Yale Daily News

At the School of the Environment, graduate researchers have been exploring how disaster relief efforts can go green.

In a report released on Oct. 12, a team of former School of the Environment students shared research reimagining the future of disaster recovery through clean energy. The study, conducted in partnership with the Connecticut Green Bank — an organization that helps finance green energy projects — assessed the financial feasibility of integrating sustainable technology into environmental emergency relief centers. Though developing clean energy infrastructure remains expensive, the report concluded that federal funding and local incentives can make the renewable energy transition less daunting than expected.

“This research has helped jumpstart a discussion — not only of how to customize these technologies to fit a local resilience need but also some of the creative financing tools we may seek to deploy across the state,” Sara Harari, Connecticut Green Bank’s director of innovation, wrote in an email to the News.

The project focused on “green resilience hubs” — public facilities that provide immediate relief to local communities during natural disasters — and the ways in which current policy might make them more financially viable. By drawing on data from buildings on the Connecticut Green Bank’s campus, researchers developed a model that showed the potential for outfitting these facilities with renewable energy sources.

The report concluded that the current clean energy financing offers “enormous economic opportunity for both communities and developers.” It argued that green resilience hubs are not just fiscally feasible to develop, but can generate year-round revenue during normal operations through energy bill savings and excess energy sales.

In an email to the News, Sarah Gledhill ENV ’23 explained that the bonus incentives under 2022’s federal Inflation Reduction Act “unlock capital that can be invested in resiliency.” The report found that government policies or utility agreements — many of which provide tax credits and compensation for extra generated energy — can make clean energy investment significantly more affordable. Gledhill added that these benefits could allow investors to do more than otherwise possible, such as adding a battery system to a planned solar project.

Under the Inflation Reduction Act, certain renewable energy facilities in low-income communities can qualify for a 10-20 percentage-point increase in investment tax credits. The law also provides up to a 30 percent tax credit for certain renewable energy projects and promises to create enough renewable infrastructure to generate up to 1.8 gigawatts of electricity for various underserved communities.

However, the report found that battery technology remains a “major hurdle for achieving enhanced resilience.” Simulated pairings of solar panel and battery configurations showed that the economic returns progressively fell with increasing battery size. Solar panels are currently “subsidizing” the costs of battery storage, per the report.

Since solar panels only capture sunlight at certain times of the day, lithium batteries help store electrical energy and release it when a building’s energy demand increases. Though lithium prices have significantly fallen from their record highs over the past year, the market remains volatile due to the difficulty of its extraction and rising demands.

The report also identified areas for policy improvement as severe weather becomes more common. For the researchers, the work was a reminder of shortcomings in current disaster response legislation and the difficulty of assigning a price to climate resiliency.

“Our policy around natural disaster response is fundamentally flawed,” coauthor Maggie Thompson ENV ’23 told the News. “The value of resilience needs to be incorporated into our policy frameworks in a more proactive way.”

Thompson added that increasingly frequent extreme weather events have shifted pressure to developing more preventive measures. Current markets and policies should better account for the value of resilience and social costs of carbon emissions in their pricing, she explained. According to Thompson, relief funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency primarily support communities after disasters.

In the 2022 fiscal year, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, spent nearly $3 billion on climate resilience projects through its Building Resilient Infrastructure and Communities and Flood Mitigation Assistance programs.

Both Thompson and Gledhill explained that the report was inspired as part of their graduate capstone project. They reached out to the Connecticut Green Bank and worked afterward with faculty, bank experts and the Yale Center for Business and the Environment to refine their models.

“The process was both incredibly challenging and rewarding,” Gledhill wrote.

The researchers hope their findings might provide a blueprint for any community hoping to develop their own green resilience hubs. The authors hosted a webinar on Nov. 3 sharing their findings and answering questions. They also created a video that walked viewers through their financial model.

Harari added that the Connecticut Green Bank’s individual case study will likely inspire other projects in the future. 

“[The students] developed a framework and methodology that not only advances the discussion of resiliency hubs in Connecticut, but also can be used as a template across the country,” Harari wrote.

Thompson said that the team’s model is just the starting point. The study did not incorporate the social impacts of burning fossil fuels, or envision how financing might look if more preventative funding were available under FEMA. Thompson also hopes that future researchers might develop a tool to make the study’s findings more accessible to policymakers.

The Connecticut Green Bank expressed optimism for continued collaboration with the University.

“As we expand our mission to encompass other forms of environmental infrastructure, such as water, agricultural lands, and waste, we look to the deep expertise on these topics from the Yale School of the Environment faculty and students,” Harari wrote.

The Connecticut Green Bank is the nation’s first green bank.