July 13, 2024
Chien-fei Chen


Chien-fei Chen’s new research project will assist disadvantaged communities confronting environmental health challenges

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Credit: University of Tennessee, Knoxville

Led by Chien-Fei Chen, research associate professor and director of energy and environmental justice at the University of Tennessee’s Institute for a Secure and Sustainable Environment, a diverse team is making significant strides towards addressing critical environmental health and energy burden challenges in underserved communities.

This initiative has been recognized with a substantial $1.7 million grant from the Wellcome Trust Foundation, UK, a global charitable entity established in 1936. This funding coincides with the Foundation’s commitment to invest $16 billion in advancing scientific research by 2032. It also underscores the project’s alignment with global efforts to foster sustainable futures, particularly amidst the pressing climate and energy crisis.

“Our work in energy and environmental justice opens fresh avenues for collaboration among community partners, stakeholders, and researchers,” Chen said. “Together, we delve into the multifaceted and interdisciplinary realms encompassing physical infrastructures, social structures, justice, and socio-psychological aspects.”

The impetus for this research stems from the disproportionate impact of climate change, air pollution, and energy issues on communities of color and low-income groups. A striking example was the summer of 2023, when nearly 60% of the US population endured a heat advisory, exposing millions to triple-digit heat indices.

These extreme weather conditions exacerbate existing environmental disparities, including inadequate housing, poor ventilation, and increased exposure to air and water pollution, predominantly affecting marginalized communities. To combat these challenges, the project zeroes in on sustainable interventions like microgrid implementation, aiming to diminish the effects of climate change, promote energy equity, and bolster physical and mental well-being.

“The acute energy poverty is in the Southeastern US, where over a quarter of households struggle to pay utility bills,” Chen said. “The project’s approach integrates social science methodologies, engineering and climate science research, and community co-design strategies, forming a comprehensive response to the adverse effects of extreme weather and natural disasters. This project emphasizes the link between climate and energy impacts on mental health.”

Focusing on both local (e.g., Knox County) and regional (e.g., East Tennessee Appalachia) levels, the project seeks to understand the compound impacts of climate change, energy poverty, indoor environmental quality in housing, and the social determinants of health on diverse populations, including people of color, renters, low-income individuals, and those with disabilities.

Proposed solutions include weatherization coupled with electrification and microgrid technology, targeting the root causes of energy inequity. This project is a testament to the power of interdisciplinary collaboration, bringing together a diverse array of researchers and community partners from sociology, public and environmental health, electrical and industrial engineering, and energy policy.

Team members include Mingzhou Jin (ISSE ), Leon Tolbert (Electrical Engineering and Computer Science), Gary Adamkiewicz (Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health), Bruce Tonn (Three Cubed, a non-profit organization), and Kristina Kintziger (University of Nebraska Medical Center).

The team’s mission is to craft a clean energy plan that not only respects and incorporates local community insights but also possesses the potential for national replication. It stands as a beacon of hope and a model for how interdisciplinary research can bridge the gap between science and societal needs, leading the way towards a more equitable and sustainable future for all.

“We are committed to fostering leadership and cultivating community networks across the Southeast to address climate change, enhance resilience, and tackle social inequalities effectively,” Chen said.


Melissa Callahan ([email protected])

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