A Community Approach to Sustainable Energy Systems

March 12, 2018

Matthew Realff, Professor and David Wang Sr. Fellow, and Faculty Co-Directors, ESSC Fellows Program, Fall 2017
Joseph M. M. Aldinger, Marion L. Brittain Fellow and Marketing and Communication Coordinator for Serve-Learn-Sustain Center


In Fall 2017, the Center for Serve-Learn-Sustain launched its third SLS Fellows Program: Energy Systems for Sustainable Communities (ESSC). I (Matthew) co-directed the program with Juan Moreno-Cruz, Associate Professor of Economics in Ivan Allen College and a Fellow of the Brook Byers Institute for Sustainable Systems. It brought together 28 fellows representing all 6 colleges and various other units on campus. Fellows included faculty, research scientists, graduate students, and staff. The aim of ESSC was to re-consider the roles that communities play in the pursuit of sustainable energy systems. While the majority of energy policies are aimed at impacting and incentivizing changes in an individual’s behavior or the household, such as an increase in energy efficiency or reduction in consumption, ESSC fellows explored the community as a catalyst for crystalizing sustainable practices. Rather than focusing on an individual’s behavior, ESSC Fellows took a broader, more systemic approach to questions concerning sustainable energy systems in order to consider larger and more impactful approaches to energy system change.

Access to energy has been a major enabler of human development across millennia and today we face a unique challenge: energy for all without compromising vital Earth systems. The culmination of the Fellows program this semester saw us visit Social Circle and a major utility solar development on a rainy day when the facility was producing 100kw from a field capable of tens of megawatts, reminding us of the difficulties associated with renewable energy.  But the enthusiasm of political leadership of Social Circle was as bright as the day was grey.  This enlightened group of public servants energized to bring businesses to their town and to invest in education of their citizens was inspirational. Similarly the passion of Tim Echols, a Public Service Commissioner, for renewable energy also demonstrated how leadership can create opportunities for places like the utility solar array at Social Circle to exist.

Many of the technical problems of renewable energy systems remain to be solved, but we saw a will to do so both in the community we visited and in the fellows projects, which tackled a range of issues, as demonstrated by the blogs and case studies that they submitted at the end of the semester, which you can read about below. These include, for example, incentivizing better building performance through visualizing energy use and making fertilizers using electrochemical methods that are less energy intensive than the classical Haber-Bosch process. We also saw meditations on the broad interplay between energy and societal change across the sweep of history and a targeted case study on how neighborhood change can drive energy use to be higher or lower.  Other reflections address topics such as:

  • evaluating private-public partnerships using Energy Performance Contracting
  • the engineering and design of a 3D printer that uses recycled feedstock (plastic pellets) to create its filament and print objects
  • GA Tech’s living building and the social cost of carbon, from an economist’s perspective
  • questions concerning Smart-Mobility and the transportation to and from the Living Building

You will also find articles that tackle the subjects of:

  • Urban Heat Islands
  • dynamic efficiency and intergenerational equity
  • “green leasing” in the life-cycle of buildings and what this means for sustainability
  • humanist contributions to questions concerning energy systems
  • and more.

Some of the articles are intended to be used as case studies in the classroom – and will be turned into case study tools to be housed in the new SLS Teaching Toolkit. Stay tuned for another blog post that we’ll share once they’re ready!

The diversity of the fellows' contributions demonstrates the vibrant research and education efforts on-going at Georgia Tech and the depth and complexity of energy systems that meet the needs of the communities with which they are entwined. 

Read all of the Energy Systems for Sustainable Communities Fellows Program Final Deliverables!