Strengthening Communities for Changing Energy Systems
The world is in the midst of changes in the energy system that rival the emergence of the fossil fuel technologies that drove the industrial revolution. Global efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions are pushing for new energy systems and for a rapid reduction in fossil fuel use. As new technologies emerge, they will create new industries, new classes of jobs, and new economic opportunities. Such changes will affect, and be affected by, diverse communities, from traditional energy-rich regions to agricultural communities to fisheries, across the United States, and among the United States’ global competitors. These changes, many hope, will happen in a short period of time.
The Cluster focuses on two principal social challenges, which occur at multiple scales: the disruptions and opportunities arising from the adoption of new technologies, including dislocations as communities move away from fossil fuels or shift to a new energy mix.
The first question that the Cluster seeks to answer is, how can new technologies and new energy industries be deployed effectively, efficiently and equitably? The United States has a history of making ad hoc and inefficient energy and infrastructure policy choices that place heavier burdens on people of color and the poor. Energy transitions raise many practical legal and planning challenges, such as how best to retire old infrastructure and address legacy pollution; approve and site new facilities and infrastructure; establish ownership rights and compensation; set environmental, safety, and public health standards; and monitor and enforce compliance with legal obligations.
The development and deployment of new energy sources can also magnify inequities. Uptake of new technologies has occurred unevenly across different social classes, groups, and communities. Research suggests this might reflect community norms or the lack of access to capital for infrastructure improvement, among other factors. Making new technologies more familiar and accessible can accelerate adoption rates.
The second question that the Cluster seeks to answer is, how can the United States navigate an effective, efficient, and equitable transition toward faster electrification and more intensive use of renewable energy? Many communities with fossil fuel driven industry, such as energy, steel, and autos, are in relatively poor parts of the country, where economic activities tend to be concentrated in poorer parts of urban areas and in rural areas. In these regions, reducing use of fossil fuels may shrink employment opportunities, impede economic growth, and lower government revenues required to respond to social and economic effects of economic decline. The Cluster is examining how communities are addressing these challenges and plans to recommend strategies for addressing the consequences of transforming our energy systems.
The Cluster is to deploy social science tools, especially intensive local case work, stakeholder interviews, and surveys, to understand the challenges facing communities. The Cluster also plans to use these tools to open dialogues about pathways forward. Fieldwork can reveal the complex social and political processes at play, the cultural meanings of energy, the institutional obstacles to planning a new economic course in communities, the social patterns and habits that are solving unstated problems for people in a pragmatic way, and the regional planning activities and legal and regulatory reforms that can help ease the transition to a new energy future.
Central to the Cluster’s approach is detailed and pragmatic assessment of the current legal and regulatory systems that are structuring the status quo. In many circumstances, it may be sufficient to use the existing legal and regulatory system more effectively. In other circumstances, existing structures may need reform, rescaling, or wholesale reimagining. One important contribution of this project, then, is explaining why the legal and regulatory system is structured the way it is, and what effect that has on the existing situation, which can help stakeholders to envision what the solutions might be in a precise and practical way.