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    Reversing the charge

    Owners of electric vehicles (EVs) are accustomed to plugging into charging stations at home and at work and filling up their batteries with electricity from the power grid. But someday soon, when these drivers plug in, their cars will also have the capacity to reverse the flow and send electrons back to the grid. As the number of EVs climbs, the fleet’s batteries could serve as a cost-effective, large-scale energy source, with potentially dramatic impacts on the energy transition, according to a new paper published by an MIT team in the journal Energy Advances.

    “At scale, vehicle-to-grid (V2G) can boost renewable energy growth, displacing the need for stationary energy storage and decreasing reliance on firm [always-on] generators, such as natural gas, that are traditionally used to balance wind and solar intermittency,” says Jim Owens, lead author and a doctoral student in the MIT Department of Chemical Engineering. Additional authors include Emre Gençer, a principal research scientist at the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI), and Ian Miller, a research specialist for MITEI at the time of the study.

    The group’s work is the first comprehensive, systems-based analysis of future power systems, drawing on a novel mix of computational models integrating such factors as carbon emission goals, variable renewable energy (VRE) generation, and costs of building energy storage, production, and transmission infrastructure.

    “We explored not just how EVs could provide service back to the grid — thinking of these vehicles almost like energy storage on wheels — but also the value of V2G applications to the entire energy system and if EVs could reduce the cost of decarbonizing the power system,” says Gençer. “The results were surprising; I personally didn’t believe we’d have so much potential here.”

    Displacing new infrastructure

    As the United States and other nations pursue stringent goals to limit carbon emissions, electrification of transportation has taken off, with the rate of EV adoption rapidly accelerating. (Some projections show EVs supplanting internal combustion vehicles over the next 30 years.) With the rise of emission-free driving, though, there will be increased demand for energy. “The challenge is ensuring both that there’s enough electricity to charge the vehicles and that this electricity is coming from renewable sources,” says Gençer.

    But solar and wind energy is intermittent. Without adequate backup for these sources, such as stationary energy storage facilities using lithium-ion batteries, for instance, or large-scale, natural gas- or hydrogen-fueled power plants, achieving clean energy goals will prove elusive. More vexing, costs for building the necessary new energy infrastructure runs to the hundreds of billions.

    This is precisely where V2G can play a critical, and welcome, role, the researchers reported. In their case study of a theoretical New England power system meeting strict carbon constraints, for instance, the team found that participation from just 13.9 percent of the region’s 8 million light-duty (passenger) EVs displaced 14.7 gigawatts of stationary energy storage. This added up to $700 million in savings — the anticipated costs of building new storage capacity.

    Their paper also described the role EV batteries could play at times of peak demand, such as hot summer days. “V2G technology has the ability to inject electricity back into the system to cover these episodes, so we don’t need to install or invest in additional natural gas turbines,” says Owens. “The way that EVs and V2G can influence the future of our power systems is one of the most exciting and novel aspects of our study.”

    Modeling power

    To investigate the impacts of V2G on their hypothetical New England power system, the researchers integrated their EV travel and V2G service models with two of MITEI’s existing modeling tools: the Sustainable Energy System Analysis Modeling Environment (SESAME) to project vehicle fleet and electricity demand growth, and GenX, which models the investment and operation costs of electricity generation, storage, and transmission systems. They incorporated such inputs as different EV participation rates, costs of generation for conventional and renewable power suppliers, charging infrastructure upgrades, travel demand for vehicles, changes in electricity demand, and EV battery costs.

    Their analysis found benefits from V2G applications in power systems (in terms of displacing energy storage and firm generation) at all levels of carbon emission restrictions, including one with no emissions caps at all. However, their models suggest that V2G delivers the greatest value to the power system when carbon constraints are most aggressive — at 10 grams of carbon dioxide per kilowatt hour load. Total system savings from V2G ranged from $183 million to $1,326 million, reflecting EV participation rates between 5 percent and 80 percent.

    “Our study has begun to uncover the inherent value V2G has for a future power system, demonstrating that there is a lot of money we can save that would otherwise be spent on storage and firm generation,” says Owens.

    Harnessing V2G

    For scientists seeking ways to decarbonize the economy, the vision of millions of EVs parked in garages or in office spaces and plugged into the grid for 90 percent of their operating lives proves an irresistible provocation. “There is all this storage sitting right there, a huge available capacity that will only grow, and it is wasted unless we take full advantage of it,” says Gençer.

    This is not a distant prospect. Startup companies are currently testing software that would allow two-way communication between EVs and grid operators or other entities. With the right algorithms, EVs would charge from and dispatch energy to the grid according to profiles tailored to each car owner’s needs, never depleting the battery and endangering a commute.

    “We don’t assume all vehicles will be available to send energy back to the grid at the same time, at 6 p.m. for instance, when most commuters return home in the early evening,” says Gençer. He believes that the vastly varied schedules of EV drivers will make enough battery power available to cover spikes in electricity use over an average 24-hour period. And there are other potential sources of battery power down the road, such as electric school buses that are employed only for short stints during the day and then sit idle.

    The MIT team acknowledges the challenges of V2G consumer buy-in. While EV owners relish a clean, green drive, they may not be as enthusiastic handing over access to their car’s battery to a utility or an aggregator working with power system operators. Policies and incentives would help.

    “Since you’re providing a service to the grid, much as solar panel users do, you could be paid for your participation, and paid at a premium when electricity prices are very high,” says Gençer.

    “People may not be willing to participate ’round the clock, but if we have blackout scenarios like in Texas last year, or hot-day congestion on transmission lines, maybe we can turn on these vehicles for 24 to 48 hours, sending energy back to the system,” adds Owens. “If there’s a power outage and people wave a bunch of money at you, you might be willing to talk.”

    “Basically, I think this comes back to all of us being in this together, right?” says Gençer. “As you contribute to society by giving this service to the grid, you will get the full benefit of reducing system costs, and also help to decarbonize the system faster and to a greater extent.”

    Actionable insights

    Owens, who is building his dissertation on V2G research, is now investigating the potential impact of heavy-duty electric vehicles in decarbonizing the power system. “The last-mile delivery trucks of companies like Amazon and FedEx are likely to be the earliest adopters of EVs,” Owen says. “They are appealing because they have regularly scheduled routes during the day and go back to the depot at night, which makes them very useful for providing electricity and balancing services in the power system.”

    Owens is committed to “providing insights that are actionable by system planners, operators, and to a certain extent, investors,” he says. His work might come into play in determining what kind of charging infrastructure should be built, and where.

    “Our analysis is really timely because the EV market has not yet been developed,” says Gençer. “This means we can share our insights with vehicle manufacturers and system operators — potentially influencing them to invest in V2G technologies, avoiding the costs of building utility-scale storage, and enabling the transition to a cleaner future. It’s a huge win, within our grasp.”

    The research for this study was funded by MITEI’s Future Energy Systems Center. More

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    3 Questions: Robert Stoner unpacks US climate and infrastructure laws

    This month, the 2022 United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP27) takes place in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, bringing together governments, experts, journalists, industry, and civil society to discuss climate action to enable countries to collectively sharply limit anthropogenic climate change. As MIT Energy Initiative Deputy Director for Science and Technology Robert Stoner attends the conference, he takes a moment to speak about the climate and infrastructure laws enacted in the last year in the United States, and about the impact these laws can have in the global energy transition.

    Q: COP27 is now underway. Can you set the scene?

    A: There’s a lot of interest among vulnerable countries about compensation for the impacts climate change has had on them, or “loss and damage,” a topic that the United States refused to address last year at COP26, for fear of opening up a floodgate and leaving U.S. taxpayers exposed to unlimited liability for our past (and future) emissions. This is a crucial issue of fairness for developed countries — and, well, of acknowledging our common humanity. But in a sense, it’s also a sideshow, and addressing it won’t prevent a climate catastrophe — we really need to focus on mitigation. With the passage of the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), the United States is now in a strong position to twist some arms. These laws are largely about subsidizing the deployment of low-carbon technologies — pretty much all of them. We’re going to do a lot in the United States in the next decade that will lead to dramatic cost reductions for these technologies and enable other countries with fewer resources to adopt them as well. It’s exactly the leadership role the United States has needed to assume. Now we have the opportunity to rally the rest of the world and get other countries to commit to more ambitious decarbonization goals, and to build practical programs that take advantage of the investable pathways we’re going to create for public and private actors.

    But that alone won’t get us there — money is still a huge problem, especially in emerging markets and developing countries. And I don’t think the institutions we rely on to help these countries fund infrastructure — energy and everything else — are adequately funded. Nor do these institutions have the right structures, incentives, and staffing to fund low-carbon development in these countries rapidly enough or on the necessary scale. I’m talking about the World Bank, for instance, but the other multilateral organizations have similar issues. I frankly don’t think the multilaterals can be reformed or sufficiently redirected on a short enough time frame. We definitely need new leadership for these organizations, and I think we probably need to quickly establish new multilaterals with new people, more money, and a clarity of purpose that is likely beyond what can be achieved incrementally. I don’t know if this is going to be an active public discussion at COP27, but I hope it takes place somewhere soon. Given the strong role our government plays in financing and selecting the leadership of these institutions, perhaps this is another opportunity for the United States to demonstrate courage and leadership.

    Q: What “investable pathways” are you talking about?

    A: Well, the pathways we’re implicitly trying to pursue with the Infrastructure Act and IRA are pretty clear, and I’ll come back to them. But first let me describe the landscape: There are three main sources of demand for energy in the economy — industry (meaning chemical production, fuel for electricity generation, cement production, materials and manufacturing, and so on), transportation (cars, trucks, ships, planes, and trains), and buildings (for heating and cooling, mostly). That’s about it, and these three sectors account for 75 percent of our total greenhouse gas emissions. So the pathways are all about how to decarbonize these three end-use sectors. There are a lot of technologies — some that exist, some that don’t — that will have to be brought to bear. And so it can be a little overwhelming to try to imagine how it will all transpire, but it’s pretty clear at a high level what our options are:

    First, generate a lot of low-carbon electricity and electrify as many industrial processes, vehicles, and building heating systems as we can.
    Second, develop and deploy at massive scale technologies that can capture carbon dioxide from smokestacks, or the air, and put it somewhere that it can never escape from — in other words, carbon capture and sequestration, or CCS.
    Third, for end uses like aviation that really need to use fuels because of their extraordinary energy density, develop low-carbon alternatives to fossil fuels.
    And fourth is energy efficiency across the board — but I don’t really count that as a separate pathway per se.
    So, by “investable pathways” I mean specific ways to pursue these options that will attract investors. What the Infrastructure Act and the IRA do is deploy carrots (in the form of subsidies) in a variety of ways to close the gap between what it costs to deploy technologies like CCS that aren’t yet at a commercial stage because they’re immature, and what energy markets will tolerate. A similar situation occurs for low-carbon production of hydrogen, one of the leading low-carbon fuel candidates. We can make it by splitting water with electricity (electrolysis), but that costs too much with present-day technology; or we can make it more cheaply by separating it from methane (which is what natural gas mainly is), but that creates CO2 that has to be transported and sequestered somewhere. And then we have to store the hydrogen until we’re ready to use it, and transport it by pipeline to the industrial facilities where it will be used. That requires infrastructure that doesn’t exist — pipelines, compression stations, big tanks! Come to think of it, the demand for all that hydrogen doesn’t exist either — at least not if industry has to pay what it actually costs.

    So, one very important thing these new acts do is subsidize production of hydrogen in various ways — and subsidize the creation of a CCS industry. The other thing they do is subsidize the deployment at enormous scale of low-carbon energy technologies. Some of them are already pretty cheap, like solar and wind, but they need to be supported by a lot of storage on the grid (which we don’t yet have) and by other sorts of grid infrastructure that, again, don’t exist. So, they now get subsidized, too, along with other carbon-free and low-carbon generation technologies — basically all of them. The idea is that by stimulating at-scale deployment of all these established and emerging technologies, and funding demonstrations of novel infrastructure — effectively lowering the cost of supply of low-carbon energy in the form of electricity and fuels — we will draw out the private sector to build out much more of the connective infrastructure and invest in new industrial processes, new home heating systems, and low-carbon transportation. This subsidized build-out will take place over a decade and then phase out as costs fall — hopefully, leaving the foundation for a thriving low-carbon energy economy in its wake, along with crucial technologies and knowledge that will benefit the whole world.

    Q: Is all of the federal investment in energy infrastructure in the United States relevant to the energy crisis in Europe right now?

    A: Not in a direct way — Europe is a near-term catastrophe with a long-term challenge that is in many ways more difficult than ours because Europe doesn’t have the level of primary energy resources like oil and gas that we have in abundance. Energy costs more in Europe, especially absent Russian pipelines. In a way, the narrowing of Europe’s options creates an impetus to invest in low-carbon technologies sooner than otherwise. The result either way will be expensive energy and quite a lot of economic suffering for years. The near-term challenge is to protect people from high energy prices. The big spikes in electricity prices we see now are driven by the natural gas market disruption, which will eventually dissipate as new sources of electricity come online (Sweden, for example, just announced a plan to develop new nuclear, and we’re seeing other countries like Germany soften their stance on nuclear) — and gas markets will sort themselves out. Meanwhile governments are trying to shield their people with electricity price caps and other subsidies, but that’s enormously burdensome.

    The EU recently announced gas price caps for imported gas to try to eliminate price-gouging by importers and reduce the subsidy burden. That may help to lower downstream prices, or it may make matters worse by reducing the flow of gas into the EU and fueling scarcity pricing, and ultimately adding to the subsidy burden. A lot people are quite reasonably suggesting that if electricity prices are subject to crazy behavior in gas markets, then why not disconnect from the grid and self-generate? Wouldn’t that also help reduce demand for gas overall and also reduce CO2 emissions? It would. But it’s expensive to put solar panels on your roof and batteries in your basement — so for those rich enough to do this, it would lead to higher average electricity costs that would live on far into the future, even when grid prices eventually come down.

    So, an interesting idea is taking hold, with considerable encouragement from national governments — the idea of “energy communities,” basically, towns or cities that encourage local firms and homeowners to install solar and batteries, and make some sort of business arrangement with the local utility to allow the community to disconnect from the national grid at times of high prices and self-supply — in other words, use the utility’s wires to sell locally generated power locally. It’s interesting to think about — it takes less battery storage to handle the intermittency of solar when you have a lot of generators and consumers, so forming a community helps lower costs, and with a good deal from the utility for using their wires, it might not be that much more expensive. And of course, when the national grid is working well and prices are normal, the community would reconnect and buy power cheaply, while selling back its self-generated power to the grid. There are also potentially important social benefits that might accrue in these energy communities, too. It’s not a dumb idea, and we’ll see some interesting experimentation in this area in the coming years — as usual, the Germans are enthusiastic! More

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    Advancing the energy transition amidst global crises

    “The past six years have been the warmest on the planet, and our track record on climate change mitigation is drastically short of what it needs to be,” said Robert C. Armstrong, MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI) director and the Chevron Professor of Chemical Engineering, introducing MITEI’s 15th Annual Research Conference.

    At the symposium, participants from academia, industry, and finance acknowledged the deepening difficulties of decarbonizing a world rocked by geopolitical conflicts and suffering from supply chain disruptions, energy insecurity, inflation, and a persistent pandemic. In spite of this grim backdrop, the conference offered evidence of significant progress in the energy transition. Researchers provided glimpses of a low-carbon future, presenting advances in such areas as long-duration energy storage, carbon capture, and renewable technologies.

    In his keynote remarks, Ernest J. Moniz, the Cecil and Ida Green Professor of Physics and Engineering Systems Emeritus, founding director of MITEI, and former U.S. secretary of energy, highlighted “four areas that have materially changed in the last year” that could shake up, and possibly accelerate, efforts to address climate change.

    Extreme weather seems to be propelling the public and policy makers of both U.S. parties toward “convergence … at least in recognition of the challenge,” Moniz said. He perceives a growing consensus that climate goals will require — in diminishing order of certainty — firm (always-on) power to complement renewable energy sources, a fuel (such as hydrogen) flowing alongside electricity, and removal of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2).

    Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, with its “weaponization of natural gas” and global energy impacts, underscores the idea that climate, energy security, and geopolitics “are now more or less recognized widely as one conversation.” Moniz pointed as well to new U.S. laws on climate change and infrastructure that will amplify the role of science and technology and “address the drive to technological dominance by China.”

    The rapid transformation of energy systems will require a comprehensive industrial policy, Moniz said. Government and industry must select and rapidly develop low-carbon fuels, firm power sources (possibly including nuclear power), CO2 removal systems, and long-duration energy storage technologies. “We will need to make progress on all fronts literally in this decade to come close to our goals for climate change mitigation,” he concluded.

    Global cooperation?

    Over two days, conference participants delved into many of the issues Moniz raised. In one of the first panels, scholars pondered whether the international community could forge a coordinated climate change response. The United States’ rift with China, especially over technology trade policies, loomed large.

    “Hatred of China is a bipartisan hobby and passion, but a blanket approach isn’t right, even for the sake of national security,” said Yasheng Huang, the Epoch Foundation Professor of Global Economics and Management at the MIT Sloan School of Management. “Although the United States and China working together would have huge effects for both countries, it is politically unpalatable in the short term,” said F. Taylor Fravel, the Arthur and Ruth Sloan Professor of Political Science and director of the MIT Security Studies Program. John E. Parsons, deputy director for research at the MIT Center for Energy and Environmental Policy Research, suggested that the United States should use this moment “to get our own act together … and start doing things,” such as building nuclear power plants in a cost-effective way.

    Debating carbon removal

    Several panels took up the matter of carbon emissions and the most promising technologies for contending with them. Charles Harvey, MIT professor of civil and environmental engineering, and Howard Herzog, a senior research engineer at MITEI, set the stage early, debating whether capturing carbon was essential to reaching net-zero targets.

    “I have no trouble getting to net zero without carbon capture and storage,” said David Keith, the Gordon McKay Professor of Applied Physics at Harvard University, in a subsequent roundtable. Carbon capture seems more risky to Keith than solar geoengineering, which involves injecting sulfur into the stratosphere to offset CO2 and its heat-trapping impacts.

    There are new ways of moving carbon from where it’s a problem to where it’s safer. Kripa K. Varanasi, MIT professor of mechanical engineering, described a process for modulating the pH of ocean water to remove CO2. Timothy Krysiek, managing director for Equinor Ventures, talked about construction of a 900-kilometer pipeline transporting CO2 from northern Germany to a large-scale storage site located in Norwegian waters 3,000 meters below the seabed. “We can use these offshore Norwegian assets as a giant carbon sink for Europe,” he said.

    A startup showcase featured additional approaches to the carbon challenge. Mantel, which received MITEI Seed Fund money, is developing molten salt material to capture carbon for long-term storage or for use in generating electricity. Verdox has come up with an electrochemical process for capturing dilute CO2 from the atmosphere.

    But while much of the global warming discussion focuses on CO2, other greenhouse gases are menacing. Another panel discussed measuring and mitigating these pollutants. “Methane has 82 times more warming power than CO2 from the point of emission,” said Desirée L. Plata, MIT associate professor of civil and environmental engineering. “Cutting methane is the strongest lever we have to slow climate change in the next 25 years — really the only lever.”

    Steven Hamburg, chief scientist and senior vice president of the Environmental Defense Fund, cautioned that emission of hydrogen molecules into the atmosphere can cause increases in other greenhouse gases such as methane, ozone, and water vapor. As researchers and industry turn to hydrogen as a fuel or as a feedstock for commercial processes, “we will need to minimize leakage … or risk increasing warming,” he said.

    Supply chains, markets, and new energy ventures

    In panels on energy storage and the clean energy supply chain, there were interesting discussions of challenges ahead. High-density energy materials such as lithium, cobalt, nickel, copper, and vanadium for grid-scale energy storage, electric vehicles (EVs), and other clean energy technologies, can be difficult to source. “These often come from water-stressed regions, and we need to be super thoughtful about environmental stresses,” said Elsa Olivetti, the Esther and Harold E. Edgerton Associate Professor in Materials Science and Engineering. She also noted that in light of the explosive growth in demand for metals such as lithium, recycling EVs won’t be of much help. “The amount of material coming back from end-of-life batteries is minor,” she said, until EVs are much further along in their adoption cycle.

    Arvind Sanger, founder and managing partner of Geosphere Capital, said that the United States should be developing its own rare earths and minerals, although gaining the know-how will take time, and overcoming “NIMBYism” (not in my backyard-ism) is a challenge. Sanger emphasized that we must continue to use “denser sources of energy” to catalyze the energy transition over the next decade. In particular, Sanger noted that “for every transition technology, steel is needed,” and steel is made in furnaces that use coal and natural gas. “It’s completely woolly-headed to think we can just go to a zero-fossil fuel future in a hurry,” he said.

    The topic of power markets occupied another panel, which focused on ways to ensure the distribution of reliable and affordable zero-carbon energy. Integrating intermittent resources such as wind and solar into the grid requires a suite of retail markets and new digital tools, said Anuradha Annaswamy, director of MIT’s Active-Adaptive Control Laboratory. Tim Schittekatte, a postdoc at the MIT Sloan School of Management, proposed auctions as a way of insuring consumers against periods of high market costs.

    Another panel described the very different investment needs of new energy startups, such as longer research and development phases. Hooisweng Ow, technology principal at Eni Next LLC Ventures, which is developing drilling technology for geothermal energy, recommends joint development and partnerships to reduce risk. Michael Kearney SM ’11, PhD ’19, SM ’19 is a partner at The Engine, a venture firm built by MIT investing in path-breaking technology to solve the toughest challenges in climate and other problems. Kearney believes the emergence of new technologies and markets will bring on “a labor transition on an order of magnitude never seen before in this country,” he said. “Workforce development is not a natural zone for startups … and this will have to change.”

    Supporting the global South

    The opportunities and challenges of the energy transition look quite different in the developing world. In conversation with Robert Armstrong, Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan, the coordinating minister for maritime affairs and investment of the Republic of Indonesia, reported that his “nation is rich with solar, wind, and energy transition minerals like nickel and copper,” but cannot on its own tackle developing renewable energy or reducing carbon emissions and improving grid infrastructure. “Education is a top priority, and we are very far behind in high technologies,” he said. “We need help and support from MIT to achieve our target,” he said.

    Technologies that could springboard Indonesia and other nations of the global South toward their climate goals are emerging in MITEI-supported projects and at young companies MITEI helped spawn. Among the promising innovations unveiled at the conference are new materials and designs for cooling buildings in hot climates and reducing the environmental costs of construction, and a sponge-like substance that passively sucks moisture out of the air to lower the energy required for running air conditioners in humid climates.

    Other ideas on the move from lab to market have great potential for industrialized nations as well, such as a computational framework for maximizing the energy output of ocean-based wind farms; a process for using ammonia as a renewable fuel with no CO2 emissions; long-duration energy storage derived from the oxidation of iron; and a laser-based method for unlocking geothermal steam to drive power plants. More

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    Coordinating climate and air-quality policies to improve public health

    As America’s largest investment to fight climate change, the Inflation Reduction Act positions the country to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions by an estimated 40 percent below 2005 levels by 2030. But as it edges the United States closer to achieving its international climate commitment, the legislation is also expected to yield significant — and more immediate — improvements in the nation’s health. If successful in accelerating the transition from fossil fuels to clean energy alternatives, the IRA will sharply reduce atmospheric concentrations of fine particulates known to exacerbate respiratory and cardiovascular disease and cause premature deaths, along with other air pollutants that degrade human health. One recent study shows that eliminating air pollution from fossil fuels in the contiguous United States would prevent more than 50,000 premature deaths and avoid more than $600 billion in health costs each year.

    While national climate policies such as those advanced by the IRA can simultaneously help mitigate climate change and improve air quality, their results may vary widely when it comes to improving public health. That’s because the potential health benefits associated with air quality improvements are much greater in some regions and economic sectors than in others. Those benefits can be maximized, however, through a prudent combination of climate and air-quality policies.

    Several past studies have evaluated the likely health impacts of various policy combinations, but their usefulness has been limited due to a reliance on a small set of standard policy scenarios. More versatile tools are needed to model a wide range of climate and air-quality policy combinations and assess their collective effects on air quality and human health. Now researchers at the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change and MIT Institute for Data, Systems and Society (IDSS) have developed a publicly available, flexible scenario tool that does just that.

    In a study published in the journal Geoscientific Model Development, the MIT team introduces its Tool for Air Pollution Scenarios (TAPS), which can be used to estimate the likely air-quality and health outcomes of a wide range of climate and air-quality policies at the regional, sectoral, and fuel-based level. 

    “This tool can help integrate the siloed sustainability issues of air pollution and climate action,” says the study’s lead author William Atkinson, who recently served as a Biogen Graduate Fellow and research assistant at the IDSS Technology and Policy Program’s (TPP) Research to Policy Engagement Initiative. “Climate action does not guarantee a clean air future, and vice versa — but the issues have similar sources that imply shared solutions if done right.”

    The study’s initial application of TAPS shows that with current air-quality policies and near-term Paris Agreement climate pledges alone, short-term pollution reductions give way to long-term increases — given the expected growth of emissions-intensive industrial and agricultural processes in developing regions. More ambitious climate and air-quality policies could be complementary, each reducing different pollutants substantially to give tremendous near- and long-term health benefits worldwide.

    “The significance of this work is that we can more confidently identify the long-term emission reduction strategies that also support air quality improvements,” says MIT Joint Program Deputy Director C. Adam Schlosser, a co-author of the study. “This is a win-win for setting climate targets that are also healthy targets.”

    TAPS projects air quality and health outcomes based on three integrated components: a recent global inventory of detailed emissions resulting from human activities (e.g., fossil fuel combustion, land-use change, industrial processes); multiple scenarios of emissions-generating human activities between now and the year 2100, produced by the MIT Economic Projection and Policy Analysis model; and emissions intensity (emissions per unit of activity) scenarios based on recent data from the Greenhouse Gas and Air Pollution Interactions and Synergies model.

    “We see the climate crisis as a health crisis, and believe that evidence-based approaches are key to making the most of this historic investment in the future, particularly for vulnerable communities,” says Johanna Jobin, global head of corporate reputation and responsibility at Biogen. “The scientific community has spoken with unanimity and alarm that not all climate-related actions deliver equal health benefits. We’re proud of our collaboration with the MIT Joint Program to develop this tool that can be used to bridge research-to-policy gaps, support policy decisions to promote health among vulnerable communities, and train the next generation of scientists and leaders for far-reaching impact.”

    The tool can inform decision-makers about a wide range of climate and air-quality policies. Policy scenarios can be applied to specific regions, sectors, or fuels to investigate policy combinations at a more granular level, or to target short-term actions with high-impact benefits.

    TAPS could be further developed to account for additional emissions sources and trends.

    “Our new tool could be used to examine a large range of both climate and air quality scenarios. As the framework is expanded, we can add detail for specific regions, as well as additional pollutants such as air toxics,” says study supervising co-author Noelle Selin, professor at IDSS and the MIT Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, and director of TPP.    

    This research was supported by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and its Science to Achieve Results (STAR) program; Biogen; TPP’s Leading Technology and Policy Initiative; and TPP’s Research to Policy Engagement Initiative. More

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    Finding community in high-energy-density physics

    Skylar Dannhoff knew one thing: She did not want to be working alone.

    As an undergraduate at Case Western Reserve University, she had committed to a senior project that often felt like solitary lab work, a feeling heightened by the pandemic. Though it was an enriching experience, she was determined to find a graduate school environment that would foster community, one “with lots of people, lots of collaboration; where it’s impossible to work until 3 a.m. without anyone noticing.” A unique group at the Plasma Science and Fusion Center (PSFC) looked promising: the High-Energy-Density Physics (HEDP) division, a lead partner in the National Nuclear Security Administration’s Center for Excellence at MIT.

    “It was a shot in the dark, just more of a whim than anything,” she says of her request to join HEDP on her application to MIT’s Department of Physics. “And then, somehow, they reached out to me. I told them I’m willing to learn about plasma. I didn’t know anything about it.”

    What she did know was that the HEDP group collaborates with other U.S. laboratories on an approach to creating fusion energy known as inertial confinement fusion (ICF). One version of the technique, known as direct-drive ICF, aims multiple laser beams symmetrically onto a spherical capsule filled with nuclear fuel. The other, indirect-drive ICF, instead aims multiple lasers beams into a gold cylindrical cavity called a hohlraum, within which the spherical fuel capsule is positioned. The laser beams are configured to hit the inner hohlraum wall, generating a “bath” of X-rays, which in turn compress the fuel capsule.

    Imploding the capsule generates intense fusion energy within a tiny fraction of a second (an order of tens of picoseconds). In August 2021, the National Ignition Facility (NIF) at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) used this method to produce an historic fusion yield of 1.3 megajoules, putting researchers within reach of “ignition,” the point where the self-sustained fusion burn spreads into the surrounding fuel, leading to a high fusion-energy gain.  

    Joining the group just a month before this long-sought success, Dannhoff was impressed more with the response of her new teammates and the ICF community than with the scientific milestone. “I got a better appreciation for people who had spent their entire careers working on this project, just chugging along doing their best, ignoring the naysayers. I was excited for the people.”

    Dannhoff is now working toward extending the success of NIF and other ICF experiments, like the OMEGA laser at the University of Rochester’s Laboratory for Laser Energetics. Under the supervision of Senior Research Scientist Chikang Li, she is studying what happens to the flow of plasma within the hohlraum cavity during indirect ICF experiments, particularly for hohlraums with inner-wall aerogel foam linings. Experiments, over the last decade, have shown just how excruciatingly precise the symmetry in ICF targets must be. The more symmetric the X-ray drive, the more effective the implosion, and it is possible that these foam linings will improve the X-ray symmetry and drive efficiency.

    Dannhoff is specifically interested in studying the behavior of silicon and tantalum-based foam liners. She is as concerned with the challenges of the people at General Atomics (GA) and LLNL who are creating these targets as she is with the scientific outcome.

    “I just had a meeting with GA yesterday,” she notes. “And it’s a really tricky process. It’s kind of pushing the boundaries of what is doable at the moment. I got a much better sense of how demanding this project is for them, how much we’re asking of them.”

    What excites Dannhoff is the teamwork she observes, both at MIT and between ICF institutions around the United States. With roughly 10 graduate students and postdocs down the hall, each with an assigned lead role in lab management, she knows she can consult an expert on almost any question. And collaborators across the country are just an email away. “Any information that people can give you, they will give you, and usually very freely,” she notes. “Everyone just wants to see this work.”

    That Dannhoff is a natural team player is also evidenced in her hobbies. A hockey goalie, she prioritizes playing with MIT’s intramural teams, “because goalies are a little hard to come by. I just play with whoever needs a goalie on that night, and it’s a lot of fun.”

    She is also a member of the radio community, a fellowship she first embraced at Case Western — a moment she describes as a turning point in her life. “I literally don’t know who I would be today if I hadn’t figured out radio is something I’m interested in,” she admits. The MIT Radio Society provided the perfect landing pad for her arrival in Cambridge, full of the kinds of supportive, interesting, knowledgeable students she had befriended as an undergraduate. She credits radio with helping her realize that she could make her greatest contributions to science by focusing on engineering.

    Danhoff gets philosophical as she marvels at the invisible waves that surround us.

    “Not just radio waves: every wave,” she asserts. “The voice is the everywhere. Music, signal, space phenomena: it’s always around. And all we have to do is make the right little device and have the right circuit elements put in the right order to unmix and mix the signals and amplify them. And bada-bing, bada-boom, we’re talking with the universe.”

    “Maybe that epitomizes physics to me,” she adds. “We’re trying to listen to the universe, and it’s talking to us. We just have to come up with the right tools and hear what it’s trying to say.” More

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    3 Questions: Blue hydrogen and the world’s energy systems

    In the past several years, hydrogen energy has increasingly become a more central aspect of the clean energy transition. Hydrogen can produce clean, on-demand energy that could complement variable renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power. That being said, pathways for deploying hydrogen at scale have yet to be fully explored. In particular, the optimal form of hydrogen production remains in question.

    MIT Energy Initiative Research Scientist Emre Gençer and researchers from a wide range of global academic and research institutions recently published “On the climate impacts of blue hydrogen production,” a comprehensive life-cycle assessment analysis of blue hydrogen, a term referring to natural gas-based hydrogen production with carbon capture and storage. Here, Gençer describes blue hydrogen and the role that hydrogen will play more broadly in decarbonizing the world’s energy systems.

    Q: What are the differences between gray, green, and blue hydrogen?

    A: Though hydrogen does not generate any emissions directly when it is used, hydrogen production can have a huge environmental impact. Colors of hydrogen are increasingly used to distinguish different production methods and as a proxy to represent the associated environmental impact. Today, close to 95 percent of hydrogen production comes from fossil resources. As a result, the carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions from hydrogen production are quite high. Gray, black, and brown hydrogen refer to fossil-based production. Gray is the most common form of production and comes from natural gas, or methane, using steam methane reformation but without capturing CO2.

    There are two ways to move toward cleaner hydrogen production. One is applying carbon capture and storage to the fossil fuel-based hydrogen production processes. Natural gas-based hydrogen production with carbon capture and storage is referred to as blue hydrogen. If substantial amounts of CO2 from natural gas reforming are captured and permanently stored, such hydrogen could be a low-carbon energy carrier. The second way to produce cleaner hydrogen is by using electricity to produce hydrogen via electrolysis. In this case, the source of the electricity determines the environmental impact of the hydrogen, with the lowest impact being achieved when electricity is generated from renewable sources, such as wind and solar. This is known as green hydrogen.

    Q: What insights have you gleaned with a life cycle assessment (LCA) of blue hydrogen and other low-carbon energy systems?

    A: Mitigating climate change requires significant decarbonization of the global economy. Accurate estimation of cumulative greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and its reduction pathways is critical irrespective of the source of emissions. An LCA approach allows the quantification of the environmental life cycle of a commercial product, process, or service impact with all the stages (cradle-to-grave). The LCA-based comparison of alternative energy pathways, fuel options, etc., provides an apples-to-apples comparison of low-carbon energy choices. In the context of low-carbon hydrogen, it is essential to understand the GHG impact of supply chain options. Depending on the production method, contribution of life-cycle stages to the total emissions might vary. For example, with natural gas–based hydrogen production, emissions associated with production and transport of natural gas might be a significant contributor based on its leakage and flaring rates. If these rates are not precisely accounted for, the environmental impact of blue hydrogen can be underestimated. However, the same rationale is also true for electricity-based hydrogen production. If the electricity is not supplied from low-
carbon sources such as wind, solar, or nuclear, the carbon intensity of hydrogen can be significantly underestimated. In the case of nuclear, there are also other environmental impact considerations.

    An LCA approach — if performed with consistent system boundaries — can provide an accurate environmental impact comparison. It should also be noted that these estimations can only be as good as the assumptions and correlations used unless they are supported by measurements. 

    Q: What conditions are needed to make blue hydrogen production most effective, and how can it complement other decarbonization pathways?

    A: Hydrogen is considered one of the key vectors for the decarbonization of hard-to-abate sectors such as heavy-duty transportation. Currently, more than 95 percent of global hydrogen production is fossil-fuel based. In the next decade, massive amounts of hydrogen must be produced to meet this anticipated demand. It is very hard, if not impossible, to meet this demand without leveraging existing production assets. The immediate and relatively cost-effective option is to retrofit existing plants with carbon capture and storage (blue hydrogen).

    The environmental impact of blue hydrogen may vary over large ranges but depends on only a few key parameters: the methane emission rate of the natural gas supply chain, the CO2 removal rate at the hydrogen production plant, and the global warming metric applied. State-of-the-art reforming with high CO2 capture rates, combined with natural gas supply featuring low methane emissions, substantially reduces GHG emissions compared to conventional natural gas reforming. Under these conditions, blue hydrogen is compatible with low-carbon economies and exhibits climate change impacts at the upper end of the range of those caused by hydrogen production from renewable-based electricity. However, neither current blue nor green hydrogen production pathways render fully “net-zero” hydrogen without additional CO2 removal.

    This article appears in the Spring 2022 issue of Energy Futures, the magazine of the MIT Energy Initiative. More

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    Processing waste biomass to reduce airborne emissions

    To prepare fields for planting, farmers the world over often burn corn stalks, rice husks, hay, straw, and other waste left behind from the previous harvest. In many places, the practice creates huge seasonal clouds of smog, contributing to air pollution that kills 7 million people globally a year, according to the World Health Organization.

    Annually, $120 billion worth of crop and forest residues are burned in the open worldwide — a major waste of resources in an energy-starved world, says Kevin Kung SM ’13, PhD ’17. Kung is working to transform this waste biomass into marketable products — and capitalize on a billion-dollar global market — through his MIT spinoff company, Takachar.

    Founded in 2015, Takachar develops small-scale, low-cost, portable equipment to convert waste biomass into solid fuel using a variety of thermochemical treatments, including one known as oxygen-lean torrefaction. The technology emerged from Kung’s PhD project in the lab of Ahmed Ghoniem, the Ronald C. Crane (1972) Professor of Mechanical Engineering at MIT.

    Biomass fuels, including wood, peat, and animal dung, are a major source of carbon emissions — but billions of people rely on such fuels for cooking, heating, and other household needs. “Currently, burning biomass generates 10 percent of the primary energy used worldwide, and the process is used largely in rural, energy-poor communities. We’re not going to change that overnight. There are places with no other sources of energy,” Ghoniem says.

    What Takachar’s technology provides is a way to use biomass more cleanly and efficiently by concentrating the fuel and eliminating contaminants such as moisture and dirt, thus creating a “clean-burning” fuel — one that generates less smoke. “In rural communities where biomass is used extensively as a primary energy source, torrefaction will address air pollution head-on,” Ghoniem says.

    Thermochemical treatment densifies biomass at elevated temperatures, converting plant materials that are typically loose, wet, and bulky into compact charcoal. Centralized processing plants exist, but collection and transportation present major barriers to utilization, Kung says. Takachar’s solution moves processing into the field: To date, Takachar has worked with about 5,500 farmers to process 9,000 metric tons of crops.

    Takachar estimates its technology has the potential to reduce carbon dioxide equivalent emissions by gigatons per year at scale. (“Carbon dioxide equivalent” is a measure used to gauge global warming potential.) In recognition, in 2021 Takachar won the first-ever Earthshot Prize in the clean air category, a £1 million prize funded by Prince William and Princess Kate’s Royal Foundation.

    Roots in Kenya

    As Kung tells the story, Takachar emerged from a class project that took him to Kenya — which explains the company’s name, a combination of takataka, which mean “trash” in Swahili, and char, for the charcoal end product.

    It was 2011, and Kung was at MIT as a biological engineering grad student focused on cancer research. But “MIT gives students big latitude for exploration, and I took courses outside my department,” he says. In spring 2011, he signed up for a class known as 15.966 (Global Health Delivery Lab) in the MIT Sloan School of Management. The class brought Kung to Kenya to work with a nongovernmental organization in Nairobi’s Kibera, the largest urban slum in Africa.

    “We interviewed slum households for their views on health, and that’s when I noticed the charcoal problem,” Kung says. The problem, as Kung describes it, was that charcoal was everywhere in Kibera — piled up outside, traded by the road, and used as the primary fuel, even indoors. Its creation contributed to deforestation, and its smoke presented a serious health hazard.

    Eager to address this challenge, Kung secured fellowship support from the MIT International Development Initiative and the Priscilla King Gray Public Service Center to conduct more research in Kenya. In 2012, he formed Takachar as a team and received seed money from the MIT IDEAS Global Challenge, MIT Legatum Center for Development and Entrepreneurship, and D-Lab to produce charcoal from household organic waste. (This work also led to a fertilizer company, Safi Organics, that Kung founded in 2016 with the help of MIT IDEAS. But that is another story.)

    Meanwhile, Kung had another top priority: finding a topic for his PhD dissertation. Back at MIT, he met Alexander Slocum, the Walter M. May and A. Hazel May Professor of Mechanical Engineering, who on a long walk-and-talk along the Charles River suggested he turn his Kenya work into a thesis. Slocum connected him with Robert Stoner, deputy director for science and technology at the MIT Energy Initiative (MITEI) and founding director of MITEI’s Tata Center for Technology and Design. Stoner in turn introduced Kung to Ghoniem, who became his PhD advisor, while Slocum and Stoner joined his doctoral committee.

    Roots in MIT lab

    Ghoniem’s telling of the Takachar story begins, not surprisingly, in the lab. Back in 2010, he had a master’s student interested in renewable energy, and he suggested the student investigate biomass. That student, Richard Bates ’10, SM ’12, PhD ’16, began exploring the science of converting biomass to more clean-burning charcoal through torrefaction.

    Most torrefaction (also known as low-temperature pyrolysis) systems use external heating sources, but the lab’s goal, Ghoniem explains, was to develop an efficient, self-sustained reactor that would generate fewer emissions. “We needed to understand the chemistry and physics of the process, and develop fundamental scaling models, before going to the lab to build the device,” he says.

    By the time Kung joined the lab in 2013, Ghoniem was working with the Tata Center to identify technology suitable for developing countries and largely based on renewable energy. Kung was able to secure a Tata Fellowship and — building on Bates’ research — develop the small-scale, practical device for biomass thermochemical conversion in the field that launched Takachar.

    This device, which was patented by MIT with inventors Kung, Ghoniem, Stoner, MIT research scientist Santosh Shanbhogue, and Slocum, is self-contained and scalable. It burns a little of the biomass to generate heat; this heat bakes the rest of the biomass, releasing gases; the system then introduces air to enable these gases to combust, which burns off the volatiles and generates more heat, keeping the thermochemical reaction going.

    “The trick is how to introduce the right amount of air at the right location to sustain the process,” Ghoniem explains. “If you put in more air, that will burn the biomass. If you put in less, there won’t be enough heat to produce the charcoal. That will stop the reaction.”

    About 10 percent of the biomass is used as fuel to support the reaction, Kung says, adding that “90 percent is densified into a form that’s easier to handle and utilize.” He notes that the research received financial support from the Abdul Latif Jameel Water and Food Systems Lab and the Deshpande Center for Technological Innovation, both at MIT. Sonal Thengane, another postdoc in Ghoniem’s lab, participated in the effort to scale up the technology at the MIT Bates Lab (no relation to Richard Bates).

    The charcoal produced is more valuable per ton and easier to transport and sell than biomass, reducing transportation costs by two-thirds and giving farmers an additional income opportunity — and an incentive not to burn agricultural waste, Kung says. “There’s more income for farmers, and you get better air quality.”

    Roots in India

    When Kung became a Tata Fellow, he joined a program founded to take on the biggest challenges of the developing world, with a focus on India. According to Stoner, Tata Fellows, including Kung, typically visit India twice a year and spend six to eight weeks meeting stakeholders in industry, the government, and in communities to gain perspective on their areas of study.

    “A unique part of Tata is that you’re considering the ecosystem as a whole,” says Kung, who interviewed hundreds of smallholder farmers, met with truck drivers, and visited existing biomass processing plants during his Tata trips to India. (Along the way, he also connected with Indian engineer Vidyut Mohan, who became Takachar’s co-founder.)

    “It was very important for Kevin to be there walking about, experimenting, and interviewing farmers,” Stoner says. “He learned about the lives of farmers.”

    These experiences helped instill in Kung an appreciation for small farmers that still drives him today as Takachar rolls out its first pilot programs, tinkers with the technology, grows its team (now up to 10), and endeavors to build a revenue stream. So, while Takachar has gotten a lot of attention and accolades — from the IDEAS award to the Earthshot Prize — Kung says what motivates him is the prospect of improving people’s lives.

    The dream, he says, is to empower communities to help both the planet and themselves. “We’re excited about the environmental justice perspective,” he says. “Our work brings production and carbon removal or avoidance to rural communities — providing them with a way to convert waste, make money, and reduce air pollution.”

    This article appears in the Spring 2022 issue of Energy Futures, the magazine of the MIT Energy Initiative. More

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    3 Questions: Janelle Knox-Hayes on producing renewable energy that communities want

    Wind power accounted for 8 percent of U.S. electricity consumption in 2020, and is growing rapidly in the country’s energy portfolio. But some projects, like the now-defunct Cape Wind proposal for offshore power in Massachusetts, have run aground due to local opposition. Are there ways to avoid this in the future?

    MIT professors Janelle Knox-Hayes and Donald Sadoway think so. In a perspective piece published today in the journal Joule, they and eight other professors call for a new approach to wind-power deployment, one that engages communities in a process of “co-design” and adapts solutions to local needs. That process, they say, could spur additional creativity in renewable energy engineering, while making communities more amenable to existing technologies. In addition to Knox-Hayes and Sadoway, the paper’s co-authors are Michael J. Aziz of Harvard University; Dennice F. Gayme of Johns Hopkins University; Kathryn Johnson of the Colorado School of Mines; Perry Li of the University of Minnesota; Eric Loth of the University of Virginia; Lucy Y. Pao of the University of Colorado; Jessica Smith of the Colorado School of Mines; and Sonya Smith of Howard University.

    Knox-Hayes is the Lister Brothers Associate Professor of Economic Geography and Planning in MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning, and an expert on the social and political context of renewable energy adoption; Sadoway is the John F. Elliott Professor of Materials Chemistry in MIT’s Department of Materials Science and Engineering, and a leading global expert on developing new forms of energy storage. MIT News spoke with Knox-Hayes about the topic.

    Q: What is the core problem you are addressing in this article?

    A: It is problematic to act as if technology can only be engineered in a silo and then delivered to society. To solve problems like climate change, we need to see technology as a socio-technical system, which is integrated from its inception into society. From a design standpoint, that begins with conversations, values assessments, and understanding what communities need.  If we can do that, we will have a much easier time delivering the technology in the end.

    What we have seen in the Northeast, in trying to meet our climate objectives and energy efficiency targets, is that we need a lot of offshore wind, and a lot of projects have stalled because a community was saying “no.” And part of the reason communities refuse projects is because they that they’ve never been properly consulted. What form does the technology take, and how would it operate within a community? That conversation can push the boundaries of engineering.

    Q: The new paper makes the case for a new practice of “co-design” in the field of renewable energy. You call this the “STEP” process, standing for all the socio-technical-political-economic issues that an engineering project might encounter. How would you describe the STEP idea? And to what extent would industry be open to new attempts to design an established technology?

    A: The idea is to bring together all these elements in an interdisciplinary process, and engage stakeholders. The process could start with a series of community forums where we bring everyone together, and do a needs assessment, which is a common practice in planning. We might see that offshore wind energy needs to be considered in tandem with the local fishing industry, or servicing the installations, or providing local workforce training. The STEP process allows us to take a step back, and start with planners, policymakers, and community members on the ground.

    It is also about changing the nature of research and practice and teaching, so that students are not just in classrooms, they are also learning to work with communities. I think formalizing that piece is important. We are starting now to really feel the impacts of climate change, so we have to confront the reality of breaking through political boundaries, even in the United States. That is the only way to make this successful, and that comes back to how can technology be co-designed.

    At MIT, innovation is the spirit of the endeavor, and that is why MIT has so many industry partners engaged in initiatives like MITEI [the MIT Energy Initiative] and the Climate Consortium. The value of the partnership is that MIT pushes the boundaries of what is possible. It is the idea that we can advance and we can do something incredible, we can innovate the future. What we are suggesting with this work is that innovation isn’t something that happens exclusively in a laboratory, but something that is very much built in partnership with communities and other stakeholders.

    Q: How much does this approach also apply to solar power, as the other leading type of renewable energy? It seems like communities also wrestle with where to locate solar arrays, or how to compensate homeowners, communities, and other solar hosts for the power they generate.

    A: I would not say solar has the same set of challenges, but rather that renewable technologies face similar challenges. With solar, there are also questions of access and siting. Another big challenge is to create financing models that provide value and opportunity at different scales. For example, is solar viable for tenants in multi-family units who want to engage with clean energy? This is a similar question for micro-wind opportunities for buildings. With offshore wind, a restriction is that if it is within sightlines, it might be problematic. But there are exciting technologies that have enabled deep wind, or the establishment of floating turbines up to 50 kilometers offshore. Storage solutions such as hydro-pneumatic energy storage, gravity energy storage or buoyancy storage can help maintain the transmission rate while reducing the number of transmission lines needed.

    In a lot of communities, the reality of renewables is that if you can generate your own energy, you can establish a level of security and resilience that feeds other benefits. 

    Nevertheless, as demonstrated in the Cape Wind case, technology [may be rejected] unless a community is involved from the beginning. Community involvement also creates other opportunities. Suppose, for example, that high school students are working as interns on renewable energy projects with engineers at great universities from the region. This provides a point of access for families and allows them to take pride in the systems they create.  It gives a further sense of purpose to the technology system, and vests the community in the system’s success. It is the difference between, “It was delivered to me,” and “I built it.” For researchers the article is a reminder that engineering and design are more successful if they are inclusive. Engineering and design processes are also meant to be accessible and fun. More