Researchers energize effort for energy-smart solutions

Here’s a smart idea for developing smart-energy solutions: To encourage communities to embrace new sustainable technology, put together a team that includes social scientists along with engineers, so you can understand what community members really want and will embrace.

That is the aim of a new Cornell project that recently received a $100,000 planning grant from the National Science Foundation to create a proposal for an Engineering Research Center (ERC) for sustainable energy-smart solutions. The center would address the interdisciplinary technical and socio-behavioral challenges for integrating “distributed energy resources” – such as rooftop solar, electric vehicles and controllable air conditioners – into smart energy grids.

The project builds upon the Cornell-led, NSF-supported Energy Smart Community pilot program, launched in February, that allows consumers at more than 12,000 properties in Tompkins County, New York, to control their energy use through smart meters, virtual and rechargeable batteries and an online energy manager. That project team includes Cornell faculty across disciplines; industry partners Avangrid (NYSEG’s parent company), BMW North America, Tesla and Distributed Sun; and Cornell Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County. This collaboration is serving as a launch pad of sorts for the proposed Engineering Research Center.

“In watching the Energy Smart Community roll out, it became clear that the social pieces may be more important than the technology pieces,” said Lindsay Anderson, associate professor in biological and environmental engineering, the Norman R. Scott Sesquicentennial Faculty Fellow, and the Atkinson Center for a Sustainable Future’s Kathy Dwyer Marble and Curt Marble faculty director for energy, who is leading the new project. “So the purpose of the ERC is to design this large, long-term, national-to-global-scale research center that is going to really integrate the social sciences and engineers, in a way that I don’t think has ever been done before in a technical research center.”

By leveraging interdisciplinary collaboration with industry and government partnerships, the center will be better positioned to address the transition from a centrally operated grid that relies on producing and distributing power – typically from fossil fuels – across vast geographies, to a more decentralized system. This decentralized system will feature renewable energy sources such as small-scale solar, wind power and geothermal resources; new energy markets and business models; and demand-response programs that enable consumers to directly participate in their energy choices. In short: an entirely new paradigm of energy systems.

“To really understand energy transitions, you need to understand how people interpret those sorts of changes, how they interpret renewables, how they interpret a smart grid. And you also need to understand their capacity to respond,” said Richard Stedman, professor of natural resources, associate director for the Center for Conservation Social Science and a co-principal investigator on the project. “At times, engineers can be rigid: ‘How do we get people to do what we know is best?’ But this team has a more broad, inclusive view of what social science can do, understanding energy as a system.”

This month, Stedman published a paper with his doctoral student, Dylan Bugden, “A Synthetic View of Acceptance and Engagement with Smart Meters in the United States” in the journal Energy Research and Social Science, in which they examined the acceptance and engagement of the Energy Smart Community pilot program. They found engagement with smart meters is driven by a range of social psychological factors.

For example, customers who were already familiar with smart readers and the risks of climate change were more likely to embrace the technology, while certain social structural conditions, especially age and income, would constrain others from using it. The researchers concluded that outreach and communication are essential to help the public understand the value of smart readers, but that doesn’t guarantee certain segments of the population will be on board. Because the Energy Smart Community is still rolling out, the baseline data collected by Bugden and Stedman will allow follow-up work to analyze the relationship between initial expectations and consumer experience.

If communities are going to fully participate in a future sustainable grid, researchers and engineers need to have an expansive, nuanced view of consumers, Stedman said.

“All the decisions we make that are energy relevant are not just about turning on and off the lights. People don’t think about energy in isolation. They think about where they’re going to live, what they’ll eat, what they’ll do for fun. Energy is part of all that,” Stedman said. “And it’s not just individual people. How do communities behave, how do institutions behave, how does regulation work? This planning grant is really going to enable thinking about the social science of energy transitions in a more integrative sense.”

Other faculty members working on the project include Todd Cowen, professor of civil and environmental engineering, who oversees the Energy Smart Community pilot program; Lang Tong, the Irwin and Joan Jacobs Professor of Engineering; and Eilyan Bitar, associate professor of electrical and computer engineering.

Anderson and her team plan to hold workshops throughout the year to bring together Cornell researchers, representatives from partner academic institutions such as Howard University and Smith College, entrepreneurs, industry leaders and policymakers to help establish a structure, vision and research agenda for the center.

“Our goal is to develop a strategy for the center that will not only advance the fundamental science, but develop an innovation ecosystem for entrepreneurship and community engagement,” Anderson said.

David Nutt is managing editor of the Atkinson Center.

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