Congo Power alliance aim to be both methodical yet practical in developing research themes from these initial project foci — particularly important given the challenges of doing in-person research through a pandemic.
One theme that consistently emerges through and across such projects is the importance of "productive" uses of electricity — most simply defined as the ability of electricity users to generate additional income on the basis of improved energy access. When, where and how are informal artisans, entrepreneurs and laborers able to convert renewable electricity into improved economic outcomes for themselves, their homesteads and their communities? These questions have proven particularly challenging to answer, despite over two decades of scholarship describing productive uses of electricity as a cornerstone underpinning the financial sustainability, and thus scalability, of energy access solutions with high upfront investment costs and low margins.
RAEL researchers have brought novel evaluation approaches to tackle this problem, including live-monitoring of electricity consumption of productive use pilots across the region, geospatial and remote sensing techniques leveraging satellite imagery and machine learning, as well as piloting new power quality and reliability measurement methodologies for evaluating the state of electricity for health services, including cold storage, through collaborations with infrastructure-monitoring startup nLine.
Many important questions beyond how to catalyze income generating uses of electricity remain, however. Does street lighting reduce crime in remote villages or rapidly urbanizing environments? Can decentralized energy solutions bridge the gaps in Africa’s vaccine cold chains? How can project funders best collaborate with private sector implementers, NGOs, and policymakers to optimize the impacts of a given energy project, targeting outcomes as disparate as supply chain traceability, productive end uses, conservation or women’s empowerment?
These and many other research questions will guide RAEL researchers as the Congo Power initiative continues to gain momentum and partners. A much wider consortium of partners, however, is still needed to confront the magnitude of the challenges ahead, and data-driven research is critical to harness the disparate perspectives, resources and objectives such a big tent approach entails.
For corporate sustainability professionals, joining coalitions such as Congo Power is one way to connect many distinct pieces of the challenges that lie ahead: confronting climate change by supporting cleaner energy production in communities at the very start of their supply chains, tackling the human rights implications of exponential demand growth for minerals required for electronics infrastructure including renewable energy equipment and battery storage technologies, and ensuring the equitable distribution of potential benefits from the global energy transition are distributed equitably. No one company or organization can move the needle on their own, but it is increasingly clear that shareholders, consumers, employees and regulators are placing greater responsibility on global brands to step up to the challenge.
Partnerships such as Congo Power provide a clear pathway for private-public partnerships to explore and support cutting-edge projects, technologies and infrastructures, guided by the most recent empirical evidence of impact. With rigorous, intersectional and actionable research guiding such a powerful coalition of committed partners, a truly just energy transition is possible.
Editor's note: Serena Patel (MIT), Hilary Yu, Joyceline Marealle (both UC Berkeley) and Alyssa Newman (Google and UC Berkeley) also contributed to this article.
Sammy Roth - February 26, 2022 - Los Angeles Times
The sun sets behind an offshore wind farm in the Irish Sea off the coast of England.
(Paul Ellis / AFP/Getty Images)
Direct link: https://www.latimes.com/business/story/2022-02-26/one-way-to-combat-russia-move-faster-on-clean-energy
When a geopolitical crisis sent gasoline prices skyrocketing four decades ago, President Carter called on Americans to achieve “energy independence” from Middle Eastern oil exporters. He installed solar panels on the White House, donned a cardigan sweater to stay warm and took steps to boost domestic oil production.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has again upended global energy supplies, threatening to raise gas prices that are already higher than ever in California. The U.S. oil industry wants President Biden to ease restrictions on drilling, and Europe has already started importing more fossil fuel from the United States to reduce its dependence on Russian supplies.
But doubling down on oil and natural gas isn’t the answer, some security experts say — and neither is energy independence.
The war in Europe adds to the urgency of transitioning to clean energy sources such as solar and wind power that are harder for bad actors such as Russia to disrupt, those experts say. The conflict also highlights the importance of the U.S., the European Union and other allies working together to confront the climate crisis while taking global security into account.
“There’s been a lot of concern about dependence on Russian [natural] gas, and whether that inhibits countries’ ability to stand up to Russia,” said Erin Sikorsky, director of the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Climate and Security. “The more that countries can wean themselves off oil and gas and move toward renewables, the more independence they have in terms of action.”
It’s also important to remember that climate change poses a major national security threat, with the Defense Department and other federal officials warning last year that worsening climate-fueled hazards are likely to drive a surge in global migration, stoking political instability. That helps explain why the U.S. Army released its first-ever climate strategy this month, setting a goal of slashing its planet-warming emissions in half and powering all bases with climate-friendly electricity by 2030.
Sikorsky pointed out that Defense Secretary Lloyd J. Austin III has called China the “pacing threat” for the U.S., meaning it poses greater systemic challenges than any other nation. The climate emergency, Sikorsky said, is America’s “shaping threat.”
“It is shaping everything in the background now that the United States is dealing with,” she said.
Even before Russian President Vladimir Putin launched his attack on Ukraine this week, European nations were making plans to cut their reliance on energy exports from Russia. The country supplies more than one-quarter of Europe’s oil and nearly 40% of its natural gas, a different planet-warming fuel used for heating and electricity generation.
But Russian aggression has sped up the E.U.’s plans. European officials are expected to release a strategy next week for reducing the continent’s use of fossil fuels by 40% over eight years, and ramping up non-polluting energy sources.
It’s a plan designed to slow the climate crisis, which is wreaking havoc around the world by exacerbating wildfires, floods, droughts and heat waves. But cutting back on fossil fuels would also help to limit Russia’s geopolitical influence.
Russian President Vladimir Putin in December. (Alexei Nikolsky / Associated Press)
UC Berkeley energy professor Daniel Kammen — who previously served as science envoy for then-Secretary of State John F. Kerry — lamented that Europe “has clearly needed higher motivations than climate change to cut the Gordian gas knot with Russia.” But if Russia’s invasion of Ukraine pushes the E.U. to act, he said, it could be a silver lining to an otherwise tragic situation.
“For all we talk about how inexpensive renewables are, and how quickly energy storage is coming down in price, that hasn’t been enough when it appears that ‘just’ the climate is at stake,” Kammen said. “Now European sovereignty is at stake.”
Still, there’s no guarantee Europe will follow through on its latest climate commitments. Even if the geopolitical crisis underscores the benefits of shifting to renewable energy, it could also distract global leaders from the longer-term climate crisis.
And in the meantime, one of Europe’s strategies for dealing with constrained Russian gas supplies and rising prices during the last few months has been importing more liquefied natural gas from the United States. It’s an option made possible by fracking, which opened up “shale plays” in regions such as west Texas and made America the world’s largest oil and natural gas producer.
“Putin hates U.S. shale because of the influence it gives the U.S. and the world, and the flexibility it gives us,” said Daniel Yergin, a Pulitzer Prize-winning oil historian and vice chair of research and consulting firm IHS Markit.
The American Petroleum Institute — a fossil fuel industry trade group known as API — has urged Biden to respond to the Ukraine crisis by allowing more oil and gas drilling on federal lands and approving new facilities to export liquefied natural gas.
Twenty-seven Republican senators made a similar demand in a letter to Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm last week, calling U.S gas exports “a dependable source of energy and a reliable alternative to strategic competitors like Russia.”
But those steps would carry long-term climate consequences,spewing more heat-trapping pollution into that atmosphere. They’re also unlikely to result in new energy supplies coming online quickly enough to make a meaningful difference in Europe.
“API’s answer for all of the world’s problems is to remove constraints on domestic oil and gas production,” said David Victor, an international relations professor at UC San Diego. “It’s just a very well-rehearsed argument.”
And if Europe follows through on commitments to ratchet down fossil fuel combustion — perhaps by investing in green hydrogen or long-duration batteries — the U.S. could also reap the benefits, Victor said. That’s because California and other states, like Europe, have a growing need for clean power sources that can keep the lights on when the sun isn’t shining and the wind isn’t blowing. European investments to scale up those early-stage technologies could help drive down costs for everyone.
“The technologies that are going to be used — whether it’s electrolyzers for hydrogen or fuel cells that use hydrogen for heavy trucks — these are all global,” Victor said. “Those economies [of scale] are just massive. That’s how solar got cheap.”
Calls for energy independence, Victor added, “often end up backfiring, because we benefit from a global technology marketplace.”
At the same time, bulking up domestic supply chains could help the U.S. shield itself against price swings and geopolitical conflict — particularly when it comes to lithium and other minerals needed for clean energy technologies such as batteries.
Just this week, Biden joined with Gov. Gavin Newsom to announce a $35-million contract with a Las Vegas company that operates the nation’s only rare-earth mine in the California desert. Biden and Newsom also discussed federal support for lithium production at the Salton Sea, in Southern California’s Imperial Valley, which has been described as the “Saudi Arabia of lithium.”
Boosting domestic production of critical minerals could help combat Russian influence, since Russia is a leading producer of metals including copper and nickel — a reminder that even the clean-energy economy isn’t immune from bad actors.
At the same time, the idea of energy independence is “somewhat dangerous, because it offers you a false sense of security,” said Sarah Ladislaw, a managing director at the think tank RMI. The reality, she said, is that the U.S. will need to find ways to work with Russia and other nations to slash climate pollution, even as it strives to diversify its own clean energy supplies.
“You have to be sensitive to your energy vulnerabilities and have contingency plans in place,” said Ladislaw, who previously led the energy security and climate change program at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.
The impetus for buildings to decarbonize and move towards radical energy and water
efficiency is increasingly strong and identified as a priority within the green building
sector. The tiny house movement offers an opportunity to both address the challenges
of affordable housing and contribute to residential building decarbonization. Tiny
houses de-emphasize mass consumption and excessive belongings and have potential
to address equity issues such as gentrification by providing living spaces to lowincome
residents in desirable housing locations. This paper analyzes the Tiny House
in My Backyard (THIMBY) project, investigating building sustainability concepts
through the design-build-occupy process in a three-year-old structure. THIMBY
demonstrates energy and water efficiency technologies inside an award-winning small
living space (18.5 m2). THIMBY was designed to reduce energy and water use by 87
and 82% compared to California residential averages. In practice, it has reduced site
energy by 88% and has emitted 96% fewer carbon emissions than a 2100 square foot
California Energy Commission 2016 Title 24 minimally compliant home. We discuss
the differences between design and performance of energy and water systems, which
we find offer important lessons for the further expansion of the tiny house movement
and other alternative and micro green housing types. We find that optimizing such
houses through integration of energy and water saving technologies, home energy
management systems, and strong communication between modelers, builders and
occupants will be essential to achieving dramatic energy (87%), water (82%), and
carbon (96%) savings.