Household Sustainability: Consuming Food, Energy, Water

By Stefanie Sidortsova


Where food, energy, and water challenges come together, so do engineers, sociologists, and computer scientists.

Changing people’s behavior may be the hardest part of mitigating climate change. But a research team led by Michigan Technological University wants to find a way to do just that.

As part of a new program called Innovations at the Nexus of Food, Energy and Water Systems, the National Science Foundation (NSF) is awarding the team nearly $3 million over five years. Their research focuses on how household consumption of food, energy and water (FEW) impacts climate change and resource scarcity.

 “Our focus is on targeted conservation,” says David Watkins, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Michigan Tech and a lead researcher on the grant. “We’re trying to understand what types of consumption have the biggest impacts.”

The project has three phases, the first two of which will determine how households are currently consuming food, energy and water, and what changes householders would most likely make when provided with specific information about FEW consumption impacts. Based on the results, the last phase will focus on two case-study communities that implement experimental changes in their daily FEW consumption habits.

To monitor the impacts of these changes, Charles Wallace, associate professor of computer science at Michigan Tech, is developing a user-friendly software system, currently referred to as the Household Metabolism Tracker. This tool will track consumption levels and link to an impact database, providing feedback to household residents on the rather complex impacts of their resource use.

“If we’re aiming to change consumption,” says Chelsea Schelly, assistant professor of sociology at Michigan Tech and another researcher on the grant, “then it’s not enough to look at, for instance, energy by itself, because energy systems affect food and water systems. We need look at the places where the three intersect.”

Watkins’ research team also includes: systems engineer Datu Buyung Agusdinata at Arizona State University; climate scientists Jenni-Louise Evans and Jose Fuentes at Penn State University; sociologists Rachael Shwom and Cara Cuite at Rutgers University; biosystems engineer Tim Smith and energy policy analyst Elizabeth Wilson at the University of Minnesota; and research scientists Kristin Floress and Bob Haight at the Northern Research Station of the USDA Forest Service. 

Michigan Tech’s Sustainable Futures Institute will also play a role, crunching the data in the FEW life cycle assessment models that will serve as the study’s basis.  Other researchers at Michigan Tech include Kathy Halvorsen who has a dual appointment in social science and environmental science, Robert Handler from the Sustainable Futures Institute, and Daisuke Minakata in civil and environmental engineering.

Michigan Technological University is a public research university founded in 1885 in Houghton, Michigan, and is home to more than 7,000 students from 55 countries around the world. Consistently ranked among the best universities in the country for return on investment, Michigan’s flagship technological university offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, computing, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, social sciences, and the arts. The rural campus is situated just miles from Lake Superior in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, offering year-round opportunities for outdoor adventure.

Last Modified 1:29 PM, May 24, 2023