SEAS members awarded Catalyst Grants
Five newly awarded sustainability Catalyst Grants will support a variety of projects designed to advance technical and behavioral interventions toward greater sustainability. The projects are funded by the Graham Sustainability Institute.
Engaging researchers from nine units across the University of Michigan, including the School for Environment and Sustainability (SEAS), and several other academic institutions, along with multisectoral partners, the projects will explore community solar, agrivoltaics, carbon-neutral building materials, aviation fuel waste reduction, and sustainable archeology.
SEAS Assistant Professor Parth Vaishnav, SEAS PhD student Karl Hoesch, and SEAS alumni Jeremy Moghtader (MS '04) and Mona Munroe-Younis (BS ’06, MS ’11) received funding. Read about their projects below.
Since 2017, more than 30 projects have received sustainability catalyst grant support from Graham for small-scale, collaborative, interdisciplinary sustainability research intended to develop partnerships and lay the groundwork for user-driven research. Sustainability catalyst grants are open to all faculty and researchers across U-M’s three campuses. Each of the five featured research teams will receive $10,000.
Empowering Flint solar: Exploring a cooperative model to increase energy sovereignty
Flint residents have one of the highest energy burdens in Michigan, spending more of their income on energy bills than most of the rest of the state. Community-level renewable energy has the potential to make energy more affordable for Flint residents while improving environmental health and promoting environmental justice.
With this in mind, a vision for a solar cooperative in Flint emerged from an energy justice strategy meeting led by community organizations with participation from neighborhood leaders, community members, public health department staff, and faculty from UM-Flint and Kettering University. In a solar cooperative, customers buy shares in solar arrays placed at a community site and receive utility bill credit for the power generated by their panels.
This research team will assess the feasibility of that vision, positing that a solar cooperative would synergize existing work in Flint to improve climate resilience, increase energy democracy, and bolster the creation of an environmental sustainability plan. The catalyst grant will support benchmarking of comparable community developments and enable the research team to establish and compensate a steering committee composed of environmental, community, and municipal leaders, residents from neighborhoods with space for a solar cooperative, and technical experts.
The steering committee will represent the views and priorities of end-users and identify obstacles and opportunities. Based on their contributions, the project team will produce a list of end-user priorities and views and a list of potential roadblocks and remedies. The researchers hope their efforts will help Flint make tangible progress toward community solar.
Project team: Heather Dawson, PI (Biology | UM-Flint); Mihai Burzo, Co-I (Engineering | UM-Flint); Pamela Carralero, Co-I (Environmental Humanities | Kettering University); Shirl Donaldson, Co-I (Digital Manufacturing Technology, | UM-Flint); Karl Hoesch, Co-I (SEAS | U-M Ann Arbor); Mona Munroe-Younis (BS ’06, MS ’11), Co-I (Environmental Transformation Movement of Flint and SEAS alumna); Stephen Turner, Co-I (Computer Science | UM-Flint); Nayyirah Shariff (Flint Rising)
Eliminating the tradeoffs between farming and solar energy development: Testing semi-transparent solar cell technology at U-M’s Campus Farm
Solar photovoltaic technology is experiencing explosive growth to meet current and future energy needs. But solar energy production requires more land than comparable fossil fuel energy production. As the demand for solar increases, so will the demand for land. Unless farming and energy production can occur simultaneously, agriculturally valuable land could be in jeopardy. While combined “agrivoltaic” development is possible, research shows that conventional opaque solar arrays installed on farmland often decrease crop yields.
This catalyst grant will support a transformative concept of land-use sharing between solar power generation and agriculture that removes compromises where one use negatively impacts the other. The research will focus on Michigan crops that are economically important, providing a framework that can be expanded to other types of crops, climate zones, and land use. By combining expertise in crop growth and ecosystem health with new semi-transparent solar cell technology developed by the researchers, the team aims to develop new products for specific agricultural applications adapted to the regions in which they are applied.
This project represents the first demonstration of the new technology in an open-field agricultural setting (U-M’s Campus Farm). If successful, this simultaneous dual use of land could provide income from both the crops grown and the electricity produced, making local agriculture more profitable in temperate climate zones and in underdeveloped countries while providing abundant, clean electricity. The outcomes impact a wide range of end-users in this emerging, interdisciplinary and intersectional field, including agrivoltaic system providers, farmers, photovoltaic, glass, chemical, and greenhouse industries, and is expected to lead to follow-on funding from the DOE Solar Energy Technologies Office.
Project team: Stephen Forrest, PI (Electrical Engineering and Computer Science | Materials Science and Engineering); Jeremy Moghtader (MS '04), Co-I (Matthaei Botanical Gardens, Nichols Arboretum, and SEAS alumnus); Rachel Koltun, Co-I (Electrical Engineering and Computer Science)
Sustainable airport operations: A novel approach to reducing airline fuel waste
Air travel is a major contributor to global emissions. Operational inefficiencies that waste fuel—like extra taxi time and airborne holding—only exacerbate the problem. Excess fuel consumption is a profit problem, too, costing airlines billions annually. As a result, the aerospace community is actively pursuing decision-making aids to reduce fuel waste and increase the efficiency of airport operations. Unfortunately, most solutions until now have had limited efficacy because they have not considered specific sustainability goals or local airport configurations.
This research team is developing a new approach to modeling decision-point scenarios that will meld statistical probabilities with categorical data collected from the San Antonio International Airport (SAT) to tailor recommendations to achieve greater sustainability. From this work, the team aims to create an adaptive decision-making tool customized to mitigate fuel waste from at-gate surface congestion, runway queues, and terminal airspace inefficiencies at SAT. The researchers will work with airport stakeholders at multiple levels to ensure the tool they develop is widely embraced and deployed. SAT will provide guidance on sustainability goals and operational decision variables, which are the key inputs and outputs for modeling greater efficiency.
This catalyst grant will form the basis of a research proposal to the National Science Foundation’s Strengthening American Infrastructure program. The project will also promote new collaborative partnerships between multiple U-M units (UMTRI, Department of Aerospace Engineering, and School for Environment and Sustainability), as well as strengthen the collaboration between U-M and SAT and set the stage for future collaboration with airports across the country.
Project team: Wenbo Sun, PI (UMTRI); Max Z. Li, Co-I (Aerospace Engineering); Parth Vaishnav, Co-I (SEAS)