Prioritizing Equity and Justice in Energy, Climate, and Transit Research

May 10, 2023

After the Justice40 (J40) Initiative was established in 2021 by President Biden with the objective that 40% of benefits from certain federal investments go to disadvantaged communities, five scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (Berkeley Lab) played a key role in mapping out how to achieve this goal in federal programs that focus on climate change, clean energy, energy efficiency, and clean transit.

The scientists spent a year in the J40 Fellows Program at DOE’s Office of Economic Impact and Diversity, working alongside researchers from other national labs and DOE officials to prioritize the goals of the J40 Initiative.

Berkeley Lab research scientists Miguel Heleno, Natalie Popovich, and team explored how to introduce a sociodemographic and equity lens into conventional technoeconomic energy planning models. Their goal was to model how to reduce a community’s energy burden – or the percent of income needed to keep the community’s lights on and its homes at a healthy temperature. Using census-tract-level data, they created a model that quantifies the optimal combination of energy interventions – including deployment of behind-the-meter solar, community-owned distributed energy resources, and weatherization – to reduce energy burden. The study was published in Applied Energy.

“This model can be used to support decisions and development of equitable energy programs at the federal, state and city level,” said Heleno. “We built a tool using this model and DOE wants Berkeley Lab to keep maintaining, updating, and improving the tool.”

Berkeley Lab researcher Sydney Forrester supported several DOE offices by developing a way to measure their programs’ benefits to disadvantaged communities. She worked with multiple offices, and both internal and external experts, to help identify a preliminary set of equity metrics to establish a baseline and track progress towards meeting the J40 Initiative’s objective.

Berkeley Lab research scientist Anna Spurlock and graduate student research assistant Salma Elmallah developed a framework to incorporate restorative justice in future deep decarbonization pathways modeling. Their research was published in Energy Research & Social Science. In addition, they conducted a synthesis of priorities that have been articulated by communities and community-based organizations with respect to decarbonization strategies. This synthesis was also published in Energy Research & Social Science.

“Many of the existing decarbonization models target net-zero emissions by 2050 at lowest cost,” said Spurlock. “We saw there were missing pieces of the puzzle that needed to be addressed in order to include equity outcomes important to communities in a quantifiable way.”

A Call to Action

After first hearing about the J40 Initiative, Heleno wanted to know how his technical background could contribute. Heleno reached out to Shalanda Baker, director of DOE’s Office of Economic Impact and Diversity, to find out more about the Justice40 Fellows program she was spearheading. “She was looking for staff from DOE’s national laboratories to help set up the program,” said Heleno. “I discovered that she wanted researchers who have a modeling background with experience in power grids, and who could understand the equity perspective. It was a perfect match.”

Popovich had a similar epiphany. “This was an incredible opportunity to apply the lens of equity justice with some of the skills that I got in graduate school and at the Lab in engineering modeling,” said Popovich. “I was really excited to see what it meant to be part of creating a research agenda that highlighted equity justice at the outset.”

Carrying out the goals of the J40 Initiative requires a clear definition of each investment and which communities are identified as disadvantaged, and how to track and quantify benefits to those communities. This is what five Berkeley Lab researchers from the Energy Technologies Area set out to do through the J40 Fellows Program.

The Challenge

As a J40 Fellow, Popovich was tasked to lead the work on defining disadvantaged communities. “My first reaction was this doesn’t make any sense for me to be doing it, but also someone has got to do it, and we need to do it as fast as possible and as well as possible,” said Popovich.

In order to define disadvantaged communities, they had to determine what attributes to measure and how granular to do the analysis. Drawing the line between disadvantaged and not disadvantaged was the most difficult challenge, according to Popovich, because there are different implications depending on where they draw that line.

The team ultimately defined disadvantaged communities as those in the highest 20th percentile of cumulative burdens, based on metrics such as household energy expenditures and area median income in each state. The energy justice mapping tool, which came out of the J40 Initiative, allows analysis on census tracts that DOE has categorized as disadvantaged communities and is now publicly available.

Sydney Forrester, a Berkeley Lab research scientist, faced a similar challenge with her assignment as a J40 Fellow to develop a way to measure the benefits and impacts of federal programs on disadvantaged communities.

“We were tasked to come up with a way to measure the benefits coming out of the 18 DOE program offices that at the time each had 75 covered programs within those offices,” said Forrester. “The challenge was that we needed to understand what their impacts were at the community level, and there was heterogeneous data coming out of the offices.”

Her team’s first task was to create a baseline, and develop a standardized way to gather data across projects and offices. Her team provided support as offices gathered information, and collected an initial round of data. The work is ongoing.

A common challenge for all five J40 Fellows was the need to include as many diverse voices at the table as possible while also achieving consensus and support from stakeholders. At the same time, bringing together diverse groups, and incorporating community participation, proved to be a key part of the solution for advancing equity in research.

“Modeling is an important tool that a lot of people use to understand different pathways to decarbonization, but it tends to be conducted by engineers and economists who come with their own set of assumptions,” said Elmallah. “In a parallel research effort, we reviewed existing literature and documents put out by community groups that articulate what a just energy future might look like. One of the things that came up a lot in our review was how communities are often excluded from the tools of knowledge production.”

Looking Ahead

All five J40 Fellows found their experience rewarding and inspirational. “My contribution was impactful, and my experience was very valuable,” said Heleno. “We delivered the first quantitative forward looking tool to help design energy equity and justice policies, and this experience shows me the potential of integrating sociodemographics and social characteristics in the traditional energy techno-economic models.”

Spurlock pointed out that much more work needs to be done in order to do the analysis and modeling at the level of granularity that is required. “We recognize that applying the approach articulated in the equitable deep decarbonization framework is an extremely nontrivial thing to do because it requires a high degree of spatial resolution and a level of participatory engagement that is challenging to do, and it’s challenging to do it right,” said Spurlock. “But I think these technical challenges are surmountable, and seeing that the focus on equity is much more front and center right now makes me hopeful.”

“Being exposed to the federal process was a very good lesson for me,” said Popovich. “When you are making decisions at a national level, you don’t have the luxury of time. Shalanda Baker taught me that you have to start somewhere, and people can always improve it. We cannot let ourselves get paralyzed and use that excuse to never make progress.”

Popovich added that whether or not this definition of disadvantaged communities that she helped come up with remains the same definition in the future is not the point. “What is more important is that this is now a part of the conversation,” said Popovich. “Every single funding opportunity announcement, who is invited, and who participates in our research – all of this is now evolving because of our work.”

This article originally appeared at the Berkeley Lab News Center.


Kiran Julin