Clean Energy, One Community At A Time

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PNNL helps communities transition to clean energy and boost their energy resilience

Heating and cooling a home. Lighting for reading or studying. Cooking and storing food. Refrigerating medications. Traveling to a job or school. Energy unlocks access to nearly everything, so communities without reliable energy can experience not only daily hardship, but also long-term disadvantages.

Many communities are highly dependent on fossil fuels, like diesel for power, which is costly and carbon intensive. But shifting to renewable energy sources comes with high start-up costs and risks, so resource-limited communities, particularly those that are underserved, often need support to make the switch to cleaner local energy.

Communities also might not have the time, experience, or other needed resources to overcome the challenges associated with their limited access to energy. Complex systems, intricate processes, and other barriers can stand in the way of accessing the programs and resources that could help.

Researchers at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory (PNNL) are providing technical assistance research that can help communities pursue sustainable energy options and increase their energy resilience. These are three of many recent projects.

Coal redevelopment and community revitalization

As cleaner options increase, PNNL is channeling its expertise to create a vision of economic revitalization for communities central to America’s coal industry. Although federal support opportunities to remediate and redevelop coal energy assets exist, the community transition process isn’t clear.

“Energy communities are at least partly defined by the socio-economic and cultural legacies of coal plants in the community,” said Bethel Tarekegne, PNNL energy equity and renewables researcher. “People are already there. So instead of starting fresh elsewhere, we want to help make connections and ease uncertainty during what can be significant changes.”

Part of PNNL’s coal redevelopment efforts include an interactive coal power plant redevelopment visualization map that synthesizes all the available information from nearly 200 retired or retiring coal power plants. From this, and collections of community-identified decommissioning best practices, communities can explore boots-on-the-ground actions to restore the environment, pursue community revitalization, or redevelop a coal plant into an alternative energy site—and anything in between.

This redevelopment decision-making framework helps communities evaluate future economic development options when transitioning away from coal energy. (Image by Bethel Tarekegne | Pacific Northwest National Laboratory)

“It’s really hard to say goodbye to the past,” said Tarekegne, “but it’s not a doomsday conversation. Building these tools provides community decision-makers information to consider new opportunities.”

Harnessing wind, waves, and more in Alaska

Located in the southeastern Alaskan panhandle, Sitka’s grid relies on nearly 100 percent renewable energy. But the community of 8,000 people is expanding local resources, like a new community hospital, and hoping to electrify more of their vehicles and vessels, which means demand for electricity will increase. With Sitka’s current grid, future load growth may require more reliance on diesel to meet demand. Community members wanted to know more about their energy options.

“Sitka is a really interesting community,” said Molly Grear, who is an ocean engineer and marine biologist at PNNL. “They get most of their energy from two hydropower dams, but they were still curious to learn about alternative energy options from ocean tides, wind, or using excess flow and managing dam levels in a certain way to make use of all the energy they can produce.”

Pacific Northwest National Laboratory is working with Sitka, Alaska, and other communities through the Department of Energy’s Energy Transitions Initiative Partnership Project to help remote and island U.S. communities increase their energy resilience. (Video by Graham Bourque | Pacific Northwest National Laboratory)


Through the Department of Energy (DOE) Energy Transitions Initiative Partnership Project, Sitka joined with PNNL and other partners to explore the feasibility of many renewable options ranging from near-term solutions, like wind and solar, to longer-term alternatives, like geothermal, wave, and tidal resources. They also built models of Sitka’s grid to test potential power generation scenarios and assess the electrical infrastructure to enable the community to leverage existing assets while improving their capabilities. Finally, they evaluated Sitka’s potential ability to produce green fuels, such as ammonia or hydrogen, to show where and how the community could export energy they produce to other locations or replace their diesel usage.

The initial partnership has opened up additional opportunities for Sitka, including a second round with Energy Transitions Initiative Partnership Project, and an additional partnership through DOE’s Clean Energy to Communities Program.

Energy Storage for Social Equity

DOE’s Energy Storage for Social Equity (ES4SE) Initiative is designed to empower urban, rural, tribal, and indigenous disadvantaged communities to consider energy storage technologies and applications as a viable path toward community prosperity, well-being, and resilience.

ES4SE’s distinct approach combines technical assistance, led by PNNL, with deployment assistance led by Sandia National Laboratories. Over the course of a year, PNNL partnered with 14 diverse communities. Together, they co-designed and co-developed solutions that integrated techno-economic analysis with equity, workforce opportunities, and social benefits.

As a result, each community’s proposed project concepts and designs are aligned with their goals, energy plans, and needs. The program also helped to connect communities to existing funding opportunities for projects within and outside of ES4SE.

In the coming year, communities participating in ES4SE will work with Sandia National Laboratories to move their energy projects from design to deployment, with PNNL providing ongoing support focused on community benefits.

“Working with communities requires cultural awareness and the ability to listen, learn, and adapt in developing and building relationships and trust,” said PNNL energy justice and equity leader Jen Yoshimura. “We need to be flexible and agile, meeting communities where they are and moving at the pace they need when aligning technical analysis with community goals.”

Pacific Northwest National Laboratory partners with disadvantaged communities through the Energy Storage for Social Equity Initiative’s technical assistance program, helping assess energy storage feasibility, design, application, operations, and maintenance.

This work was supported by the DOE’s Office of Policy, the Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy’s Water Power Technologies Office, and the Office of Electricity

Courtesy of PNNL. Pacific Northwest National Laboratory draws on its distinguishing strengths in chemistryEarth sciencesbiology, and data science to advance scientific knowledge and address challenges in sustainable energy and national security. Founded in 1965, PNNL is operated by Battelle for the Department of Energy’s Office of Science, which is the single largest supporter of basic research in the physical sciences in the United States. DOE’s Office of Science is working to address some of the most pressing challenges of our time.

Featured image courtesy of NREL.


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