Deborah Sunter, Ph.D., spent two years as a postdoctoral fellow with the U.S. Department of Energy Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy in the Postdoctoral Research Award Program. Sunter’s research explored and expanded a modeling platform designed to help evaluate and meet the United States’ growing energy demands. Her research and contributions have been recognized in the global scientific community. For the original, click here.
Sustaining our Future through Energy Security
Sixty-six percent of the world’s population will be living in urban areas by 2050, according to the United Nations 2014 World Urbanization Prospects report. In the United States, more than 80% of the population already lives in urban areas. The consensus affirms that increased urbanization is the future. As global urbanization and population growth expand, so does energy consumption.
Energy security requires an understanding of future energy demands and the environments from which the demands originate. Global population growth and rapid urbanization are being tracked, but climate change throws in the wild card of uncertainty. Urban energy systems are vulnerable to climate change and extreme weather, including storms, flooding and sea-level rise. Urban areas must be resilient to handle these changing conditions if they are to remain sustainable and continue to grow.
Mechanical engineer Deborah Sunter, Ph.D., is one of many scientists who have researched the very complex issue of energy security.
“Every day is an adventure with new challenges, new collaborations and new ideas,” said Sunter.
Sunter received a postdoctoral appointment in the Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory (RAEL) at the University of California, Berkeley. Her appointment to the Postdoctoral Research Award Program was funded by the Solar Energy Technologies Office of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy Research Participation Program.
The prestigious postdoctoral research award supports scientific research in energy efficiency and renewable energy by attracting scientists and engineers to pursue breakthrough technologies in energy research.
Sunter spent her two-year appointment at RAEL exploring the SWITCH (Solar and Wind Energy Integrated with Transmission and Conventional Sources) modeling platform. SWITCH is used to examine cost-effective investment decisions for meeting electricity demand, with an emphasis on integrating renewable energy into the electrical grid. Created as an investment planning tool, the model explores the cost and feasibility of future energy initiatives while simultaneously ensuring that current energy demands are met and policy goals are reached at the lowest cost possible. SWITCH meets this objective by making a series of optimized decisions. For example, all power plants have an expected lifetime. When a power plant reaches the end of its life expectancy, SWITCH examines whether it is more cost-effective to upgrade the existing power plant or to retire the power plant and build a new one. SWITCH can determine which type of power plants should be built and where these plants should be located with the goal to produce low-cost energy systems that meet reliability, performance and environmental quality standards.
SWITCH was originally designed and produced by Daniel Kammen, Ph.D., and his team at the Energy and Resources Group of the University of California, Berkeley. Kammen served as Sunter’s mentor throughout the program. Since producing the initial papers in 2012, Kammen and a series of graduate students and postdoctoral fellows have expanded the toolkit significantly, and SWITCH continues to undergo improvements at RAEL. RAEL is an interdisciplinary laboratory founded by Kammen in 1999; it seeks to advance renewable and appropriate energy through technology innovation and policy implementation.
Sunter’s appointment and access to SWITCH allowed her to research the role of technology innovation and policy in reducing emissions, improving efficiency and supplying more renewable energy to the U.S. electrical grid. During her time, Sunter expanded the SWITCH model, originally designed for the Western Electricity Coordinating Council, to encompass the entire continental United States. Sunter helped to convert SWITCH from an older programming language to Python to increase accessibility to the scientific community. She also partnered with private companies to add new emerging technologies to the program’s repertoire, such as Google Project Sunroof and CalWave Power Technologies.
Sunter’s accomplishments during her postdoctoral experience are numerous. Sunter published many works with her colleagues during her appointment, most notably a high-impact article with Kammen in the journal Science. The article on urban energy systems has received much attention in the scientific community. Sunter also credits her postdoctoral experience for expanding her research horizons.
“Beyond the core research project, I have been able to learn a new subject area, data science, and engage with the greater scientific community in ways that I had not done before,” said Sunter.
Sunter used her newly learned skills to win a data science hackathon in solar energy as well as organize a successful forum on data science for sustainability. Sunter has been invited to speak on her research at more than a dozen scientific engagements, and she was selected to be on a team of international authors for a book on inclusive green growth metrics. Throughout her appointment, she shared her expertise with undergraduates at the lab.
“I have been able to do more during this research experience than I possibly could have imagined. It opened doors I didn’t realize I had access to,” Sunter said. “This has been one of the most professionally rewarding experiences of my life. I am incredibly grateful for this opportunity.”
Immediately following the completion of the program, Sunter became a research fellow at the Berkeley Institute for Data Science. Most recently, she has accepted a position as a professor at Tufts University in the Department of Mechanical Engineering for the fall of 2018.
The Postdoctoral Research Award Program is funded by the Solar Energy Technologies Office of the U.S. Department of Energy (DOE), Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy Research Participation Program. The program is administered through DOE’s Oak Ridge Institute for Science and Education (ORISE). ORISE is managed for DOE by ORAU.
Summary: Energy poverty, is arguably the most pervasive and crippling threat society faces today.
Lack of access impacts several billion people, with immediate health, educational, economic, and social damages.
Furthermore, how this problem is addressed will result in the largest accelerant of global pollution, or the largest opportunity to pivot away from fossil-fuels onto the needed clean energy path.
While debate exists on the optimal path or paths to wean our economy from fossil fuels, there is no question that technically we have today a sufficient knowledge and technological foundation to launch and to even complete the decarbonisation
Please join us for a special joint
Innovation, economics and policy in the energy revolution:Insights from the UK electricity transition and wider implicationsSummary:
This talk will outline both theory and practice of energy transition and decarbonisation, drawing on long experience in the UK which has been a battleground between different approaches to electricity regulation and the implications of decarbonisation – culminating in halving CO2 emissions from the sector from the levels in 1990.
Innovation in both policy and technology has been fundamental to this. Drawing on the book (joint with Profs Jean-Charles Hourcade and Karsten Neuhoff) Planetary Economics: Energy, Climate Change and The Three Domains of Sustainable Development, the talk will explain a broadened theoretical framework and show how this can reshape our view of both the economic and political dimensions of effective policy, including (but not confined to) to the energy transition. The author will also present recent work on some implications of the approach for modelling of climate mitigation and the economic case for policy mixes.
For more on Professor Grubb:, click here.
Professor of Energy and Climate Change
UCL - Institute for Sustainable Resources
Central House | 14 Upper Woburn Place London | WC1H 0NN
James Merrick’s research focuses on the improvement of mathematical modeling methods to address a variety of energy and climate planning problems. This talk will discuss this research, with an emphasis on how to structure models to provide economic and policy insight, focusing on appropriate valuation of renewables and energy storage options.
James completed his PhD in Management Science and Engineering at Stanford University in January 2018. He previously completed a dual masters degree in Technology & Policy and Electrical Engineering & Computer Science at MIT, and a Bachelor of Engineering degree at University College Dublin. Since completing his PhD, James applies his research to, and builds optimization models for, EPRI, a stealth robotics startup in San Francisco, and a major electricity generator in Ireland. In addition, James is undertaking a number of research projects with colleagues at NASA, EPRI, and Stanford and when possible, likes to help develop his family’s farm in Ireland.
In 2015, ASEAN established a goal of increasing renewable energy share in its energy portfolio from approximately 13–23% by 2025. Renewable electricity, especially intermittent and variable sources, presents challenges for grid operators due to the uncertain timing and quantity of electricity supply. Grid flexibility, the electric grid's ability to respond to changing demands and supply, now stands a key resource in responding to these uncertainties while maximizing the cost-effective role of clean energy. We develop and apply a grid flexibility assessment tool to assess ASEAN's current grid flexibility using six quantitative indicators: grid reliability, electricity market access; load profile ramp capacity; quality of forecasting tools; proportion of electricity generation from natural gas; and renewable energy diversity. We find that ASEAN nations cluster into three groups: better; moderately; and the least prepared nations. We develop an analytical ramp rate calculator to quantify expected load ramps for ASEAN in an integrated ASEAN Power Grid scenario. The lack of forecasting systems and limited electricity market access represent key weaknesses and areas where dramatic improvements can become cost-effective means to increase regional grid flexibility. As ASEAN pursues renewable energy targets, regional cooperation remains essential to address identified challenges. Member nations need to increase grid flexibility capacity to adequately prepare for higher penetrations of renewable electricity and lower overall system costs.
Solar power is a quickly growing energy source in the United States, offering important financial benefits to households. However, a new study shows that many Americans lack access to solar power. The report published in Nature Sustainability by researchers from Tufts University and the University of California at Berkeley suggests that the reasons go beyond mere economics.
The presence of domestic solar panels has boomed across America, but predominantly in white neighborhoods, even after controlling for household incomes and levels of homeownership. The findings show that census areas with over 50% black or Hispanic populations have “significantly less” presence of domestic solar panel installations than other areas. This suggests that the solar industry is not serving all Americans equally.
The findings of the study demonstrate a significant racial disparity:
Hispanic-majority census tracts have installed 30% less rooftop solar than no-majority census tracts;
White-majority census tracts have installed 21% more rooftop solar than no-majority census tracts.
Solar Access As A Civil Right
Distributed solar refers to rooftop installations of photovoltaic (PV) panels, as opposed to large, centralized solar power stations. These installations offer a number of societal benefits; reducing carbon dioxide emissions and allowing individuals to generate their own power. With the addition of battery storage, these systems can also allow homes to retain power in the
Rooftop solar benefits the owner of the roof through a lower energy bill. While there are upfront installation costs, PV equipment typically pays for itself quickly, especially in those states with good financing options and where homeowners can sell excess electricity back to the grid.
The cost of installation is prohibitive for many homeowners, and owners of rental properties tend not to invest in PV because they may be unable to realize any financial benefit (it’s the renters who would get a lower electric bill). Many places, including parts of the US, have programs aimed at lowering the financial barriers to distributed solar. But what if there are other barriers?
Financial aid programs alone won’t help if money isn’t the only problem. The costs of climate change already weigh heavier on disenfranchised groups. If the benefits of PV ownership are also less available to people of color, then that only compounds the injustice.
Lead author of the paper, and Tufts University Assistant Professor of Mechanical Engineering Deborah Sunter, who recently attended the COP24 climate summit in Poland, commented that, “Solar power is critical to meeting the climate goals presented by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, but we can and need to deploy solar so that it benefits all people, regardless of race and ethnicity.”
The researchers set out to discover whether members of racial and ethnic minorities experience barriers to PV ownership other than price. They used census data to identify the racial make-up up of individual census tracts, and combined those data with high-resolution maps to determine which tracts had more rooftop solar.
The researchers controlled for variations in solar intensity, financial incentives, and other factors that could influence PV installation besides race, such as household income and home ownership. What came of the analysis was a clear connection between race and ethnicity on the one hand and PV adoption on the other. Census tracts with a black or Latino majority consistently have less PV than otherwise similar tracts with no clear majority. And majority-white tracts had more PV than those without a majority. In majority-Asian tracts, the disparity was less apparent, but still present.
So, the big question becomes “why?”
The Color Of Energy
The study did not address how race and ethnicity influence PV adoption, and its authors can provide no definitive explanation - but they do offer several possibilities.
In general, “seeding” speeds PV adoption: if one person gets rooftop solar, other people in the same neighborhood are likely to follow suit. The authors note that many more tracts with a non-white majority lacked even one house with solar, suggesting that part of the problem is that seeding isn’t happening. A small difference in the likelihood of someone getting that first rooftop panel may translate in a huge difference in the total number of panels installed. This is corroborated by a previous study by Yale University, that found the most important factor influencing solar adoption was installations on neighboring households.
The authors also note that people of color are not well-represented in the solar industry, especially at the management level . Perhaps that lack of representation leads to poorer service to black or Latino neighborhoods - in a 2016 survey just 6.6% of solar industry workers were found to be African-American.
Closing The Gap
One of the study’s authors, Berkeley’s Dr. Dan Kammen, states that he finds the results “depressing”, but also “a clear sign that we can do things differently and more equitably.” He considers it likely that the problem is “an effect of more solar installers and more seed programs in more advantaged areas,” and suggests solar education and financing targeted specifically to low-income communities and people of color as part of the Green New Deal.
Kammen continues to say that seeding “could be reversed by targeting solar and other technology education and sales programs in ways that work for low-income communities. Solar is an up-front cost, so we need efforts like the Green New Deal to make solar education and financing available, such as is done by groups like Grid Alternatives that train, work to finance, and to integrate solar and energy efficiency to make it a least cost, most secure energy option for disadvantaged communities.”
Dr Kammen was previously appointed Science Envoy by the US State Department and made headlines when his letter of resignation went viral in August 2017 citing his concerns around the President Trump's failure to denounce white supremacists and neo-nazis. He remains an outspoken champion of sustainable energy production and environmental justice.
The authors of the study emphasize that the racial gap in solar adoption is a form of injustice since it denies many people real financial benefits. They also suggest that, without intervention, the gap is likely to grow. Awareness of the racial and ethnic dimension of the inequality of access is the first step and should direct education and financing programs that can address the disparity and bring distributed solar to all.
Emma’s interests are at the intersection of climate change adaptation, environmental justice, and science and technology studies, with a focus on renewable energy technology adoption in under-resourced communities. She received her B.A. in Geography and B.S. in Environmental Sciences at UC Berkeley in 2011, and her undergraduate research focused on critical approaches to GIS technology in the context of Tribal land management.
Prior to ERG, she worked for GRID Alternatives, a non-profit solar installer.
Emma is currently conducting research in residence at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
It is abundantly clear that adequate, reliable and clean energy services are vital for the achievement of many of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). In essence, energy access has come to represent one of the intractable challenges in development, and therefore emblematic of the call for poverty eradication, and economic and social transformation. This focus issue on "Energy Access for Sustainable Development" is initiated to draw broadly from the ideas and emerging experiences with energy activities and solutions that sought to enhance sustainable development through expansion of energy access. The focus issue includes several contributions from authors on some of the knowledge gaps this field, including: (i) the role of off-grid and mini-grid energy systems to meet multiple SDGs; (ii) the impacts of the evolving suite of off-grid and distributed energy services on inequalities across gender, and on minority and disadvantaged communities; (iii) the opportunities that the evolving technology base (both of energy services and information systems) plays in expanding the role of off-grid and mini-grid energy systems; (iv) energy options for cooking; (v) new insights into energy planning as well as the political economy, institutional and decision challenges across the energy system. Drawing from papers in this focus issue and other literature, this paper provides a sketch of the key issues in energy access.