Q&A With Eric Lockhart: Centering Community Needs Within Clean Energy Solutions

Dec. 2, 2021

Eric Lockhart

Eric Lockhart leads the Integrated Decision Support (IDS) group at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), in addition to being the principal investigator for the Solar Energy Innovation Network (SEIN), which is a project focused on novel applications of solar and storage in domestic settings.

Lockhart sat down to discuss the launch of SEIN's third round and offer his insights into the importance of adapting energy solutions for all varieties of customers and communities. This conversation has been edited for length.

Were there any formative experiences that inspired your career path?

My mom worked at an organization called the Women's Refugee Commission (WRC). The WRC would bring refugee youth, some former child soldiers, to New York City for meetings with the U.N. and donors. To break up shuttling from office to office, my mom would introduce me to them, and we'd hang out and go around the city. Over the years I met incredible people from all over the world. It gave me a perspective I was lucky to get at that age and taught me there are many different lived experiences. That cemented early on that I wanted to do social or environmentally focused work.

Another formative experience was seeing my father run one of very few Black-owned advertising agencies in New York, which he founded in the 1970s. Advertising in the mid-70s was not an easy place for a Black man to get a job, so he struck out on his own. He ended up with clients such as Wendy's and Chrysler and ran the business for nearly 20 years. Witnessing that, as well as tutoring and mentoring young people in underserved communities, crystallized in my mind that there are people out there, untapped potential, that we must make sure have an opportunity to contribute their talents.

You recently took over as manager for the IDS group. What do you find most compelling about the work IDS researchers are involved in?

What is interesting is the common thread of direct collaboration with partners to solve energy transition problems. From the national scale to the neighborhood scale, our focus is typically based on a partner's particular needs and context. I'm excited to help this group bring the excellent work done across the lab into the communities and countries we work with.

The concept of applying broad solutions to specific challenges is a great lead into your involvement with SEIN. This third round's focus is on efforts to overcome barriers to equitable adoption of solar in underserved communities. How was that topic selected?

For each round, there is always a conversation about where the Innovation Network model might be most useful in growing solar adoption at speed and scale. Last year, we started talking about how its approach may be a good fit for reaching underserved communities. We saw that the three pillars of the SEIN's support—direct funding, technical assistance, and stakeholder facilitation—could be especially impactful for the organizations and communities we would be collaborating with.

We wanted to investigate how the benefits of solar would align with a community's needs and preferences, so we are focusing specifically on solar sited within underserved communities. That way, it’s easier to directly draw the through line from underserved community needs to solar benefits.

Through NREL's partnership with the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), you worked on microgrid deployment in Sub-Saharan Africa. Are there lessons from that work that were helpful when designing this third round of SEIN?

The structure of that effort is analogous to SEIN in that we worked with developers to understand what challenges were facing them on the ground and with national governments to understand their objectives. We had to appreciate that microgrids for energy access would only take off if its solutions were responsive to how people wanted to have power in their communities, otherwise developers won't be successful and national policies would falter.

Many of the barriers to adoption are similar, such as lack of trust and cost. There's been a lot of discussion and data pointing to trust barriers in communities who have legitimate concern about the extent to which folks coming in and offering something new have their best interests in mind. One of the outcomes from this third round of SEIN will be to better understand what those trust barriers are, pathways to earning a community's trust, and explore to what extent cost barriers are exacerbated for these underserved communities.

More broadly, what do you see as a major area for improvement when it comes to building a more inclusive energy system?

We are at an inflection point in the energy transition where we are looking at how we get to 100% renewable energy or to net-zero. To achieve that, we are starting to see how it will require expanded ways of thinking about who our customer is. It's a challenge and an opportunity, but we have a long way to go when it comes to understanding the remainder of our society that we need to reach in the clean energy transition.

Where do you imagine NREL's role is in this transition?

As we look further on the horizon and identify how to expand into different markets, adapting existing innovation and applying new and creative thought is going to be necessary as we work with not just the underserved communities, but communities across the U.S. we haven't had an opportunity to serve yet. The scope for pushing the cutting-edge is massive, and that's a great place for NREL to be operating.

Expanding into new communities will also relay back to NREL's efforts at home, as an institution working to continually recruit diverse perspectives into the lab. More people will know about NREL, more kids will have their parents involved and can grow up seeing and imagining themselves in clean energy spaces. It will hopefully create a positive feedback loop.

Circling this back to SEIN, on a personal level, what are you most excited about with this next round?

I'm eager for SEIN to be a mechanism for understanding barriers to solar in these underserved communities across the U.S. But what we'll run into will have relevance for everything NREL works on. There's a wide-open landscape of research and analysis questions in there to pair with a much better understanding of what communities need from the clean energy transition.