Bringing new resilient infrastructure to all communities
Cross-university collaboration seeks solutions to neighborhood inequities
In an effort to mitigate climate change, many communities and the transportation and energy systems that serve them are transitioning to renewable sources.
However, not all communities are able to equally participate in this transition.
Underserved communities, in particular, often encounter barriers when shifting to newer, electrified energy and transportation systems. Many of these neighborhoods have already experienced various socioeconomic challenges and exposure to existing pollutants and potential adverse health outcomes.
Researchers at The Ohio State University are working to alleviate some of these inequities and improve the quality of life for residents in these communities.
The Facilitating Local Electrified Energy and Transportation Services for All (FLEETS for All) project will engage citizens in 15 underserved central Ohio communities to address specific challenges these neighborhoods face during this energy transition. The project will seek to understand needs and opportunities for electrified energy and mobility options to improve health, environmental and social conditions within these populations.
Jeffrey Bielicki, associate professor in the Department of Civil, Environmental and Geodetic Engineering and the John Glenn College of Public Affairs, serves as principal investigator for the project. He emphasized FLEETS for All’s intention to improve outcomes for those at the margins regarding electrified mobility and home appliances.
“These communities’ ability to participate in the energy transition is unequal,” said Bielicki.
The FLEETS for All project is part of an $11 million grant awarded by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Bielicki and his collaborators at Ohio State received $1.1 million to conduct their research, joining 10 other institutions to investigate drivers and environmental impacts of energy transitions in underserved and tribal communities nationwide.
Bielicki stated that underserved neighborhoods often have increased exposure to potential toxins and other contamination due to factors such as polluting infrastructure located nearby and a heavier reliance on public transportation than more affluent communities.
“For example, while waiting for a bus, someone who stands on the side of the road inhales exhaust from all the cars, trucks and buses that pass by,” he said.
Having more electric vehicles (EVs) on the road would eliminate emissions from many dispersed sources. The ensuing emissions from a single static power plant are more easily captured than those from many small mobile sources of pollution.
Electric vehicles are surging in popularity nationwide. But can citizens in these communities equally benefit from EVs?
Recent data provided on bumper.com showed that the overwhelming majority of charging infrastructure in the United States is located in predominantly white neighborhoods. The study also illustrated disparities in the availability of EV chargers based on individual incomes.
“Not only are we trying to transition away from certain ways of moving ourselves by touting electric mobility, we want to do it in a way that doesn’t further marginalize people,” said Bielicki, noting the need for increased deployment of EV infrastructure in underserved neighborhoods.
The Ohio State research team will employ surveys and focus groups to measure residents’ attitudes toward making a household change such as replacing a natural gas-burning stove, which often emits unvented carbon dioxide and methane, with a new electric one.
“We need to learn where people are coming from,” offered Bielicki, referring to various elements like budgetary considerations, cultural perceptions and structural constraints, such as renting versus owning a home, that influence consumers’ decisions to adopt or not to adopt a new technology.
This community-centered approach to energy transition also includes collaborators from Franklin County Public Health, the City of Columbus - Sustainable Columbus, the Mid-Ohio Regional Planning Commission and the Electrification Coalition.
Bielicki’s team intends to help policymakers assess the effectiveness of current efforts to bring more resilient services and products to communities. Project data can be utilized to develop sound investment and deployment strategies for new electric infrastructure and services that reduce adverse environmental effects and potential health risks.
“If you’re transitioning to electrified options, you’re going to have a higher input demand for electricity,” he said. “So we need to think about what the regional electricity grid might look like. So, that as we build up a grid, we’re doing it in ways that improve health, environmental and social conditions.”
Bielicki noted that many of the communities selected for this project exhibit hallmark effects of being marginalized, including having higher incidences of asthma, higher infant mortality rates and lower life expectancy than Franklin County as a whole.
“Furthermore, the consequences of climate change have not been evenly distributed,” he added.
He emphasized that FLEETS for All’s objective is to ensure that benefits these new technologies may yield are more evenly shared among communities.
The interdisciplinary team of collaborators at Ohio State includes expertise in air quality, transportation, energy, sociology and public health: Assistant Professor Daniel Gingerich (Civil, Environmental and Geodetic Engineering [CEGE]), Professor Darryl Hood (Environmental Health Sciences), Associate Professor Jeffrey Jacquet (Environment and Natural Resources), Assistant Professor Huyen Le (Geography), Associate Professor Andy May (CEGE) and Martina Leveni (College of Engineering Legacy Postdoctoral Scholar, CEGE).
Bielicki sees potential for the investigation of other topics, like institutional and policy analysis and resilience and greening infrastructure, that may evolve from studies like this one.
He and his collaborators look forward to engaging community members in this grassroots effort.
“We’re seeking to build capacity in the communities,” he said. “And it’s not just us saying that the community should do it. It’s us working with people, sharing the leadership of the project.”