• Destenie Nock

My 1st NSF Grant!

I received a grant from NSF titled "Equity and Sustainability: A framework for Equitable Energy Transition Analyses"

May 21, 2020 By Destenie Nock


Energy, equality, and equity are at the core of what I care about. Energy drives our society, and without equity society will crumble. Equality is tricky because to correct historical wrongs there must be a period of inequality where disadvantaged populations receive more resources. If you are on the non-receiving end of this then correction you might feel the system is unfair. In reality this is an equitable system because those that need more resources, to attain the same wealth as you, are getting extra support. The goal of equity is to one day achieve a system where equality (everyone being treated equally) is the norm. So in my opinion to achieve a truly sustainable energy transition it will also need to be equitable. The issue is that many of the energy planning models optimize power plant investment and operation decisions based on economic efficiency instead of equity. I have mentioned this in a previous blog post.

As a part of the Environmental Sustainability NSF proposal I will be developing a decision analysis framework for understanding how economically feasible power plant investment decisions impact equality and sustainability goals. The proposal is titled "Equity and Sustainability: A framework for Equitable Energy Transition Analyses" and more information can be found here.

So I get that equality is important, but what exactly will you do?

Decisions regarding transitions from traditional energy sources such as fossil fuels to more sustainable, renewable energy systems impact multiple constituencies, including the most vulnerable members of society. This research addresses two questions: (1) What are transition pathways from non-renewable energy sources (such as fossil fuels) to renewable energy sources (such as wind and solar) for the US electricity sector that can best balance the (sometimes conflicting) objectives of the transition, while accounting for social equity and sustainability? (2) How can transition to a low-carbon electricity system be done in a way that minimizes adverse impacts on the most vulnerable members of society? This research targets creating a new way to account for social equity in the sustainability analysis of transitions to new energy systems, which may help guide decision-makers. There are many decision makers and constituencies in energy system planning, each of which may make decisions or influence decisions according to their own versions of the desired goals. This research builds and expands upon previous research in three key ways that permit a more robust sustainability assessment of future electricity systems, and incorporates social equity into the energy transition discussion. First, an electricity system expansion model is coupled with a system sustainability model and then examined to ask how increasing carbon constraints are likely to impact power system development, and how important regional cooperation is likely to be in achieving a fully decarbonized US electricity system. Second, social equity will be an integral part of the sustainability analysis framework, thus displaying how other facets of sustainability impede or support an equitable energy transition. Third, to illuminate the social equity trade-offs, how regional cooperation may impact job and price equity around the country will be investigated. This research will be a system sustainability analysis for the entire US that incorporates multiple metrics for social equity, while capturing impacts of integrating intermittent renewables in the grid. The research team will develop an open-source data analysis tool for electricity sustainability analysis, enriching the discussion and uncovering the interactions among sustainability criterion at a national scale. The social equity focused framework is targeted to facilitate national discussions about how energy transition will impact communities in the US. This framework may also help support planning for job recovery of those most affected by the retirement of fossil fuel generation.

As a part of this grant I will receive $400,000 to support one PhD student for 3 years to build the mathematical framework for the sustainability analysis. In addition to the PhD student this grant will train two undergraduates as a research assistants.

So how did it feel to receive your first NSF grant?

Honestly, I am beyond thrilled, but when I got the e-mail I was in a momentary state of shock. I think I re-read the e-mail 5 times before it sank in. In a previous post I was pretty down because all of my previous proposals had been rejected. I have 5 PhD students and this is validation that I am not leading them down a completely wrong path. It felt a little strange to "celebrate" in my house by myself because I really wanted to go into my mentor's office and tell them thank you for all of the guidance and support. Regardless of the strange times, I am so happy that I am able to help develop a framework to think through sustainability and equality trade-offs, as well as support the next generation of energy leaders.

Note about the author: Destenie Nock is an Assistant Professor position in Engineering & Public Policy (EPP) Department and and Adjunct Professor in Civil & Environmental Engineering (CEE) at Carnegie Mellon University. She holds a PhD in Industrial Engineering an Operations Research from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. She earned a MSc in Leadership for Sustainable Development at Queen's University of Belfast, and two BS degrees in Electrical Engineering and Applied Math at North Carolina A&T State University. She is the creator of the PhD-ing It Blog site which posts articles about graduate and undergraduate advice, and research updates in energy and sustainability. In her free time she enjoys hitting the gym, painting, and cooking with friends.

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