FOCUS Lecture Recap: Energy Justice and Sustainability

Feb. 11, 2024

by Jeanne Jackson DeVoe

Experts say energy justice must be part of fusion energy and sustainable construction

Experts at a recent panel discussion said the environmental impact on communities, diversity in hiring and other energy justice considerations must be considered in the development of fusion energy and sustainable construction.

That was the conclusion of the U.S. Department of Energy’s (DOE) Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory (PPPL) and Princeton University speakers participating in a Jan. 24 panel discussion titled “Energy Justice and Sustainability” at Princeton University. The panel focused on the development of fusion energy as a clean and carbon-free way to generate electricity and on ways to make the concrete industry more sustainable.

The event was part of the FOCUS speaker series, an interdisciplinary initiative highlighting anti-racism scholarship. It was sponsored by the Office of the Dean of Undergraduate Students and PPPL.

Speakers included Arturo Dominguez, head of science education at PPPL; Claire White, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering and the Andlinger Center for Energy and the Environment; and Andrew Zwicker, head of strategic relationships at PPPL.

Zwicker, the moderator of the panel discussion, said there is “an urgent need” to reduce the amount of carbon in the atmosphere to address global warming. “We are in a unique position to help lead the fight against climate change and help contribute to a fossil fuel-free world,” Zwicker said. “How do we ensure fairness and equity, build the workforce and the infrastructure to realize these ambitions?”

Including energy justice in the fusion energy conversation

Fusion energy is the power that drives the sun and stars. It combines light elements in the form of plasma  —  the hot, charged state of matter composed of free electrons and atomic nuclei that makes up 99% of the visible universe — to generate massive amounts of energy. The fusion energy industry is still in its infancy but has seen a huge influx of investment in private fusion energy companies, Dominguez said. The next crucial step will be building a pilot fusion energy plant to demonstrate the feasibility of fusion power plants. “How do we make sure that we incorporate energy justice into the conversation?” Dominguez asked. “We have to make sure these principles of energy justice and equity are everywhere — universities, national laboratories, community partners and private companies.”

Unlike fusion energy, the concrete industry is fully developed. The concrete that goes into so many buildings and roads is responsible for 8% of all carbon dioxide emissions, White said. Concrete is made of water, sand, gravel and cement, which acts like a glue that holds the concrete together. It is manufactured in high-temperature kilns that emit a lot of carbon dioxide during their operation. “Within the last five years, there has been a lot of push on ‘How can we decarbonize? How can we make concrete with less CO2?’” White said.

Reducing carbon in the concrete industry  

One way to reduce carbon dioxide is to electrify the kilns that produce cement, White said.  Another method is to use new types of concrete that reduce 80% of the carbon emissions produced in manufacturing. However, those types of concrete can be four times as expensive. The cost can be addressed through public policy that mandates the use of more sustainable technologies for concrete production in government buildings or provides subsidies to companies that use them, White said. That is what happened in the solar energy industry, where government support helped dramatically reduce the cost of solar cells, she added.

Energy justice and fusion energy

Dominguez said energy justice should be part of the development of fusion energy. “If we really want to have an energy source for everyone that doesn’t contribute to pollution, that actually helps all communities, we have to take into account who’s getting the energy and where fusion energy power plants are sited,” he said.

Another factor to take into consideration is the supply chain, Dominguez said. For example, the supply chain for fusion energy plants will require metal lithium, which is used to optimize plasma to produce fusion energy, as well as to creating tritium to ultimately convert the fusion energy to electricity. The fusion energy industry will have to consider the impact of communities where lithium could be mined, Dominguez explained.

Unlike nuclear fission, the radioactive materials in fusion energy are relatively short-lived, Dominguez said. If a fusion energy power plant fails, it will produce radioactive materials with a half-life of a dozen years, Dominguez said. But the fusion industry must be open about the impact of those materials, he said. “You really require trust in order to have the communities’ buy-in, and that only comes about if you’re sincere and include best practices in energy justice when you develop technology.”

Role of federal and state governments

The group also discussed how federal and state governments are important in encouraging energy justice. President Biden’s Executive Order 14096, signed in April 2023, aimed “to revitalize our commitment to energy justice.” The order establishes the Justice40 Initiative, for example, mandating that 40% of the benefits of federal investments in clean energy, affordable and sustainable housing, and clean water programs go to disadvantaged communities most impacted by pollution. Dominguez noted the DOE recently established an Energy Justice and Equity Division, formerly the Office of Economic Impact and Diversity.

The panelists pointed out that New Jersey’s environmental justice law is one of the strongest in the country and requires regulators to consider the environmental and public health impact on marginalized communities, such as low-income neighborhoods and communities of color.

Developing an inclusive and diverse workforce

Developing an inclusive and diverse workforce is another aspect of energy justice, Dominguez and White said. The concrete industry is male-dominated, and the challenge is to spark the interest of more women and people of color to work in the industry by teaching young people about construction careers, White said. One model is the robotics clubs in schools that have made more young women and young people of color interested in robotics.

Dominguez is passionate about workforce development. He noted that few early career physicists and engineers in plasma physics and fusion energy are women and people of color. “Those are perspectives we’re missing. Those are perspectives that are not in the room when strategic thinking is going on about our fusion infrastructure. It’s a loss. Those are the voices that are particularly relevant when we’re thinking about what we must do for an equitable system.”

Training and education for technical jobs

Equity also means providing training and education for technical jobs, Dominguez said. For example, PPPL offers an apprenticeship program that trains early career technicians in technical jobs supporting fusion energy and plasma science research as well as other technical support staff. “These pathways, these on-ramps into the ecosystem, will develop these technical skills,” he said.

Hope for the future

During the Q&A that followed the discussion, an audience member asked what gives each expert hope. The panelists said they are heartened that both decarbonizing concrete and bringing fusion energy to the market offer solutions to reducing carbon. “What gives me hope in the realm of concrete is people have shown they can be used, so there’s evidence we can get there. It’s not insurmountable,” White said. “I get hope from people who are passionate about this area.”

“Fusion is what gives me hope,” Dominguez said. “It really has the potential of being transformational for the whole world.”

Alex Moosbrugger, a senior in civil and environmental engineering, said he enjoyed the discussion. “It was a really interesting panel,” he said. “I really enjoyed hearing about it. We haven’t had that many panels that focus exclusively on energy and environmental justice that are also focused on the technology and engineering solutions.”