Many historically marginalized racial and ethnic communities, and economically vulnerable communities, are often unable to participate in the societal transition toward low-carbon energy systems due to a variety of financial, social, and technological challenges. These populations face a wide range of energy equity and environmental challenges, such as disproportionately living in areas with lower air and water quality, having less access to clean energy technologies, and experiencing higher rates of energy poverty and energy insecurity. More research is needed to understand how forthcoming changes to the energy system might impact these populations. Such studies can help inform how current or planned policies, practices, and programs might be better designed to include economically and socially vulnerable populations in forthcoming energy transitions.
In response to this need, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation conducted a Request for Proposals (RFP) process for collaborative social science research projects led by early or mid-career researchers examining critical and under-explored questions related to issues of energy insecurity, distributional equity, and just energy system transitions in the United States. Nearly 70 submissions were received in response to this open call.
The Foundation is proud to announce that it has made nine grants, totaling over $4.1 million, resulting from this RFP process. Selected projects are led by a diverse array of early-career principal investigators and involve a range of disciplinary approaches, methodologies, team composition, and geographic focus areas. Some projects examine local contexts to highlight the specific needs of various, often under-studied communities and regions involved in energy transitions, while other projects take a larger-scale, comparative approach to identify broader lessons in implementing a just energy transition at scale. Local community representatives and organizations are deeply involved in these projects, taking on integral roles in the leadership teams to define and shape the projects as well as specify what activities and outputs are most beneficial for the communities themselves.
University of North Texas, Dallas
Monika Ehrman, University of North Texas, Dallas
Daniel Raimi, Resources for the Future
Brian Prest, Resources for the Future
Margaret Walls, Resources for the Future
Andrew Curley, University of Arizona
Monte Mills, University of Montana
Pilar Thomas, Arizona State University
Catherine Hausman, University of Michigan
To examine how just energy transitions will affect Indigenous tribal nations in the Midwest and Southwest regions of the United States
The transition to a low carbon economy in the U.S. has potentially wide-ranging implications for North American tribal nations, many of whom have significant oil, gas, and coal resources that provide jobs for local workers and revenues that sustain vital government services, both of which are threatened by the move away from fossil fuels. On the other hand, tribal lands are also home to many potentially attractive sites for new renewable energy infrastructure like solar arrays or wind farms, which could offset job and revenue losses from the decreased use of oil and gas.
This grant supports a team led by Monika Ehrman at the University of North Texas, Dallas—in collaboration with scholars at the Resources for the Future, University of Arizona, Arizona State University, and the University of Montana—to undertake a suite of interrelated research projects that together seek to advance understanding of how the transition from fossil fuel production to clean energy will affect smaller tribal nations in the Midwest and Southwest. Ehrman and her team plans to partner with tribal nations across three different states (New Mexico, North Dakota, and Colorado). The project will begin with a series of in-depth meetings, interviews, and focus groups with leaders and key stakeholders in each tribe to inform research design, craft data sharing partnerships, and ensure that research outputs are well positioned to inform future decisions by tribal communities. The team will then use advanced economic modeling techniques to estimate the likely impacts of different policy-driven changes in the price of fossil fuels on oil and gas revenues for each of the tribes. Another component of the projects involves environmental and geospatial modeling assessments of tribal lands as potential sites for wind, solar, and other renewable energy generation. A third aspect of the analysis consists of legal analysis of how U.S. energy policymaking can better account for tribal sovereignty and self-governance. Ehrman and her team will host presentation and discussion sessions in partnership with the Rocky Mountain Mineral Law Foundation, a nonprofit organization focused on examining natural resource law. The team also expects to organize community engagement activities through the Native Nations Institute at University of Arizona.
Montana State University, Bozeman
Julia Haggerty, Montana State University, Bozeman
John Doyle, Little Big Horn College
Charlene Johnson, Plenty Doors Community Development Corporation
To examine Indigenous fiscal policy and community resilience issues for just energy transitions with the Crow Nation in Montana
There is a long and complicated history of fossil fuel development on Indigenous lands, with mining for coal and drilling for oil and gas leading to environmental degradation in these communities while also serving as a source of income for Indigenous tribal governments. As energy transitions away from fossil fuels take place, there both is a real financial risk to these communities due to revenue declines, yet there is also an opportunity, and a desire, to use these developments as an opportunity to transition toward cleaner energy production and help Indigenous communities become less reliant on these revenue sources. This grant supports a team led by Julia Haggerty at Montana State University, in partnership with colleagues at Little Big Horn College (a local tribal community college), Plenty Doors Community Development Corporation (a community development organization), and faculty from the University of Wyoming to better understand the fiscal implications of energy transitions for Indigenous communities. The team will work closely with leaders of the Crow Nation in Montana, engaging with this community in depth, serving as a case study that can be shared with other Indigenous nations to further extend the project’s impact. The project will use multiple approaches to understand how fiscal policy intersects with economic vulnerability in the context of energy transitions on tribal lands. The team will develop a dataset that aligns coal revenue information with financial disbursement information, undertake focus groups to better understand public revenue and expenditure issues, and conduct extended interviews with tribal members. They will also produce materials for the community, including oral histories from the interviews, assessments of how changes in fossil fuel revenue might impact social services, and a series of workshops and trainings for current and emerging leaders in the Crow Nation to help them learn about the impact of energy transitions on Indigenous fiscal policy and best management practices.
University of South Carolina
Conor Harrison, University of South Carolina
Ann Eisenberg, University of South Carolina
Shelley Welton, University of Pennsylvania
Etienne Toussaint, University of South Carolina
Nikki Luke, The University of Tennessee-Knoxville
To examine community and worker opportunities for just energy transitions in South Carolina and Tennessee
As the U.S. transitions towards less carbon intensive means of producing energy, important questions arise about how this transition will likely impact different communities across the country. Funds from this grant support a team of interdisciplinary scholars at the University of South Carolina and collaborators at the University of Tennessee who aim to advance our understanding of how the transition to clean energy technologies are affecting vulnerable and marginalized populations in the American South. Focusing on urban, suburban, and rural areas in Columbia, SC and Knoxville, TN, the team will conduct 80 interviews and 6 focus groups to better understand community energy vulnerability, worker experiences in the clean energy transition, and overall community priorities across a diverse range of neighborhood types. Interviewees and focus group participants will be identified and selected with the cooperation and input from local community organizations, including representatives from environmental institutions, worker collectives, and local faith communities. The scholars anticipate that these interviews will lead to the identification of both unique findings about the concerns of particularly vulnerable communities, as well as common themes across communities, that can inform and strengthen future energy policymaking at the local, state, and national level. In addition to peer-reviewed articles reporting on both findings from specific locations and themes that cut across research sites, the team will produce community-oriented materials, such as “A People’s Guide to Energy Policy,” a white paper and accompanying website that will share findings and information with local community organizations, as well as an interactive “As Goes the South” StoryMap that will serve as a digital narrative for the project and include interviews, images, and videos.
Johnson C. Smith University
Bryan Patterson, Johnson C. Smith University
Chris Ford, Florida International University
Yasuyuki Motoyama, The Ohio State University
Henry Golatt, HBCU Community Action Development Coalition
Natasha Campbell, HBCU Community Action Development Coalition
Venus Welch-White, HBCU Community Action Development Coalition
Sandy Fazeli, National Association of State Energy Officials
Philip Jordan, BW Research
To examine the systemic barriers facing researchers in Minority Serving Institutions and Historically Black Colleges and Universities across the Southeast in undertaking clean energy research
Federal and state agencies have numerous grant and funding programs designed to incentivize researchers to develop new clean energy technologies and to speed the process by which clean energy innovations are brought to market. We know, however, that Black, Latino/a and Native American researchers do not participate in these programs at rates proportional to their representation among researchers, and there has been little research on what factors are driving this trend. This grant supports a team led by Bryan Patterson at Johnson C. Smith University to explore the role that Minority Serving Institutions (MSIs) and Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) play in clean energy research ecosystems. Patterson is leading a team that includes collaborating researchers at Florida International University and The Ohio State University and practitioners from the HBCU Community Development Action Coalition, the National Association of State Energy Officials, and BW Research. Together, the team will examine the experiences of clean energy researchers from MSIs and HBCUs in four urban regions across the Southeast: Charlotte-Greensboro, North Carolina; Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina; Atlanta, Georgia; and Miami, Florida. The team will conduct 25 interviews with under-represented energy scholars of color in each region to understand the barriers and opportunities these scholars face in receiving federal funding, conducting research, and disseminating their findings. The team will also produce policy-relevant research briefs that provide insights and recommendations for government agencies investing in clean energy research, including a scorecard to help local policymakers assess their regional energy innovation ecosystems with respect to diversity, equity, and inclusion.
New York University
Danielle Spiegel-Feld, New York University
To examine whether building electrification of heating systems will increase energy insecurity among low-to-moderate income families in New York City
The electrification of residential heating systems is an important research topic, yet most studies tend to examine the energy and climate impacts of heat pump use in single-family homes and tend to overlook the impacts on renters in multifamily housing. In particular, within New York City, many of these rental tenants are low- or medium-income households, and many of these households are already energy insecure. This grant supports a pilot project and landscape analysis that will examine the potential impact of heating electrification on low- or medium-income tenants in New York City. The research team, collaborating with the non-profit organization WE ACT for Environmental Justice, will review existing New York City laws and regulations on tenant utility expenses to identify gaps in protections for low- and medium-income families. They will also conduct a series of interviews with building owners and engineers to get a better sense of how likely multi-family unit rental buildings are to electrify and examine the impact of cost-shifting to tenants. The team will also hold two multistakeholder workshops to advance the research process and disseminate findings.
Nadia Ahmad, Barry University
Elise Harrington, University of Minnesota
Jennifer Baka, The Pennsylvania State University
Hannah Wiseman, The Pennsylvania State University
Uma Outka, University of Kansas
Ward Lyles, University of Kansas
Danielle Stokes, University of Richmond
To develop a place-based just energy transition framework by undertaking four community-engaged case studies in Florida, Kansas, Louisiana, and Pennsylvania
Different communities have unique histories with local energy systems, stand in different relationships to local policymakers, and face different threats related to climate change. Implementing sensible, effective policies for ensuring just energy transitions will thus require the development of local solutions that take these factors into account.
This grant funds work by a team led by legal scholar Nadia Ahmad of Barry University and Elise Harrington of the University of Minnesota to develop conceptual frameworks that tie together both place-based and overarching considerations that can inform how just energy transitions might occur across multiple localities.
Ahmad, Harrington, and their team will conduct a series of interviews and community-level focus groups in four states (Florida, Kansas, Louisiana, and Pennsylvania) to better understand the place-based dynamics of energy transitions and to illuminate the multiple theoretical dimensions of energy justice. The resulting case studies will highlight different challenges for place-based energy transition policymaking, including the relationship between urban and rural areas, tradeoffs associated with agricultural and industrial land use, re-use of existing energy infrastructure, and local climate resilience efforts. In each case, the team will partner with local community organizations who will help co-develop interview questions, refine the developing conceptual framework, create opportunities for collaborative outputs, and determine how this research can directly benefit local communities. The project is expected to contribute to a growing body of scholarship on energy transitions, facilitate interstate learning in policy design, and advance greater inclusion of place-based considerations in state and federal energy transition initiatives.
Laura Kuhl, Northeastern University
Marta Perez Lugo, University of Texas, Rio Grande Valley
Jamie Shinn, West Virginia University
To investigate the role of crises and disruption in shaping just energy transitions by examining three case studies in Puerto Rico, West Virginia, and Massachusetts
Energy disruptions caused by severe weather events like hurricanes, floods, or tornados can be catalysts for clean energy transitions, as damaged fossil fuel generation plants can be replaced with cleaner alternatives, or rebuilt homes or energy infrastructure can be rebuilt with more modern, efficient technologies. Effective community engagement is crucial in such situations, as policy decisions made in the wake of disaster can have lock-in effects for years to come.
This grant will fund a team led by Laura Kuhl of Northwestern University that aims to advance our understanding of the role energy system crises play in shaping just energy transitions through examining case studies in three distinct regions: comparing community experiences with extreme energy system disruption and recovery in Puerto Rico with historically marginalized urban communities in Massachusetts and rural communities in West Virginia.
In each case study, Kuhl and the team will work with local community organizations to conduct focus groups that employ photovoice approaches in which participating individuals use photographs and images they capture as a way to share their experiences with energy system disruptions and crises. The team will also conduct semi-structured interviews with relevant stakeholders in each area to discuss barriers to just energy transitions, how decisions on energy investment are made, and how such crises and disruptions might open new policy opportunities. The case studies will aim to paint a picture of the overlap between federal and community energy transition priorities and help to identify the conditions under which disruptions can promote more equitable transformation.
Carnegie Mellon University
Destenie Nock, Carnegie Mellon University
Amritanshu Pandey, Carnegie Mellon University
Yueming (Lucy) Qiu, University of Maryland
Gabriel Chan, University of Minnesota
David Konisky, Indiana University
To examine how household energy insecurity is experienced by different demographic groups at the state and national levels
This grant funds a study by a multidisciplinary team of scholars, led by Destenie Nock of Carnegie Mellon University, that will various research methodologies to examine three aspects of household energy insecurity across multiple states.
The first dimension to be studied is to better understand the energy-limiting behavior often employed by marginalized and low-income households to better afford energy services. Analyzing detailed household energy use data across three states (Arizona, Illinois, and a mid-Atlantic state), the team will further develop a new energy insecurity metric—called the “energy equity gap”—which indicates the point at which households across different income and demographic groups turn on air conditioning during hot days (or, conversely, turn on heating during cold days). This metric will help identify hidden forms of energy insecurity that are often hard to assess, or are typically ignored, in more traditional measures of energy use and well-being.
Second, the team will undertake a case study that will examine the effectiveness of the Low-Income Home Energy Assistance Program (LIHEAP), the Weatherization Assistance Program (WAP), and other state-level programs designed to help low-income households pay their energy bills. Team members will analyze over a decade’s-worth of household data from these programs, focusing on the state of Minnesota, to identify the extent that eligible households do or do not take advantage of these programs.
Third, the team will develop a publicly available dashboard of utility disconnection policies from across the country to enable researchers to begin to compare and analyze intra- and inter-state differences in such policies and their subsequent effects on energy insecurity.
University of Vermont
Bindu Pannikar, University of Vermont
Erin Whitney, University of Alaska, Fairbanks
To examine rural and Indigenous just energy transitions associated with renewable energy microgrid development in Alaska
Microgrids are small-scale generation and distribution systems developed to serve the energy needs of remote communities where distance, geography, or weather makes connection to larger electricity grids either technologically or economically impractical. In the United States, microgrids are particularly attractive in Alaska, where harsh weather, expansive distances, and the presence of numerous remote and Indigenous communities can make them a crucial strategy for meeting the energy needs of residents. Historically, microgrids have been powered by expensive, polluting, and carbon-intensive diesel fuels, but technological advancements in recent years have seen an uptick in microgrids powered by wind or solar, both of which are becoming more viable across much of Alaska.
This grant will fund efforts by a team of researchers led by Bindu Panikkar of the University of Vermont and Erin Whitney at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks to examine the views, perspectives, and responses of historically underrepresented rural and Indigenous communities in Alaska to renewable microgrid development. Researchers will compare these community responses to renewable energy projects taking place along the more central Railbelt electric grid that spans from Anchorage to Fairbanks. Partnering with Renewable Energy Alaska Project, a local organization with strong ties to Alaskan Native communities, the team will survey and engage three rural Indigenous towns (Galena, an Athabaskan community, and Buckland and Shungnak, both Inupiat communities) to understand their relationship to clean microgrid development projects. The team will also develop locally-oriented, quantitative models that simulate how renewable-based microgrids might be best structured to ensure energy resilience, reliability, stability, and cost-effectiveness for the communities they serve.