A team of interdisciplinary researchers led by Arindam Banerjee, professor and chair of the Mechanical Engineering and Mechanics Department at Lehigh, has been awarded nearly $3 million from the National Science Foundation to train a diverse group of future energy-sector leaders across academia, industry, government and policy organizations.
The five-year award will allow Lehigh to establish a SEED (Stakeholder Engaged, Equitable, Decarbonized) Energy Futures Training Program to provide graduate students with the skills needed to explore, collaborate and pioneer solutions to the society’s reliance on carbon-based energy sources and energy inequities. The program will provide training to Ph.D. candidates, as well as to those pursuing a master’s of science degree or master’s of art degree.
“We will be training graduate students to work at the intersection of energy-related problems,” said Banerjee, principal investigator. “The training would be holistic because the students would also be trained on aspects around policy—to engage stakeholders and bring in stakeholders early in their research program so that the type of solutions that they are working on is actually stakeholder-informed or stakeholder-engaged.”
Co-principal investigators are Shalinee Kishore, director of Lehigh’s Institute for Cyber Physical Infrastructure and Energy; Karen Beck Pooley, professor of practice, director of the Community Fellows Graduate Program and the Environmental Policy Design Program; and Alberto Lamadrid, associate professor of economics.
Also on the Lehigh team are Carlos Romero, director and principal research scientist of the Energy Research Center; Joan Ramage, associate professor of earth and environmental sciences and director of Lehigh’s ADVANCE center; Hyunok Choi, associate professor, Department of Community and Population Health; Breena Holland, associate professor of political science and the Environmental Initiative; and Farrah Moazeni, assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering. The project’s external evaluator is Diane Husic, founding dean of the Center for Scholarship, Research and Creative Endeavors at Moravian University.
In seeking the funding, the Lehigh team expressed a need for the energy sector to innovate and overcome two key impeding legacies—carbon reliance and energy inequities. To that end, the team said, engineers and policymakers will both need to have the skill set to drive solutions.
“Climate change is upon us,” Kishore said. “There's a major transformation in our energy systems that's needed to mitigate its effects on society and the environment. And that transformation requires us to think about new types of sustainable energy solutions and how they can be adopted across wide cross sections of society.
“In order to get to those solutions being commonplace in our energy sector, we need to have engineers who are trained to understand that these solutions need to impact society equitably. They need to be beneficial in terms of environmental and health impact to everyone. …. [They are not] just technology/engineering solutions. [They have] to be very well married and coupled with policy solutions.”
The team expects to train a cohort of 8 to 10 graduate students each year, once research projects are finalized and support staff is hired in the program’s inaugural year.
Banerjee and Kishore said it’s important for students to understand the relevance of an equitable, decarbonized energy future.
“Certain communities benefit from technological growth in the energy space, and certain communities do not,” Kishore said. And that’s true, she said for example, when locations are chosen for renewable resources or carbon capture solutions. Who will environmentally benefit?
“So when we do think about future solar farms, and we think about future solutions, we're addressing the things that didn't happen in the past, where the coal plants were put up right next to disadvantaged communities, which further suffered from the environmental and health impact of having coal facilities next to them.”
Also at issue is the lack of diversity in the energy workforce itself, Banerjee and Kishore said. The training program aims to ensure a future workforce that is diverse and reflective of society.
The training program will have seven pillars: coursework on stakeholder engagement that culminates in an annual student-led workshop; a required course on ethics and equity in technology; multidisciplinary engineering, policy, environmental science, economics, and population health graduate coursework and certificate program; participation in interdisciplinary research teams; policy focused internships; community building; and a professional development and leadership seminar series to introduce students to roles in the energy sector.
The SEED-EF faculty and the students will be partnering with a wide range of stakeholders that include City of Bethlehem (Office of Mayor), Lehigh Valley Planning Commission, The Nurture Nature Center, Pennsylvania Environmental Council, Pennsylvania Department of Environmental Protection, Philadelphia Solar Energy Association, ClearPath, NASDAQ, GTI Energy and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
Banerjee and Kishore stressed the importance of involving stakeholders to address energy issues and find solutions. In one local community, they said, officials dealing with an older housing stock are looking to make aging buildings more energy-efficient—improve insulation in buildings and update appliances—while officials in a neighboring city wrestle with where to locate a solar farm in order to serve a disadvantaged community.
“The students who are working on solutions can't just have one solution for everybody,” Kishore said. “It's a set of solutions that make sense for the stakeholders for whom a technique or a solution is being developed.”
The U.S. National Science Foundation announced 22 new awards on Aug. 23, 2023 through the agency's NSF Research Traineeship program, expanding NRT's reach to 45 states, the District of Columbia and the U.S. Virgin Islands. The nearly $63 million investment includes $6 million of support from the "CHIPS and Science Act of 2022."
The SEED-EF NRT program is connected to Lehigh’s strategic plan, Inspiring the Future Makers, which provides the foundation for the next 10 years of excellence at Lehigh. A Key Initiative of the strategic plan is to "Redefine a deeply interdisciplinary education." The university envisions that all Lehigh students will be able to participate in boldly interdisciplinary programs and access the educational opportunities like SEED-EF and several others that will be available across the university in the next decade. Lehigh envisions a transformed Ph.D. education that is expected to be student-centered and provide specific training relevant to the full range of Ph.D. career pathways. Refer to the full plan at lehigh.edu/strategicplan.