Meet the Inaugural Duke Energy Renewables Innovation Fund Awardees

Three teams of faculty will lead undergraduate and graduate students in cross-disciplinary, sustainability research projects.

March 17, 2016

Three Duke Energy investigators smiling

Duke Energy Renewables Innovation Fund lead investigators (l-r): senior advisor Donna Attanasio and professors Saniya LeBlanc and Ekundayo Shittu. (Logan Werlinger/GW Today)

By Brittney Dunkins

Three research teams led by George Washington University faculty members and researchers have been selected for the inaugural Duke Energy Renewables Innovation Fund Awards, a multi-year research grant program for energy research—including the unprecedented growth of the solar industry.

Solar energy is now cheaper to produce than traditional energy sources in 20 states, according to Amit Ronen, director of the GW Solar Institute. And the United States boasts enough solar electric capacity to power more than 5.4 million American homes. That number is expected to double in 2016.

The rapid expansion of renewable energy projects has triggered a host of questions regarding the changing costs, environmental effects, legal considerations and efficiency and resiliency of solar installations.

Executive Director of Sustainability Kathleen Merrigan says the energy industry’s incorporation of renewable sources is a perfect example of the cross-disciplinary nature of sustainability research. There are currently 200 faculty engaged in sustainability research at GW.

“Part of my role is to build crosswalks between schools and departments and this fund is a tool for doing that,” Dr. Merrigan said. “We explicitly required that these projects be interdisciplinary because sustainability sciences are an essential part of bringing together faculty from different disciplines.

“With this seed funding from Duke, we will be able to support faculty in contributing knowledge to the world and enhance the experience for our students.”

The three project teams include faculty members and research program directors from the GW School of Business, the School of Engineering and Applied Science, GW Law, the Trachtenberg School of Public Policy and Public Administration and the College of Professional Studies, as well as undergraduate and graduate students.

Projects include the development of a handbook for local governments that hope to finance community solar projects in low-income areas and a report on the barriers to building solar microgrids that can produce sustainable energy independently or as a part of a larger electrical grid. For the “living lab” project, students will study the economic and environmental impacts of the Duke Energy Renewables solar farm in North Carolina, the host site of the Capital Partners Solar Project.

George Washington Today reporter Brittney Dunkins spoke to the project lead investigators about how their projects are building GW’s commitment to cross-disciplinary research:

“Handbook for the Development of Community Solar, Accessible to Lower-Income Households”
Lead investigator: Donna Attanasio, senior advisor for energy law programs

A cross-disciplinary team with expertise in law, business, public policy and urban sustainability is studying ways to finance community solar projects that would advance the inclusion of low-income communities in the solar energy industry boom. Graduate and undergraduate student researchers will conduct the bulk of the research and draw on the expertise of the GW Solar Institute.

Community solar projects refer to a single renewable energy source shared among partners who have contributed to the investment costs, Ms. Attanasio said.  

“How do you make community solar cost effective and beneficial to everyone involved?” Ms. Attanasio asked. “And how do you identify and select communities where these projects will be successful?”

The student-faculty research team will seek to answer those questions and produce a handbook that offers options for identifying low-income communities that could benefit from community solar, potential policy barriers and opportunities and financing options that address cost concerns. They also plan to host a conference midway through the project and solicit ideas from outside experts.

“It’s a mix of public policy issues, legal issues, business issues and technical solar development issues,” Ms. Attanasio said. “Our goal is to come up with a workable model so that if a local government or organization is developing a community solar project, they can look to this handbook for potential solutions.”

“Microgrid Financing: Challenges and Solutions”
Lead investigator: Ekundayo Shittu, assistant professor of engineering management and systems engineering

Microgrids are considered “the next big thing” in building resiliency into the larger power grid because they offer backup support should the main grid be compromised by weather or other attacks, according to Dr. Shittu. But the complex systems require a consideration of financial barriers, technical design and development of policies that will support investment.

For example, how do you quantitatively determine the value of resources in a microgrid that offers the option of selling energy to, or buying energy from, the main power grid?

“We will be looking at states like California, Connecticut and New Jersey that have invested in microgrids to see what we can learn from the models they have in place,” Dr. Shittu said.

The research team will produce a report—in collaboration with the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions (C2ES), a nonprofit organization that promotes access to sustainable energy sources—that assesses policy concerns and technical and financial barriers. Dr. Shittu said he hopes this research can serve as a guide for utility companies that want to diversify their resources and policymakers who want to institute policies to increase investment in this technology.

“Gone are the days when research is done in isolation,” he said. “This is a problem for interdisciplinary research—it requires expertise in engineering, economics and public policy.” 

“Living Lab to Study Solar Farms”
Lead investigator: Saniya LeBlanc, assistant professor of engineering and applied science

The practicalities of the solar industry will come alive for students working on the “living lab” project with Dr. LeBlanc and her project colleagues. Graduate students in Dr. LeBlanc’s Nanotechnology in Energy Applications course will travel to the Duke Energy Renewables solar farm in North Carolina this month to conduct on-the-ground research. They will study the soil type, catalogue the energy output and analyze the design.  

They also will examine the system to see how the surrounding environment is affected by the change in land use and the economic costs associated with building the farm. For example, how does the installation of a solar farm change the temperature and affect the soil?

During the fall 2016 semester, undergraduate SEAS students will use the data to conduct a case study analysis using the collected data.

“This is an opportunity for our students to apply skills they’ve learned in class to a real world situation,” Dr. LeBlanc said. “They will be able to examine the real implications of what it means to build a solar farm.”