Connecting equity and sustainability: Damian Pitt drives research to advance the long-term future of energy policy
by David Slipher
Damian Pitt, Ph.D., an associate professor in the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at VCU, is committed to transforming the future of renewable energy and energy efficiency by informing policymaking through scholarly research.
Also the associate director of policy and community engagement of the Institute for Sustainable Energy and Environment (ISEE), he’s connecting an interdisciplinary research hub for sustainability across VCU, Richmond, and Virginia. One of his goals is to incorporate equity into energy planning frameworks to address long standing resource disparities in underserved communities.
Unifying equity and energy
Environmental ethics form a cornerstone of Pitt’s approach, and he believes any work to improve the environment must examine impacts through an equity-based lens. He’s also working to increase opportunities for underrepresented groups in the renewable and sustainability planning fields, which have traditionally lacked diversity. Expanding renewable energy capacity in Virginia and across the nation has the potential to create thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in economic impact. It’s an approach that seeks to help “democratize” the future of energy.
“There’s a huge body of research that demonstrates the history of environmental racism,” Pitt said. “These disproportionate impacts of environmental disasters and pollution have created poor conditions that disproportionately impact marginalized, low-income and Black and brown communities.”
“The best path forward for Virginia is to continue the transition to clean and renewable energy, including energy efficiency, which will stimulate our economy, mitigate against the future impacts of climate change, and help address the inequities of energy burden and environmental injustice.” – Damian Pitt
In his role at ISEE, Pitt utilizes his extensive professional network – including many Wilder School graduates – to connect researchers from diverse backgrounds and help secure funding to facilitate interdisciplinary studies and policy recommendations for Richmond and across the commonwealth. One such project includes associate professor Meghan Gough, Ph.D., a Wilder School colleague. She’s working with faculty at the Center for Environmental Studies and the Department of Sociology in the College of Humanities and Sciences on a new project exploring urban agricultural enrichment. The project investigates how participation in urban agriculture leads to community capitals valued beyond food production, such as better community connection, well-being, mentorship or entrepreneurial opportunities.
Growing communities and facilitating opportunities
Pitt’s connections also help Wilder School students to secure client-based consulting projects with policymakers, nonprofits, community groups and private businesses. This includes “Professional Plan” projects for Masters of Urban and Regional Planning students, who spend their second year developing and implementing these projects and providing recommendations for improvement.
“I’ll pitch them on a project on behalf of a student and help to craft a scope of work that's appropriate for a professional plan and help guide the student through that project.” Pitt said. “I have these contacts with policymakers, and I am always looking for opportunities to engage in research or develop student projects.”
Pitt’s research students receive specialized training to help conduct GIS (geographic information systems) research. He’s previously utilized LIDAR mapping technology to identify solar energy capacity in Richmond. By mapping the rooftops of the city, Pitt created models to show how much total energy can be generated through rooftop solar.
These projects create further opportunities for students to develop skills in research methods and literature review, summarize findings and even serve as co-authors on original research publications.
In addition to undergraduate and graduate urban studies programs, the Wilder School also offers certificate programs in geographic information systems, sustainability planning, and urban revitalization, for students who wish to continue their professional development.
Most graduate students emerge from Wilder School programs with secure employment after graduation — and sometimes sooner, according to Pitt.
“Our problem in the masters of urban and regional planning program is that students often get a job (before graduation), and sometimes don't graduate, because there's such a high demand in our field,” he said. “Students are getting full-time planning job offers while they're still in graduate school.”
Impacting the future of sustainable energy policymaking
Pitt’s goal as a researcher and community connector is to use data-driven research to inform more effective policies, both locally and nationally. He’s working to help Virginia remain a national model for sustainability leadership but recognizes that lawmakers often disagree about what it takes to transition to a clean energy economy.
The Virginia Clean Economy Act has pledged that the commonwealth will have a carbon-neutral electricity supply by 2045-2050. Virginia has also passed legislation to follow California’s vehicle efficiency standards, which will require all sales of new automobiles to be 100% electric by 2035. Virginia is also a member of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative and is developing the 2.6-gigawatt Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind project off the coast of Virginia Beach.
Focusing on economic impacts is a key aim of Pitt’s strategy to inform the future of sustainable planning. He recently published a study, “Investing in Virginia through Energy Efficiency: An Analysis of the Impacts of RGGI and the HIEE Program.” In this study, funded by The Nature Conservancy, Pitt’s team modeled the impacts of the energy efficiency revenue that would be generated if Virginia stays in the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative through 2030. The report concluded that funding energy efficiency improvements to over 100,000 low-income homes will result in about $70 million to $80 million in customer utility savings per year, at an average of $676 per year per household. The report also includes mapping that demonstrates how severe energy burdens among low-income populations are particularly concerning in the state's rural areas.
Another recent report from Pitt and his research team addresses "Estimating the Economic Impacts of Shared Solar in Virginia". It includes an overview of how Virginia's shared solar policies compare to other states with robust shared solar markets, and models the potential economic benefits of expanding shared solar capacity in Virginia, which is the equivalent of powering approximately 180,000 homes. The team, which included Wilder School Ph.D alumus Dr. Gilbert Michaud, an assistant professor of environmental policy at Loyola University Chicago, found that installing 5000 megawatts of shared solar would generate $5.6 billion in lifetime economic benefits for the state, including $26 million in annual labor income for Virginia workers.
Reflecting on this work, the common thread of Pitt’s work is to position VCU as a thought leader that is helping to support Virginia’s transition to sustainable cities and a clean energy economy.
“The best path forward for Virginia is to continue the transition to clean and renewable energy, including energy efficiency, which will stimulate our economy, mitigate against the future impacts of climate change, and help address the inequities of energy burden and environmental injustice,” he said. “VCU can play a big part in supporting this transition through our curriculum, community outreach, and scholarly and applied research, all while providing educational and professional development opportunities for our students.”