Evaluating Public Participation in Energy Policy with Anushree Chaudhuri

Anushree Chaudhuri is a third-year undergraduate and soon-to-be master's in city planning in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning (DUSP). She also holds a second bachelor's degree in economics from MIT.

Evaluating Public Participation in Energy Policy with Anushree Chaudhuri

What technology or technologies are the focus of your research, teaching, and action?

My work with the Science Impact Collaborative (SIC) concerns siting conflicts and new renewable energy facilities. I work on clean energy infrastructure, including renewable energy technologies, carbon capture energy storage transmission, and waste management. With the SIC team, I conduct research to identify factors contributing to growing local opposition to renewable energy and transmission technologies in the US, despite landmark spending bills such as the Chips Act, the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, the Energy Act, and the IRA. In these cases, there are often institutional complexities, conflicts, and concerns over financial feasibility and information symmetries, that often pair with other issues developers face if they fund the project after extensive conflict over tribal rights and land value, as well as possible health and safety infringements. I think overwhelmingly the broader concern here is consistent lack of public participation throughout the process.

Going forward, my research will combine quantitative and, on the ground, qualitative analysis to understand the distributional impacts of these factors in terms of local spatial impact. Through quantitative analysis, I will try to better understand these conflicts by descriptively using data on land value and techno-economic factors to develop a public acceptance index that tries to predict what will be the sitting outcome of an energy project, and predict the consequences in terms of environmental impact, tax revenue, employment, and land value. Based on predictions informed by the data, I want to go to those communities and engage these predictions through site visits with these communities and collect oral histories to try to understand what driving factors exist at a local level that can’t be revealed by the data.

What are the ways in which these technologies are and could be used to advance the public interest?

I frame my thinking about the public interest in methods grounded in talking to people via community engagement to understand what underlying values are creating the interests that we see on the surface and how we can resolve those conflicts in a way that creates more value.

In defining public interest technology within this work, I take an economics approach. I am inspired by economist and philosopher Amartya Sen and his theory of comparative justice, and more specifically his relativistic approach to evaluating different options and interventions that not only meet the needs of current generations, but also ensure that one is not compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. Our research also points to this need for transparency as well as distributional or procedural justice to effectively implement renewable energy technologies to advance public interest? How can we ensure these technologies are designed to advance the public interest more than they're currently doing? From both a local and global environmental perspective, replacing fossil fuels and natural gas pipelines mean much cleaner emissions and those have implications for public health.

There is a consistent theme in my and SIC’s work concerning distributional and procedural justice, especially when developing renewable technology implementation strategies. You want to make sure that the procedure for developing and implementing this technology is transparent and fair and involves community ownership and participation, and you also want to ensure that the benefits and negative impacts of these technologies are distributed fairly.

What more could be done to ensure that these technologies are designed, used, or regulated to better address the needs of those at the margins of society?

Renewable energy technologies can be used effectively and regulated better through processes such as neutral dispute resolution resources at the local, state, or federal levels. Dispute resolutions would allow stakeholders in the technology implementation process to identify underlying value conflicts and resolve them in a way that improves the public interest and defines for the community the purpose of the technology being introduced.

We need to take a bipartisan approach to federal permitting reform in a way that is technology-agnostic. Because of financial incentives, renewables are cheaper and more profitable to build at this point. However, we need to prioritize, not just steam roll these projects, but this systematic case by case review where we evaluate economic and social trade-offs should be prioritized at the federal level. The National Environmental Policy Act should be updated to prioritize environmental justice at every stage of the permitting process.