by Moninisha Yadav
Since 2012, the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center (MassCEC) has awarded $7.2 million to 138 new clean technology enterprises and research teams. In late August of 2021, the MassCEC, MassVentures and the InnovateMass program launched a $2.6 million grant package with their Catalyst and Diversity in Cleantech – Early Stages (DICES) programs to support clean energy innovation, specifically from women or minority-owned startups. The programs aim to ensure that early-stage ventures have the necessary resources to advance critical technologies toward sustainable, marketable products. Among the projects that will benefit from this round of grants are an automated solar panel cleaning product, which will increase the output of solar panels; an electric vehicle battery with a high energy density, fast charging rate, and long lifecycle; and a wave energy stabilizer for floating offshore wind turbine substructures.
The term “sustainability” is frequently associated with the concept of going green. Low-carbon, organic, recyclable, and energy efficient are examples of green terminology that people are likely to pair with sustainability. All of these outcomes are desirable, but they are not truly sustainable if people are left behind economically. True sustainability entails more than simply going green. Without specific programs, it is difficult for some people, especially those part of marginalized and low income communities, to pursue jobs in renewable energy, or to experience its benefits. As part of a state with a growing number of clean energy projects and start-ups, the MassCEC is committed to diversity, equity, and inclusion. Similar to the recent funding in July provided by the MassCEC to offshore wind workforce training for people of color (POC) and low-income people, the DICES program also aims to focus on an inclusive workforce while supporting the rapidly growing clean energy industry.
The clean energy sector has historically seen less diversity than the average industry across U.S. workforces. The lack of female and POC voices has led to severe underrepresentation and missed opportunities in job and economic growth during the expansion of clean energy developments. In total, they combine to make up less than half of the clean energy workforce, with 2019 reports showing that 78% of employees were white, and 86% were male. Additionally, low-income and communities of color face a disproportionately higher impact of climate change, and often face more pollution, higher rates of respiratory illness, and have limited access to the products and benefits of clean energy. A study spanning a timeline of two decades (1987-2007) found that more than half of the people who live within 1.86 miles of toxic waste facilities in the United States are people of color.
With program applications open until October 4, entrepreneurs from all over the Commonwealth could apply to receive funding for their clean technology projects. The DICES program also provides business mentoring opportunities, as a requirement for all awardees is to include commercialization in their final goal. On average, 1 out of 4 awardees has seen commercial success and started their own business. Not only can this lend its hand to the growth of sustainable energy fields, but with said growth comes the chance for more career opportunities and greater outcomes for those affected by environmental challenges. By the time the selection process reaches its final round, seven will be chosen to receive funding.
“Starting these [experiments and young companies] is really like a lottery, and with these programs, you get to hold a lot of tickets.” remarkeds Derek Stein, former professor of physics at Brown University and founder of Techstyle Materials in 2018. Techstyle materials was formed in 2018 as not much more than an idea, with the goal of developing construction materials for more durable and energy efficient buildings without steeply increasing costs for people. In 2019, they were awarded a $65,000 grant from MassCEC’s DICES program, then known as the Catalyst fund. The win allowed the company to move forward in its process of developing its new material, granting them better access to staff, space and tools to see their idea become reality. Today, Techstyle’s continues to work toward bringing versatile weatherization to the construction industry, addressing an ever-present disparity in low-income housing. “If you’re in [low cost] housing, and the owner doesn’t want to invest in weatherization, they’re transferring costs onto tenants by way of utilities and health complications,” explained Stein.
Massachusetts is a leader in the United States when it comes to adopting sustainable energy, and funding programs like DICES give its participants a real leg-up in the growing field. The MassCEC itself is a well known economic development agency in the area for its job creation, investments in training programs, and financing early stage companies. The opportunity creates a clearer path for people trying to play a more active role in their own futures, and pushes us toward a more stable environment, especially for those who see the immediate impacts. “Increasingly, these programs are trying to embed diversity within them,” noted Stein. “By getting on [the DICES program] you’re on the moving walkway that’s taking you in the direction of making it real.”
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