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EPA Funded Research Examines Renewable Energy Choices in Light of Community Values

A plentiful source available for carbon-free electric power in New England states is hydroelectric dams across the border in Canada. But getting that power into the Northeast has hit political headwinds.

Ryan Calder, assistant professor of environmental health and policy in the Public Health Program within the Virginia-Maryland College of Veterinary Medicine, is the principal investigator in a $650,000 grant from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) for research on how divides might be bridged in order to accelerate decarbonization of New England’s power grid in light of differing community values.

The problem

Two high-profile projects to extend transmission lines from Canadian hydroelectric dams to New England, often following existing rights-of-way, have been canceled in the past five years after opposition from community members and environmental interest groups opposed to aesthetic and other impacts. In each case, development was suspended after years of study, millions of dollars of investments, and approval by regulators.

Often, that opposition came from groups or individuals who also oppose both carbon-burning forms of electric generation and other sources of renewable power that have varying impacts, leaving no viable choices. Canadian hydroelectric power had been found by engineers to be a preferable course of action among a variety of options.

Calder said the resistance in the Northeast mirrors what has happened in other states, where decarbonization has been slowed by community opposition to renewable energy.

“There’s some disconnect between what we identify on the technical side as the optimum solution after we’ve compared all the options,” Calder said. “On the one hand, that answer satisfies engineers and state policymakers. And then on the other hand, there’s the inconvenient matter of the values and opinions of the people who might be affected by these decisions. And when those two collide, no one wins because there’s no progress being made in any direction.

“If we don’t build the infrastructure for renewable energy, fossil-fired plants won’t go offline and will continue to spew greenhouse gases and particulate matter and other pollutants, increasing the local burden of disease and contributing to global climate change,” Calder said. “It is easy to oppose new infrastructure based on real or perceived impacts. Yet, no one is presenting a buffet of renewable energy alternatives, as compared to the status quo, and asking people to pick based on the different impacts and benefits of each option.”

The study

The EPA grant will fund two interlocking studies.

One is integrated modeling, in which many scenarios for how electrical generation and transmission proceed in the future will be played out on computer models – in essence, creating the buffet of possible options from which engineers, political leaders, and the public can choose. Each scenario will be linked to environmental, economic, and health outcomes.

“The one side is on mathematical modeling, in which we create computer simulations of what this would mean for ecological endpoints, human exposures to contaminants, greenhouse gas emissions, and economic impacts” Calder said.

The second study is deliberative valuation, a process to characterize and interpret community values surrounding decarbonization and potential impacts.

“Results are expected to guide decision-making by revealing decarbonization pathways consistent with community values and uncovering what types of information develop support for projects with large net benefits,” Calder said.

Groups will be convened from various communities, both urban and rural. People enter with their own individual evaluations, but during a workshop must arrive at a consensus about the values of the community as a whole in the context of tradeoffs. In the process of deliberating, individuals can ask experts and each other questions.

“They go through this whole process, and they converge on a ranking,” Calder said. “And we repeat this process many times with different groups to see if the values that they converge on are stable and whether there are differences across groups, for example, urban versus rural communities.”

Georgia Mavrommati, an ecological economist at the University of Massachusetts-Boston, guides the deliberative valuation study. Richard B. Howarth, chair of environmental studies at Dartmouth College, is also a co-principal investigator in the EPA grant-funded research led by Calder. The researchers also will work with Clean Energy NH, an advocacy group supporting policies to achieve decarbonization in New Hampshire, to develop policy-relevant research products.

The solution

On its web page summarizing the project, the EPA states: “The main outputs of this work will be (1) a generalizable screening tool for impacts of renewable energy projects; (2) information on preferences and values among underserved communities regarding alternative decarbonization pathways; and (3) independent, community-driven characterizations of alternative renewable energy projects.”

Calder said the research team hopes that “blending simulation of tradeoffs and elicitation of community values and preferences” can be used to determine which renewable energy projects are selected among a list of imperfect options and how developers of those projects engage affected communities.

“Renewable energy plans are likely to be most successful if they are consistent with community values and when communities are presented with relevant information about benefits and impacts,” Calder said. “This is true both in New England and elsewhere in the United States.”

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