International Studies & Programs


CLACS Core Faculty Win $3.2 million NSF Convergence Grant for Innovative Project in Brazil

The project has the potential to provide environmentally and socially sustainable sources of electricity for hundreds of millions of people in off-grid communities across the world.

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Published: Monday, 14 Dec 2020 Author: CLACS

The five-year project brings together an interdisciplinary team to work with off-grid communities in the Brazilian Amazon to adapt new technologies that respond to their needs, including an in-stream turbine developed at Michigan State University. Hannah Distinguished Professor Emilio Moran (Geography) leads the team, which includes Norbert Mueller (Mechanical Engineering), Maria Claudia Lopez (Community Sustainability), Aaron McCright (Sociology), Rachel Mourao and Judy Walgren (both from Journalism). The grant will also support four graduate students and two postdocs.  

Brazilian from and off-grid community
Brazilian from an off-grid community. Photo: Laura Castro-Diaz 

Recognizing that the urgent challenges we confront cannot be solved by one discipline alone, the National Science Foundation has prioritized “convergence research,” which involves deep integration of ideas, approaches and technologies from widely diverse fields of knowledge to stimulate the creative thinking needed to address complex problems. The challenge of supplying cheap, reliable energy to off-grid communities is one such problem: 680 million people around the world are unable to access electricity from their national systems, because it is expensive to run transmission lines to remote areas. The most common source of electricity for these communities is a diesel generator. “That’s not only expensive to run, but it’s also very polluting,” Moran explains. “It’s the most inefficient possible way of generating electricity.” 


Photo: Laura Castro-Diaz 
Damn in Brazil. Photo: Laura Castro-Diaz

Moran, Mueller, and Lopez collaborated on a previous NSF-funded project that identified negative environmental and social effects of large hydroelectric dams and developed new technologies to mitigate these negative effects. The team developed in-stream turbines that are more ecologically and socially sustainable: they don’t displace river communities or damage fisheries upon which these communities depend; nor do they impede the flow of sediments that keep soils fertile. However, the researchers discovered that river communities in the Amazon held negative views of hydropower and did not want to adopt these innovations. 

In response, the researchers began to conceptualize a new project to understand communities’ concerns and priorities and empower communities to choose the energy sources that best meet their needs. At this point, Lopez met Rachel Mourao at a CLACS event focused on facilitating interdisciplinary research. Integrating Mourao into the brainstorming process opened new possibilities for innovation. Originally from the Brazilian Amazon, Mourao has a deep understanding of the context for this project. Her journalism training enabled her to think creatively about the challenges and opportunities involved in communicating with the communities at the center of this project. 

The new project will map how people in the Amazon get information about energy-generation technologies and form opinions about them. Once the MSU team understands community members’ perspectives, they will collaborate with them to develop a socially acceptable solution for each community, which may involve modifying new technologies to better meet community needs. Although engineers typically aim to maximize the efficiency of energy-generation technologies, this project will explicitly address trade-offs between efficiency and environmental and social sustainability.

Fishing community in the Brazilian Amazon. Photo: Laura Castro-Diaz 
Fishing community in the Brazilian Amazon. Photo: Laura Castro-Diaz

Beyond this problem solving work, the project will also document the process of “convergence.” Judy Walgren, Pulitzer Prize-winning Faculty of Practice in Journalism, will film these interactions to document how the team and local stakeholders interact to develop and adapt innovative technologies for social acceptability. Walgren’s multimedia stories will demonstrate how members of the MSU team work to achieve “deep integration” across disciplines and how they navigate the challenges of community engaged research   

These digital stories will serve as teaching tools for other teams pursuing interdisciplinary work or seeking to engage communities in collaborative planning. This will also make it possible to replicate the process in other countries to address the needs for environmentally and socially sustainable energy sources for millions of people.

Sunset view in the Brazilian Amazon. Photo: Laura Castro-Diaz
Sunset view in the Brazilian Amazon. Photo: Laura Castro-Diaz

​​​The innovative possibilities offered by Journalism faculty expanded the project’s impact, making the MSU team’s proposal stand out from others in the NSF review process, Moran suggests. “What is really new here is the integration of journalism with engineering and the social sciences,” he explains. The NSF itself will use MSU’s innovative digital stories to communicate to the public the impact of the scientific research it funds.

For more technical details about the project, read the article MSU Interdisciplinary Team Secures $3.2M National Science Foundation Convergence Grant to Empower Off-grid Communities and the podcast MSU Scholar Emilio Moran and His Colleagues Are “Rethinking Hydropower”