A man sitting on a roof behind of solar panels.
Damian Pitt, Ph.D., seeks to incorporate equity into energy planning frameworks to address existing resource disparities in underserved communities. (David Slipher, L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs)

Blending equity and sustainability, Damian Pitt shapes the future of energy policy

Wilder School professor and a leader in VCU’s Institute for Sustainable Energy and Environment connects students to the challenges of powering the future.

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With an eye on environmental ethics, student development and data-driven policy, Damian Pitt, Ph.D., is committed to transforming the future of renewable power and energy efficiency.

Pitt is an associate professor of urban planning in the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University, and he serves as associate director of policy and community engagement for the Institute for Sustainable Energy and Environment. He is connecting an interdisciplinary research hub for sustainability across VCU, Richmond and Virginia.

Unifying equity and energy

One of Pitt’s goals is to use an equity-based lens for energy planning, both to address long-standing resource disparities in underserved communities and to examine environmental initiatives and impacts. He also is working to increase opportunities for underrepresented groups in the renewable and sustainability planning fields, which have traditionally lacked diversity.

Pitt noted that expanding renewable energy in Virginia and nationwide could create thousands of jobs and billions of dollars in economic impact. He sees an opportunity to “democratize” the future of energy.

“There’s a huge body of research that demonstrates the history of environmental racism,” Pitt said. “Environmental disasters and pollution have created poor conditions that disproportionately impact marginalized, low-income, and Black and brown communities.”

In his role at the ISEE, Pitt uses his extensive professional network — including many Wilder School graduates — to connect researchers from diverse backgrounds and help secure funding to facilitate interdisciplinary studies and policy recommendations across Virginia.

One such project includes Meghan Gough, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Wilder School, who is working with faculty at VCU’s Center for Environmental Studies and the Department of Sociology in the College of Humanities and Sciences. The project investigates how participation in urban agriculture offers benefits beyond food production, such as improved community connection, well-being, mentorship and entrepreneurial opportunities.

Connecting students and communities

Pitt’s connections also help Wilder School students secure consulting projects with policymakers, nonprofits, community groups and private businesses. This includes “Professional Plan” projects for students pursuing their master’s degree in urban and regional planning; they spend their second year developing and implementing these projects and providing recommendations.

“I’ll pitch [clients] on a project on behalf of a student and help to craft a scope of work that's appropriate for a professional plan and help guide the student through that project,” Pitt said. “I have these contacts with policymakers, and I am always looking for opportunities to engage in research or develop student projects.”

His students receive specialized training to help conduct GIS research, short for geographic information systems. As an example, he has used mapping technology to identify solar capacity in Richmond. By mapping rooftops of the city, Pitt created models to show how much energy can be generated through rooftop solar. Such projects help students develop skills in research methods and literature review, summarize findings and even serve as co-authors on original research publications.

In addition to undergraduate and graduate urban studies programs, the Wilder School offers certificate programs in GIS, sustainability planning and urban revitalization for students continuing their professional development.

Most graduate students emerge from Wilder School programs with employment after graduation — and sometimes sooner, according to Pitt.

“Our problem in the master of urban and regional planning program is that students often get a job [before graduation] and sometimes don't graduate because there's such a high demand in our field,” he said. “Students are getting full-time planning job offers while they're still in graduate school.”

Impacting the future of energy policy

Pitt’s goal, through research and building community networks, is to use data to inform more effective policies. He is working to help Virginia remain a national model for sustainability leadership, but he recognizes that lawmakers often disagree about what it takes to transition to a clean energy economy.

The Virginia Clean Economy Act has pledged that the state will have a carbon-neutral electricity supply by 2045-2050. Virginia has also passed legislation to follow California’s vehicle efficiency standards, which by 2035 will require all new automobiles sold to be 100% electric. Virginia is also a member of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative and is developing the 2.6-gigawatt Coastal Virginia Offshore Wind project off the coast of Virginia Beach.

Focusing on economic impact is a key of Pitt’s strategy to inform sustainable planning.

He recently published a study, “Investing in Virginia through Energy Efficiency: An Analysis of the Impacts of RGGI and the HIEE Program.” In the study, funded by The Nature Conservancy, Pitt’s team modeled the impacts of the energy efficiency revenue that would be generated if Virginia stays in the RGGI through 2030. The report concluded that funding energy efficiency improvements to more than 100,000 low-income homes will result in about $70 million to $90 million in customer utility savings per year, at an average of $676 per year per household. The report also includes mapping that demonstrates how severe energy burdens among low-income populations are particularly concerning in the state's rural areas.

Another recent report from Pitt and his team addresses “Estimating the Economic Impacts of Shared Solar in Virginia.” It includes an overview of how Virginia's shared solar policies compare with those in other states, and it models the potential economic benefits of expanding shared solar capacity in Virginia. The team, which included Wilder School alum Gilbert Michaud, Ph.D., an assistant professor of environmental policy at Loyola University Chicago, found that increasing capacity to 2,000 megawatts would generate $5.6 billion in lifetime economic benefits for the state, including $26 million in annual labor income for Virginia workers.

Reflecting on this work, Pitt said a common thread is to position VCU as a leader in supporting Virginia’s transition to sustainable cities and a clean energy economy.

“The best path forward for Virginia is to continue the transition to clean and renewable energy, including energy efficiency, which will stimulate our economy, mitigate against the future impacts of climate change and help address the inequities of energy burden and environmental injustice,” Pitt said. “VCU can play a big part in supporting this transition through our curriculum, community outreach, and scholarly and applied research, all while providing educational and professional development opportunities for our students.”