Dec 07, 2022 - Atlanta, GA
For decades, the U.S. energy generation, transmission, and distribution model has been developed and planned around large-scale power plants that combust fossil fuels to create power that is then transferred to population centers via a network of powerlines.
With the recent and rapid growth of distributed renewable technologies — wind, solar, and hydropower, and storage assets like batteries — a team of researchers at the Georgia Institute of Technology is reimagining the planning paradigm for electric power infrastructure. The hope is to help shape new models that are better suited to community needs and include input and decision-making at the local level.
As envisioned, the Georgia Energyshed (G-SHED) will analyze the benefits, costs, and effects of various electricity generation, distribution, and usage-and-demand scenarios via use-case tests and modeling. That data will then be used to inform policy decisions at the local level and the implementation of new ideas for the 11-county metro Atlanta area as defined by the Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC).
“What’s unique about this proposal is we’re using this funding to explore a new planning mechanism that would really listen to the voices of these communities around their energy matrix,” said Richard Simmons, director of research and studies at Georgia Tech’s Strategic Energy Institute. Simmons is the project's principal investigator.
The U.S. Department of Energy award, announced on November 2, is part of the federal agency’s push to encourage a regional approach to understanding local energy demands and needs — and the best solutions to solve them tailored to those communities. Through its Office of Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy, the DOE funding is part of a wider strategy to help communities understand the impacts and benefits of consuming energy that they generate locally.
“The idea is not only to better include these communities in the conversation, but demonstrate that they can realize more local benefits from their and input and decisions.”
Leading the initiative is the Energy, Policy, and Innovation Center (EPICenter). An arm of the Strategic Energy Institute, EPICenter is tasked with marrying innovation with energy technology and policy; contributing to sound recommendations for the Southeast through unbiased research and analysis.
“This grant is ideally suited for the mission of the EPICenter, which really tries to take leading energy technology and apply it in a local context that is mindful of the economic and social implications,” Simmons said.
The Georgia Tech team also includes researchers from the School of Public Policy, the School of City and Regional Planning, and the College of Engineering.
To conduct the work, Georgia Tech is collaborating with key partners: the Atlanta Regional Commission (ARC), which has engaged in similar planning and modeling processes for regional water and transportation usage and trends; and the Southface Institute, a sustainability non-profit with extensive experience in outreach, and community engagement research. Another nonprofit, the Partnership for Southern Equity, which advocates for sustainable practices and equity across the metro area, has also provided a letter endorsing the initiative.
A New Approach to Resource Management
The G-SHED idea is modeled after the watershed concept, which takes a regional, solutions-based approach to address water demand and usage at the community level. Much like watersheds, where water collection, processing, distribution, use, and discharge is determined at the community level, Simmons said the idea is to explore how a similar approach can be valid for planning and infrastructure related to energy systems, such as electricity.
“There do appear to be some critical advantages by looking at local generation, consumption and even storage of renewable energy,” said Simmons. “That might help not only meet the needs of the local populace, but it could have conversion efficiency benefits and have more direct impact on both the economic and environmental wellness of the area.”
While individual people and organizations already make energy-related decisions — consumers buying electric vehicles or developers erecting green or sustainable office buildings, for example — there’s greater impact when broadened to the community or regional level, said Joe Hagerman, EPICenter director.
“So, when decisions are made, they are being made at a community level and capture a more representative local understanding. That information can be shared both upstream and downstream to the utilities, planners, and policymakers,” Hagerman said. “We’re hoping to create a tool that will help people make those decisions in a more holistic way, rather than making it all individually.”
Ensuring All Voices Are Heard
A key component of the G-SHED effort is to prioritize diversity, equity, and inclusion by ensuring that underserved communities are included in the regional energy planning and decision-making processes.
Marilyn Brown, Regents’ Professor and Brook Byers Professor of Sustainable Systems in the School of Public Policy, has conducted pioneering work on energy burdens in the Southeast, and contributed substantially to the proposal’s diversity, equity, and inclusion vision.
“The goal is balanced growth and shared prosperity in the Atlanta metropolitan area by helping local communities and neighborhoods,” Brown said.
The Southface Institute and ARC will leverage novel socio-technical tools developed by Georgia Tech to assess ways metro Atlanta can ensure all residents benefit from the transition to a cleaner and more sustainable energy economy. The team will survey underrepresented groups about energy use and service options, access to rate plans, ease of understanding electric bills, and familiarity with community energy options. Then, they will build an online toolkit to address these needs and help them learn how to use it.
“Focusing on that aspect is critical to the overall project’s success because rising energy and utility costs fall disproportionately on those who can least afford them and yet have limited influence in the decision making,” said Chandra Farley, the city of Atlanta’s chief sustainability officer.
Nationally, Atlanta is 4th highest in median energy burden levels (behind Memphis, New Orleans, and Birmingham, respectively) and 3rd highest among low-income household populations.
“Evaluating energy needs at the local and metro area level with direct input from the communities who have typically had no voice in energy decision making is an important tool in ensuring equity in energy planning,” Farley said. “The work that Georgia Tech is leading on energysheds will support community-informed energy planning and reinforce our efforts in the city of Atlanta to address energy affordability and advance equitable access to the benefits of renewable energy projects leading to healthier communities and economic empowerment.”