The Graham Sustainability Institute’s Carbon Neutrality Acceleration Program (CNAP) announced $1,160,000 in funding for six new faculty research projects. CNAP is a multi-year, multimillion-dollar program created in 2020 with a $5 million gift from anonymous donors. Including these grants, CNAP has a 20-project portfolio totaling nearly $3 million. The Michigan Memorial Phoenix Fund provided additional funding this round to support nuclear-related projects.
The new CNAP projects continue to draw on the breadth of expertise across U-M. They tackle a range of carbon neutrality topics and augment the CNAP portfolio, which addresses six critical technological and social decarbonization opportunities: energy storage; capturing, converting, and storing carbon; changing public opinion and behavior; ensuring an equitable and inclusive transition; material and process innovation; and transportation and alternative fuels.
“As the CNAP portfolio grows, so does its impact,” said Jennifer Haverkamp, Graham Family Director. “Our new projects are ambitious and solutions-oriented. Each one has the potential to propel decarbonization quickly toward a far more sustainable–and equitable–future.”
As society transitions to a decarbonized economy, justice-based policy interventions can help ensure equity. Denia Djokić, assistant research scientist in the Nuclear Engineering and Radiological Sciences Department, is principal investigator on a project that will explore governance frameworks that could help advanced nuclear energy to ameliorate–rather than exacerbate–social inequities and environmental injustices. A key dimension of the project is training students across disciplines to think holistically about the potential impacts of emerging technologies.
“It’s important for engineers and policymakers to establish a cultural norm of getting comfortable with all facets of social, political, economic, equity, and ethical impacts of the things that we build,” said Djokić. “Only through good-faith engagement with public concerns will we be able to develop technologies and public policies that are aligned with democratic values and build public trust.”
“This project is a step in this direction, to ensure that emerging nuclear energy technologies and decarbonization goals more broadly are guided by robust policies that work for everyone.”
The majority of projects receiving funding this round similarly address justice and equity considerations. Michael Craig, assistant professor of Energy Systems and Industrial & Operations Engineering, is principal investigator on one of those projects. He and co-researchers aim to determine whether the coupling of decarbonization and climate change could increase the vulnerability of some households to energy burdens.
“We want to futureproof our power and buildings not just for some people, but for all people,” said Craig.
“We’re focused on generating results and insights relevant to stakeholders and policymakers. Our project blends electric power, buildings, and climate disciplines, making it a perfect fit for the interdisciplinary CNAP grant. While others have worked on decarbonization or climate change impacts, it’s really the intersection of the two that will drive real-world outcomes.”
To learn more about CNAP's newest faculty research projects, read on and visit the project web pages linked below.
Assessing the Future of Pumped Hydro Storage in the Great Lakes
Wind and solar energy both generate power intermittently. To allow these renewables to proliferate while maintaining grid stability, significant energy storage must be developed. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory estimates that the U.S. will need 120 GW of installed power capacity storage in order for renewables to dominate domestic electricity production. As of 2022, the U.S. has only 24 GW of utility-scale storage capacity installed, with 22 GW of that supplied by pumped hydro storage (PHS).
PHS is the dominant mode of energy storage domestically and globally thanks to its high efficiencies, large achievable capacities, long lifetimes, low unit costs, and low lifetime carbon emissions. The Great Lakes region has suitable topography for on- and offshore PHS, and its first large-scale PHS development was built in the 1960s for daily power peaking. That PHS development, which is still in use, has incurred public backlash for its negative impact on fisheries and land use.
This project team will collaborate with stakeholders to seek a pathway for acceptance of next-generation PHS in the Great Lakes as an effective emissions-reduction tool. The team will also assess the technical, economic, social, and environmental feasibility of PHS, conducting the first U.S. assessment of its kind and the only assessment to address pressing Great Lakes issues, such as shoreline erosion.
Upscaling next-generation, low-impact PHS throughout the Great Lakes could provide clean energy security and job opportunities. Installations near economically disadvantaged cities could generate jobs without introducing negative health impacts. Large-scale PHS could be co-located with wind power generation, which would allow efficient centralization of power transforming, switching, and transmission. Overall, PHS distributed throughout the Great Lakes could have significant economic and environmental benefits, uniting disparate stakeholders toward the shared aims of reducing carbon emissions and stemming global warming.
- Project team: Jeremy Bricker, Civil and Environmental Engineering (PI); Andrew Gronewold, School for Environment and Sustainability; Jon Allan, School for Environment and Sustainability; Travis Brenden, Michigan State University; Marc Gaden, School for Environment and Sustainability
Innovative Modeling to Help Ensure Energy Equity, Nationally and Locally
Photo courtesy of Community Action Network.
To achieve carbon neutrality, residential energy needs—including the need for space heating—must be fully electrified. How electrification will affect the shape, peak, and total consumption of electricity in residences will be affected by our changing climate. As temperatures rise, people will need less electricity to heat their homes in the winter, but more electricity for summer cooling. Roughly 10% of U.S. households spend more than 10% of their monthly income on energy. If demand and prices spike due to electrification and climate change, the burden will be too much for many to bear.
To help guide future policy and technology toward equity, this project team will create a first-of-its-kind framework for analyzing decarbonization strategies and energy burdens that couples large climate ensembles with innovations in power and building modeling. The researchers will apply this framework to the contiguous United States and to Ann Arbor’s Bryant neighborhood, where 75% of residents are considered low-income. They will generate broad and textured insights into how decarbonization strategies will interact with climate change to drive future residential electricity demand, decarbonization success, and household energy burdens.
The team expects their findings to guide the City of Ann Arbor in its efforts to decarbonize and alleviate energy burdens in the Bryant neighborhood. Nationally, their findings will illuminate changes needed to futureproof federal programs aimed at reducing energy burdens. By better characterizing future energy burdens, the research will influence residential investments by municipalities and community groups, and could also inform investments in low-carbon technologies that are compatible with climate change and widespread residential decarbonization.
- Project team: Michael Craig, School for Environment and Sustainability (PI); Parth Vaishnav, School for Environment and Sustainability; Allison Steiner, Climate and Space Sciences and Engineering; Missy Stults, City of Ann Arbor
Looking to the Past to Encourage Responsible Governance, Public Acceptance of Nuclear Energy
Nuclear energy has been a major provider of carbon-free baseload electricity for decades, and many argue that a stable, carbon-free grid is technically impossible without it. Advanced nuclear technologies, which will be coming online within the decade, promise to significantly reduce historical challenges and risks, such as radioactive waste, power plant safety, weapons proliferation, and high infrastructure costs. However, significant public hesitancy about the widespread adoption of this technology remains, and it is not yet clear what policies and processes can most effectively address emerging public concerns.
This project team posits that public acceptance depends on responsible governance of advanced nuclear energy, which cannot come about without examination of the complex sociopolitical, ethical, and equity dimensions of this emerging energy technology. The researchers aim to fill that knowledge gap, producing useful recommendations for policymakers and stakeholders by analyzing analogical case studies of technologies of comparable impact and function. This novel approach, developed through the Ford School’s Technology Assessment Project, has already been applied successfully to facial recognition technologies, COVID-19 vaccines, and large language models.
The project follows last year’s rededication of the Michigan Memorial Phoenix Project, setting a unique and significant precedent for research “devoted to the peaceful, useful, and beneficial applications and implications of nuclear science and technology for the welfare of the human race.” The researchers expect their findings will help build trust through illuminating concerns about potential social inequities and harms and recommending governance approaches to address these. Their work contributes to an emerging branch within the field and has the potential to impact and widely inform future research, development, siting, regulatory, and even, potentially, reparative policies around nuclear energy technology.
- Project team: Denia Djokić, Nuclear Engineering and Radiological Sciences (PI); Shobita Parthasarathy, Ford School (Co-PI); Molly Kleinman, Ford School; Barbara Peitsch, Nuclear Engineering and Radiological Sciences
Beyond the Bottom Line: Monetizing Improved Health from Home Weatherization
Inefficient residential energy use, which often occurs in conjunction with low-quality housing, raises greenhouse gas emissions and negatively impacts health. Residents may face the “heat-or-eat” dilemma, having to choose between paying utility bills and buying food and medications. Given that Americans spend around 90% of their time indoors, suboptimal indoor conditions, such as unsafe temperatures and air pollution from poorly functioning gas appliances, are likely responsible for a substantial health burden.
Weatherization can help ease this burden. Cost-effective efficiency retrofits can improve indoor air quality and reduce home energy costs. In addition, weatherization reduces both home energy usage and peak electricity demand, so it is on the critical path to heating electrification and residential decarbonization.
Current federal subsidies for weatherization are based only on utility savings calculated by an energy auditor. The failure to account for the health savings of weatherization and corresponding energy-use efficiency improvements represents a market and policy failure leading to underinvestment. Quantifying the full benefits of weatherization likely would justify additional spending for these programs.
To that end, this project team aims to quantify the carbon emission reductions and health savings of weatherization using a novel dataset of linked housing, weatherization, and Medicaid emergency department (ED) visits to characterize how weatherization impacts ED-visit risks. They will monetize their findings, as well as the health impacts of improved outdoor ambient air quality. Their research uses individual-level health and contextual data, allowing for accurate estimation of the independent effects of weatherization and energy use intensity on health. They plan to share their findings with state legislators and federal policymakers to help inform policy changes.
- Project team: Carina Gronlund, Institute for Social Research (PI); Parth Vaishnav, School for Environment and Sustainability
Breakthrough Anti-Frost Coatings Help Heat Pumps Through Harsh Winters
The use of heat pumps is becoming more common in residential buildings and newer electric vehicles (EVs) because of their dramatic potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Air-sourced heat pumps (ASHP) are the most widely used type of heat pump because they combine precise temperature control with high energy efficiency and low initial installation costs.
The major barrier to utilizing ASHPs in colder environments is frosting, which occurs when surface temperatures drop to near or below zero. As with refrigerators and air conditioners, frost forms on the pump’s coil, forcing the pump to stop supplying heat and run the energy-intensive defrost mode. This process dramatically reduces the pump’s efficiency and capacity.
This project team has recently developed groundbreaking anti-frost coatings that delay the formation of ice on a coated surface by 2,000%. Their coatings have the potential to cut the energy needed for defrosting in half, cutting overall annual heat pump energy use by > 10%. Their project aims to improve the performance of these coatings, experimentally validate the improvements, and conduct a thorough techno-economic analysis to quantify the real-world impact of the coatings in different fields of use, including EVs and buildings.
The coatings being developed are made from bulk-scale, commercially available materials. They can significantly improve the energy efficiency of evaporator coils in refrigerators and air conditioners as well as heat exchangers in heat pumps, and will be of interest to a wide variety of potential commercial partners. In addition, the project will advance understanding of the process of frost formation on heat exchangers, as well as the economic benefits of making heat pumps frost-free.
- Project team: Anish Tuteja, Materials Science and Engineering (PI); Parth Vaishnav, School for Environment and Sustainability (Co-I)
Trash to Treasure: Efficiently Converting Organic Waste Into Useful Materials
Effectively diverting organic waste from landfill is a critical aspect of carbon neutrality. The United States landfills well over 100 million tons of waste annually, and more than half is food, yard, and other organic waste. As this organic waste decomposes, it generates significant greenhouse gas emissions—so significant that landfill emission of methane contributed 1.8% of total U.S. emissions in 2020.
To address this environmental burden, many governments have enacted legislation that prohibits food waste and other organic materials from disposal in landfills. As a result, interest has grown in the use of organic waste as a source of renewable hydrocarbon compounds, which can displace fossil fuel sources for chemicals, materials, and energy. However, despite its promise, the conversion of organic waste into useful materials is challenging both technically and economically, largely due to its high moisture content.
Rather than processing wet organic waste via energy-intensive methods that require drying, this team proposes to use two processes that leverage the value of the water in the waste: supercritical water oxidation (SCWO) and hydrothermal liquefaction (HTL). Though these processes have been demonstrated in laboratories and at industrial scales, the team aims to scale "down" to a “town-sized” volume of 5,000 to 25,000 kg of wet organic waste per week, using waste from the U-M Matthaei Botanical Gardens. A single system of this size would avoid 650 to 3,250 tons of greenhouse gas emissions annually.
The team has identified numerous benefits to working at this scale, including greater engagement at the household level, more consistent feedstock, and lower transportation, collection, and handling costs. They hypothesize that town-sized solutions will also enable the widespread adoption of this approach by smaller organizations, less populous rural regions, and smaller businesses and farms.
- Project team: Margaret Wooldridge, Mechanical Engineering (PI); Michael Craig, School for Environment and Sustainability; Marc Deshusses, 374Water/Duke University; Anthony Kolenic, Matthaei Botanical Gardens; Andrew Mansfield, Eastern Michigan University; Nanta Sophonrat, Mechanical Engineering