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’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-economic-political 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.