Skip to main content Skip to secondary navigation
Main content start

New research consortium seeks to help optimize future grid

With the support of the U.S. Department of Energy, a Stanford-led consortium of 22 research institutions seeks to help communities balance top priorities for a decarbonized grid.

Electric utilities, regulators, policymakers, and regional grid operators need – but do not have – the ability to balance multiple objectives for a decarbonized U.S. electric grid.

The federal government has set a goal of eliminating carbon dioxide emissions from the electric grid by 2035 while making sure that the impacts and benefits of clean power are distributed equitably. Achieving that goal will require a better understanding at the local level of how decisions affect energy affordability, grid resilience and reliability, and energy’s other environmental impacts, like local air quality and water supplies.

A new research coalition of universities, national laboratories, and non-government organizations led by Inês Azevedo, associate professor of energy science and engineering at the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability, aims to provide just that. The three-year, approximately $23-million research project “Equitable, Affordable & Resilient Nationwide Energy System Transition,” or EARNEST, will be primarily funded by the U.S. Department of Energy.

We must consider that there may be different impacts across communities and ensure the benefits or burdens are not overwhelmingly falling on one group.

Inês Azevedo Associate professor of energy science and engineering



Project launch

The U.S. Department of Energy’s Kevin Lynn speaking at the Jan. 30, 2024 EARNEST launch event. (Image credit: Jim Gensheimer)

A recent public meeting that celebrated EARNEST’s launch focused on learning about community, regulators, and industry concerns. This focus was well warranted, said Kevin Lynn, director of the DOE’s Grid Modernization, Energy Efficiency & Renewable Energy Office.

“EARNEST is an interdisciplinary, solutions-oriented effort to help communities plan for a clean energy future,” said Lynn, one of two DOE program managers for the research project. “It's really exciting to have such a strong team led by Stanford University helping communities in this way.”

The project incorporates some 65 senior researchers, plus a larger number of graduate students and postdoctoral scholars. The senior researchers have a wide range of relevant expertise, including environmental justice, energy equity, climate resilience, hazard risk management, regulatory policy and economics, electric power system modeling, and energy system modeling.

Prof. Inês Azevedo is EARNEST’s lead principal investigator. (Image credit: Jim Gensheimer)

“We see technical and economically viable solutions emerging, such as electrifying vehicles, increasing the share of renewables and storage, electrifying heating services,” said Azevedo, the project’s lead principal investigator. “We must consider that there may be different impacts across communities and ensure the benefits or burdens are not overwhelmingly falling on one group. That’s the challenge EARNEST aims to address.”

“In the energy transition a lot of work needs to be done, and it's really one of those examples where we'll need to bring everyone together to enable a successful transition,” Azevedo said at the Jan. 30 launch event. “The work still lies ahead. We're just getting started.”


The equitable part of the project focuses on two areas of fairness, which are often combined in phrases like “a just transition” and “energy justice.” The first area – environmental justice – in energy is about ending  past and current outcomes in which communities with less political power disproportionately suffer from the energy system’s negative effects. Such outcomes range from pollution near fossil fuel-fired power plants to more frequent electricity outages. Energy equity is about making sure that historically disadvantaged populations gain access to the benefits of a clean energy economy, from solar power and electric vehicles to the new jobs created by the energy transition.

“Weather extremes are going on and that's only going to get aggravated” due to climate change, said Arun Majumdar, dean of the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability and one of the senior researchers on the EARNEST project.

When the grid goes down, “you can bet that the underserved communities, the low-income communities will be affected more than the other, higher income communities,” said Majumdar, professor of mechanical engineering, of energy science and engineering, and of photon science at Stanford. “We saw that happen in Texas (in 2021) and how decisions were made about the load shedding.”

California Energy Justice Alliance’s Mari Rose Taruc said that historically marginalized communities have successfully insisted on participating in energy and climate policymaking in California. (Image credit: Jim Gensheimer)

Communities of color and low-income communities are growing their power to participate in the development of energy and climate policy in California, said Mari Rose Taruc, energy justice director for the California Environmental Justice Alliance, which represents dozens of environmental justice organizations.

Major goals of the EARNEST project include creating decision tools with the input of disadvantaged communities, Azevedo said, to incorporate environmental justice, distributional considerations, and public preference in the deployment of a decarbonized electricity system.


For electricity systems, resilience is about hardening the grid against hazards like hurricanes or cyberattacks, and being equipped to recover quickly when such events knock out power over a wide area. “How many utilities have a real black start capability to bring up their cyber systems if they've been compromised? When you do have a major cyber incident, recovering can really be painful if you don't have the practice and the tools for that,” said Jeff Dagle, chief electrical engineer at Pacific Northwest National Laboratory and one of EARNEST’s senior researchers.

The Pacific Northwest National Laboratory’s Jeff Dagle, (left), discussed expected contributions from EARNEST with other members of the project’s team: MIT’s Priya Donti, Iowa State University’s James McCalley, and Stanford’s Ram Rajagopal. (Image credit: Jim Gensheimer)

Reliability is about simply avoiding blackouts, whether due to insufficient power supplies to meet demand or a windstorm taking out power to an entire neighborhood. This is important for cultivating broad public support for decarbonizing the grid, Dagle said.

What the consortium will do

For equity, affordability, and equity, the researchers will first seek to characterize the U.S. grid in terms of emissions, environmental impacts, resilience, and equity metrics. Following that, they will develop, test, and share data, models, and tools that will support local and regional grid decision-makers.

Liang Min, EARNEST's senior manager, speaking at the Jan. 30 launch event.

“Sometimes we must prioritize some goals – like decarbonization, resilience, affordability – at the expense of others. EARNEST will provide decision-making tools that allow communities to identify the implications of different solutions across these different aspects,” said Stanford staff member Liang Min, who is the project’s senior manager and managing director of the Bits & Watts Initiative at Stanford’s Precourt Institute for Energy.

Researchers will eventually test the data and software they develop in eight specific situations, which they selected to capture a wide range of concerns regarding the grid, to represent different geographies, and to include a variety of stakeholders. For example, one of these eight case studies will help inform stakeholders about the implications of offshore wind integrations in California, while another is considering the best decarbonization solutions for communities in Alaska.

“The future of the U.S. grid will need to consider the interconnections and interactions with our neighboring countries, so EARNEST also must account for future electricity flows with transitioning systems in Canada and Mexico,” said Min.

Inês Azevedo is also co-director of the Precourt Institute’s Bits & Watts Initiative, of which Liang Min is managing director. Arun Majumdar is also a senior fellow at Stanford’s Precourt Institute, and Hoover Institution. The Precourt Institute is part of the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability.

Stanford researchers contributing to the EARNEST research project not already mentioned are Adam Brandt, Jacques de Chalendar, Noah Diffenbaugh, Sibyl Diver, Holmes Hummel, Michael Mastrandrea, Meagan Mauter, Ram Rajagopal, and Michael Wara.

Media Contacts

Mark Golden

Precourt Institute for Energy

Explore More