Input and Collaboration Crucial to Success

By Gerry Boyle ‘78Photography by Gabe Souza
April 21, 2021

Creating Climate Equity

Alison Bates
Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies

Want a reminder of how our environmental consciousness has changed in the past 20 years? Consider Alison Bates then and now.

First, she worked in conservation for a nonprofit, replanting native trees in the San Bernardino National Forest in California. Then, appalled by the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, she earned her Ph.D. in marine policy, specializing in offshore energy systems like wind. Now, as we grapple with the threat of climate change, Bates, assistant professor of environmental studies, is a driver in a growing movement that aims to create climate strategy that is devised with fairness considered at the outset—not after the fact.

“If we’re promoting renewables as the solution to climate change, there’s a social contract that we do it in a way that’s equitable, not inequitable,” Bates said. “How do we do this energy transition in a way that’s positive for everybody?”

It isn’t now, even as we move toward cleaner energy with clear and even existential benefits. Bates uses the example of solar energy, a go-to alternative to fossil fuels. “We have solar policies with racial and wealth disparities,” she said. For example, subsidies for rooftop solar disproportionately benefit higher-income suburban homeowners; yet the surcharges lead to rate premiums for all customers, further burdening people who already spend a large portion of their income on energy costs, exacerbating inequity. “So if you have $40,000 to put PV panels on your roof, you are then subsidized by the poor.”

Bottom line: lower-income electricity users, for whom that monthly bill can be a burden, are paying more to reduce our carbon footprint while wealthier people get tax credits. That inequity wasn’t deliberate; it just wasn’t considered as these technologies emerged and policies were formulated after the fact.

That’s just one instance of a problem that will grow as we shift to different energy sources and systems on a big scale—the only way, many say, for climate change to be slowed or reversed. If that sea change in the way we power our world is to succeed, we have to answer a fundamental question, Bates says. “How do we develop a research agenda that’s not just looking at one little piece of the puzzle at a time?”

One answer, Bates said, is the emerging field of energy convergence research, a term that describes a ground-floor collaboration that has been missing as we develop solar, wind, and other energy innovations.

Bates is part of a group that received funding from the National Science Foundation to come up with an equity-focused research agenda for the foundation going forward. The group includes experts from various disciplines: engineers, an economist, physicists, environmental policy scholars. The effort expanded to tap more of the top thinkers in R&D and technology, but also anthropology and philosophy.

Think next-gen interdisciplinary problem-solving. “It’s very common to have these collaborative projects where everyone does their piece and we bring it together and it’s a finished product,” Bates said. In convergence research, “you’re building together from the get-go.”

The process can be a challenge. Collaborators have to consider their assumptions and whether they still apply. There is terminology that means one thing in engineering and another in anthropology. That common language will be spoken this week at a conference Bates and colleagues organized: “NSF 2026: Priorities and Research Needs for an Equitable Energy Transition.

Breakout talks include “Browning the green space,” “Equity considerations in wholesale power markets,” “Equity as the framework for the energy transition,” “Racial disparities in solar PV deployment and adoption in the U.S.,” “Power to the People: Frontline efforts to empower 15,000 indigenous families in a just transition.”

But the concept of energy equity is about more than just a future consideration. In her own research, Bates is considering the ramifications of proposed expansion of wind power in the Gulf of Maine and ways the state’s fishing community can have a share of the rewards of that new energy.

“That’s equity, too,” she said, “although we tend to use equity around race or income, not necessarily profession.”

Research by Bates and her colleagues in the area of social acceptance of energy change has shown that resistance to many green initiatives come, not from big energy, but from municipalities where leaders often see climate-friendly innovation as anti-business.

In an area that is especially timely with the Biden administration’s climate-change blueprint, Bates is beginning research into the public opinion on large solar expansion in rural communities. “To meet Biden’s climate targets, we’re talking about solar on a scale that’s ten to twenty times what we’ve seen,” she said. “Are communities interested in generating self-sufficiency? Are they interested in installing enough acreage of solar to be self-sufficient? Are they interested in owning their own [solar farms], with different levels of risk and different levels of benefits?”

Researcher and environmental policy major Charlotte Del Col ’21 is finishing data analysis of results from focus groups conducted as part of the U.S. Department of Energy’s Solar Energy Innovation Network, and Bates expects to have preliminary results soon. Sneak peek: rural America won’t give up open space easily, and many rural residents don’t see clear benefits to their community from expanding solar across arable land, or that solar is a key part of the solution to the climate-change problem.

Bates said her students are used to considering problems from an interdisciplinary perspective, and now they’re learning the principles of energy convergence planning. “If we train students now in that way, hopefully, we won’t need these workshops,” she said. “In twenty years, students will already be approaching these problems in ways that are much more sophisticated.”