The timely transition to an energy system based on renewable sources is one of humanity’s great challenges. It also offers the opportunity to reshape our society to be more equitable and sustainable.
Ogechi Vivian Nwadiaru, a PhD student in industrial engineering and operations research in Erin Baker’s E3Lab and a fellow in the Elevating Equity Values in the Transition of the Energy System (ELEVATE) program, hopes to play a substantial role in shaping this new global renewable energy system for the better.
The ELEVATE program is a PhD training and research program focusing on technical, equity, and climate challenges in the energy transition. The program is situated within the Energy Transition Institute (ETI) and is supported by two grants totaling $6.3 million from the National Science Foundation.
As part of her ELEVATE work, Nwadiaru is currently on an interdisciplinary research team studying Holyoke’s energy transition process and the community’s perception of an equitable transition. The team’s aim is to understand the energy values and assess the potential for collective investments in energy storage in Holyoke, Massachusetts. The research explores how community members might optimize energy use in ways that minimize upfront individual investment costs.
“If we each have to invest individually in batteries, the initial cost is usually fairly high, affordability and access becomes an issue for low-income communities. They might be deterred by the financial requirements and miss out on some benefits of the energy transition,” Nwadiaru explains. “But if we don’t necessarily need these batteries at the same time, my question is how can we maximize our benefits from a jointly owned system?”
The team, which includes engineering, economics and anthropology researchers, is working closely with community members and stakeholders to ensure the researchers understand the values, concerns, and interests of the community —such as an emphasis on resilience or reliability of the energy source. Nwadiaru believes that having engineers participate in this type of participatory research is essential to ensure that engineering designs are people centered and meet the needs of target communities.
“You can make a product or design a service with personal ideas of how the community may benefit, but if you don’t engage the stakeholders, you risk creating an unsustainable solution and exhaust resources that could have been more efficiently used,” Nwadiaru says. “Scientists tend to underestimate the value of indigenous knowledge, and if we think about prioritizing equity and inclusion, community participation is crucial.”
Nwadiaru will also apply the experience gained from working with an interdisciplinary team in teaching a pre-college summer class on energy and equity through the University Without Walls.
Nwadiaru, a Nigerian-born energy engineer, has previously worked for the African Union Commission and the German Development Cooperation (GIZ) as a consultant on climate change and infrastructure policy projects. Nwadiaru is also an Alexander von Humboldt Fellow and the founder of STEMJets: a non-profit dedicated to supporting STEM students in Nigeria.
Nwadiaru hopes to draw from the experiences in this research to support in addressing electricity challenges in Nigeria by integrating an emerging economy perspective in her dissertation.
“I come from a country where almost 50% of the year there are substantial power outages. I’m interested in how communities can build energy resilience and address reliability concerns without relying on fuel-based backup generator sources. There’s a lot of potential to decarbonize the industry, but residential consumers have to distribute limited resources amongst competing demands. Depending on the income level there’s often a trade-off between food, housing, energy or other utilities. There's a lot we still need to study in order to implement actionable and transformational solutions,” Nwadiaru says. “The ELEVATE program offers such a great opportunity to learn new methods from my colleagues and professors in different departments with our combined goal of strengthening an equitable energy transition."