Sustainable energy initiative finds first home at Duke University

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Thursday, Jun 02, 2016 - 5:33 pm
Pattanayak presents a research proposal on SETI at the Environment for Development Initiative meeting in November 2015.

Two faculty members at Duke University have catalyzed the formation of an international network of researchers studying at the intersection of energy, environment and global economic development, hosting the inaugural workshop of the Sustainable Energy Transitions Initiative (SETI).

The workshop, "Sustainable Energy Transitions in Developing and Emerging Economies," held in late April, attracted more than 40 researchers from across the world, representing two dozen institutions, 20 countries and five continents.

The SETI workshop "is expected to generate knowledge about how access to affordable, reliable, sustainable, and modern energy impacts economic development, and what society can do to facilitate that transition," says Subhrendu Pattanayak, a professor in Duke's Sanford School of Public Policy.

That impact is gaining increased global attention, as reflected in the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, adopted in September 2015. Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 7 sets targets for the U.N.'s Sustainable Energy for All program, which aims to "ensure universal access to modern energy services, improve efficiency and increase use of renewable sources" by the end of the next decade.

Like his co-principal investigator, Marc Jeuland, Pattanayak holds appointments in the Sanford School, the Nicholas School of the Environment and the Duke Global Health Institute. Pattanayak and Jeuland, with grant support from the global Environment for Development Initiative (EfD), established Duke as the initial administrative home for SETI under the auspices of their Household Energy and Health Initiative, an interdisciplinary research group focused on air quality, improved cookstoves and clean fuels. At Duke, the Sanford School, the Energy Initiative, and the Nicholas Institute for Environmental Policy Solutions provided additional sponsorship for the workshop.

"Duke is a logical place [for SETI]," says Jeuland, "because we have a critical mass of both faculty and students who are interested in energy transitions and energy poverty issues."

Pattanayak also lists research labs and groups focused on energy and development at the Pratt School of Engineering, the Nicholas School and the Sanford School, and notes the regional presence of the Triangle Research Initiative on Household Energy Transitions. "The Sustainable Energy Transitions Initiative aims to leverage these existing resources to build a global network of interdisciplinary and collaborative research with an emphasis on environmental economics and policy," he says.

Jeuland addresses guests at a reception during the SETI workshop at Duke, as Energy Initiative Interim Director Brian Murray watches.

The SETI workshop represented a crucial first step in building that network, assembling social science researchers and practitioners from institutions across Asia, Africa, Europe and the Americas to share knowledge and coordinate future activities. The workshop focused on several topics related to the global energy transition:

  • Lack of access to electricity and  modern fuels;
  • Drivers of the energy transition in low- and middle-income contexts, including lessons learned from past experiences;
  • Impacts of energy transition on human health, labor, forests, regional air quality, and global climate;
  • Gaps in the relevant research, including the growing importance of renewable energy technologies; and
  • How future research efforts may be coordinated in ways that are policy-relevant.

"The research presented shed light on specific studies, but more importantly on key research gaps," Pattanayak says. "For instance, while a number of researchers are working on adoption and impacts of clean cooking technologies, our understanding of demand for other, promising energy technologies (such as low-cost solar systems) remains insufficient." The identification of this and other knowledge gaps will guide the topics for future workshops, including a smaller SETI event to be held in Chile in November 2016.

The gathering also laid groundwork for funding processes and online infrastructure to support international research collaboration, as well as strategies to create visibility for research on energy transitions in the developing world through vehicles such as special-issue proposals to academic journals and joint sessions at conferences.

"Looking ahead," Jeuland says, "the vision is that SETI is a center without walls, that administrative leadership will rotate, and that activities will occur in diverse settings, much like our other collective research efforts."


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Bryan Koen
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