Helping Renewable Energy Projects Succeed in Local Communities | MIT News

Jungwoo Chun makes surprising discoveries about sustainability initiatives by zooming in on local communities.

His discoveries are in understanding how renewable energy infrastructure develops at the local level. With so many stakeholders in a community – citizens, government officials, businesses and other organizations – the development process gets complicated very quickly. Chun strives to unpack stakeholder relationships to help local renewable energy projects move forward.

Although today he is interested in local communities across the United States, Chun comes from a global background. Growing up, her family moved often due to her father’s job. He lived in Seoul, South Korea until elementary school, then hopped from town to town in Asia, spending time in China, Hong Kong and Singapore. At the time of college, he returned to South Korea, majoring in international studies at Korea University and later completed his master’s degree in the same field.

After graduating, Chun wanted to use her international expertise to fight climate change. Thus, he pursued a second master’s degree in international environmental policy with William Moomaw at Tufts University.

Meanwhile, Chun came across an article on climate change by David Victor, a professor of public policy at the University of California, San Diego. Victor argued that while international efforts to tackle climate change are necessary, more tangible progress can be achieved through local efforts tailored to each country. This prompted Chun to think a little further, “What can we do in the local community to make a small difference, which could mean something big in the long run?”

With renewed direction for his goals, Chun arrived at MIT’s Department of Urban Studies and Planning, specializing in environmental policy and planning. But he still lacked that last spark of inspiration to proactively pursue his goals – until he began working with his senior adviser, Lawrence Susskind, Ford Professor of Urban and Environmental Planning and Director of the Collaboration Scientific impact.

For previous research projects, “I would just do what I was told,” Chun says, but his new adviser “really opened [his] eyes” to be an active member of the community. From the start, Susskind encouraged Chun to share his research ideas and showed him how to leverage his research skills for public service. Over the past few years, Chun has also taught several classes with Susskind, learning to approach education thoughtfully for an engaging and equitable classroom. Because of their relationship, Chun now always looks for ways to make a difference through research, teaching, and public service.

Understanding renewable energy projects at the local level

For her major thesis project with Susskind, Chun studies community-owned solar power projects, striving to understand what makes them successful.

Often, communities do not have the expertise to carry out these projects on their own and instead turn to advisory bodies for assistance. But little research has been done on these organizations and the roles they play in the development of solar energy infrastructure.

Through more than 200 surveys and counts, Chun has discovered that these organizations act as lifetime contributors to communities and are essential to the establishment and operation of community-owned solar projects. At the start of these projects, they guide communities through a mountain of logistics for setting up solar power infrastructure, including permit applications, budgeting, and contractor employment. Once the infrastructure is in place, organizations stay involved, serving as consultants when needed and sometimes even becoming partners.

Because of these roles, Chun calls these organizations “intermediaries,” drawing a parallel with roles in conflict resolution. “But it’s much more than that,” he adds. Intermediaries help local communities to “build a movement [for community-owned solar energy projects] … and give them the means to be independent and autonomous.

Chun is also working on another project with Susskind, examining situations where communities oppose renewable energy infrastructure. For this project, Chun supervises and mentors a group of five undergraduate students. Together, they try to identify the reasons for local opposition to renewable energy projects.

The idea for this project emerged two years ago, when Chun learned on the news that many solar and wind projects were being delayed or canceled due to local opposition. But the reasons for this opposition have not been thoroughly researched.

“When we started to dig a little deeper, [we found that] communities oppose these projects even if they are not opposed to renewables,” Chun says. The main reasons for opposition lie in land use issues, including financial challenges, health and safety concerns and, ironically, environmental consequences. By better understanding these concerns, Chun hopes to help more renewable energy projects succeed and bring society closer to a sustainable future.

Bringing research to the classroom and the community

Currently, Chun is looking to bring his research knowledge of renewable energy infrastructure into the classroom. He is developing a renewable energy course that will act as a “clinic” where students will work with communities to understand their concerns about potential renewable energy projects. The students’ findings will then be passed on to the project managers to help them address these concerns.

This new course is modeled after 11.074/11.274 (Cybersecurity Clinic), which Chun has helped develop over the past few years. In this clinic, students work with local New England governments to assess potential cybersecurity vulnerabilities in their digital systems. At first, “many city governments were very skeptical, like ‘students are doing us a favor…?'” Chun said. “But in the end, they were all very happy with the result” and found the evaluations “impactful”.

Since the launch of the cybersecurity clinic, other universities have approached Chun and his co-instructors to develop their own regional clinics. Today, there are cybersecurity clinics operating all over the world. “It was a huge success,” Chun says. In the future, “we would like to extend the benefits of this clinic [to address] communities opposed to renewable energy [projects].” The new course will be a philosophical trifecta for Chun, combining his commitments to research, teaching and public service.

Chun plans to complete her doctorate at the end of this summer and is currently writing her thesis on community-owned solar energy projects. “I’m done with all the ground work – working the soil and putting the seeds in the right place,” he says, “Now it’s time to get all the crops together and present the work.”

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