Wind power accounted for 8% of US electricity consumption in 2020 and is growing rapidly in the country’s energy portfolio. But some projects, like Cape Wind’s now-defunct proposal for offshore power in Massachusetts, have failed 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 article published today in the journal Joule, they and eight other professors are calling for a new approach to wind energy deployment, which engages communities in a process of “co-design” and tailors solutions to local needs. This process, they say, could spur additional creativity in renewable energy engineering, while making communities more receptive to existing technologies. Besides Knox-Hayes and Sadoway, the co-authors of the article 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 Lister Brothers Associate Professor of Economic Geography and Planning in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at MIT, and an expert on the social and political context of renewable energy adoption; Sadoway is the John F. Elliott Professor of Materials Chemistry in the Department of Materials Science and Engineering at MIT, and a leading world expert in the development of new forms of energy storage. MIT News spoke to Knox-Hayes about the subject.
Q: What is the central problem that you address in this article?
A: It is problematic to act as if technology can only be designed in a silo and then delivered to society. To solve problems like climate change, we have to see technology as a socio-technical system, which is embedded in society from its inception. From a design perspective, it starts with conversations, value assessments, and understanding community needs. If we can do that, we’ll have a much easier time delivering the technology at the end.
What we’ve seen in the North East, trying to meet our climate goals and our energy efficiency targets, is that we need a lot of offshore wind power, and a lot of projects are stalled because a community said “no”. And part of the reason communities turn down projects is that they were never properly consulted. What form does the technology take and how would it work within a community? This conversation can push the boundaries of engineering.
Q: The new document argues for a new practice of “co-design” in the field of renewable energy. You call this the “STEP” process, ie all of the socio-technical-political-economic issues that an engineering project may encounter. How would you describe the idea of STEP? And how open would the industry be to new attempts to design established technology?
A: The idea is to bring all these elements together in an interdisciplinary process and to involve the stakeholders. The process could start with a series of community forums where we bring everyone together and do a needs assessment, which is standard planning practice. We might see that offshore wind power needs to be considered in tandem with the local fishing industry, or facility maintenance, or training the local workforce. The STEP process allows us to step back and start with planners, decision makers and community members on the ground.
It is also about changing the nature of research, practice and teaching, so that students are not just in classrooms, they are also learning to work with communities. I think that formalizing this element is important. We are now starting to really feel the impacts of climate change, so we have to face the reality of crossing political borders, even in the United States. It’s the only way to succeed, and it comes down to how the technology can be co-engineered.
At MIT, innovation is the spirit of endeavor, and that’s why MIT has so many industry partners committed to initiatives like MITEI [the MIT Energy Initiative] and the Climate Consortium. The value of partnership is that MIT pushes the boundaries of what is possible. It’s the idea that we can move forward and we can do something amazing, we can innovate in the future. What we are suggesting with this work is that innovation is not something that happens exclusively in a lab, but something that is largely built in partnership with communities and other stakeholders.
Q: To what extent does this approach also apply to solar energy, as another leading type of renewable energy? It seems that communities are also struggling with where to locate solar panels or how to compensate homeowners, communities and other solar hosts for the energy they generate.
A: I wouldn’t say that solar has the same set of challenges, but rather that renewable technologies face similar challenges. With solar, there are also issues of access and location. Another big challenge is creating funding models that deliver value and opportunity at different scales. For example, is solar energy viable for tenants of multi-family units who wish to commit to clean energy? This is a similar question for opportunities for micro wind turbines for buildings. With offshore wind, one restriction is that if it is within sightlines it could be problematic. But there are exciting technologies that have enabled deep wind power, or the installation of floating wind turbines up to 50 kilometers offshore. Storage solutions such as hydropneumatic energy storage, gravity energy storage, or buoyancy storage can help maintain transmission throughput while reducing the number of transmission lines needed.
In many communities, the reality of renewable energy is that if you can generate your own energy, you can establish a level of security and resilience that fuels other benefits.
Nevertheless, as the Cape Wind case demonstrated, the technology [may be rejected] unless a community is involved from the start. Community involvement also creates other opportunities. Suppose, for example, that high school students work as interns on renewable energy projects with engineers at major universities in the region. This provides an access point for families and allows them to take pride in the systems they create. This gives added meaning to the technology system and invests the community in the success of the system. It’s 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. The engineering and design processes are also meant to be accessible and fun.