Renewable Energy Seen through the Lens of Social Science

Benjamin K. Sovacool of North Canton, Ohio, a Ph.D. student in science and technology studies at Virginia Tech, has been named a Eugene P. Wigner Fellow at Oak Ridge National Laboratory for his research based on how to introduce more renewable energy systems and other small-scale electric systems into society. He was one of more than 50 candidates from across the nation to apply and is the first social scientist to have been awarded the fellowship.

Sovacool, who just defended his doctoral dissertation on April 17 on “The Power Production Paradox: Reflecting on the Socio-technical Impediments to Distributed Generation Technologies,” will graduate in May. “The title is fancy, but the project is relatively simple,” Sovacool said. “Distributed generation, or DG technologies, refers to small, decentralized power generators that make electricity close to the point of consumption. They include renewable energy resources like wind turbines and photovoltaic (solar) panels, but also small non-renewable resources like fuel cells, micro-turbines, and reciprocating engines.” Sovacool’s dissertation questions: “If DG/renewable energy systems have been around since the 1970s and have such potential benefits as less environmental impact, widely available fuel, and better thermal efficiency, then why aren’t they used more?” In response, Sovacool says, “It turns out that a host of social and technical factors, rather than only technical issues, prevent the use of DG/renewable technologies. These socio-technical impediments include things like utility preferences, business practices, and consumer attitudes.” For example, Sovacool said that he learned that business practices have not been established to push most companies to either invest in or use more renewable technologies. “In addition, consumers continue to view electric power systems as mundane and unimportant — unless they are to be opposed for aesthetic or environmental reasons.” Sovacool received a rare $12,000 Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to do his research, which enabled him to conduct 62 interviews at electric utilities, regulatory agencies, interest groups, energy systems manufacturers, nonprofit organizations, energy consulting firms, universities, national laboratories, and state institutions. He interviewed the Assistant Secretary of Energy, three executive vice presidents of large utility companies, two directors of national laboratories, “and a host of other influential energy experts.” Sovacool traveled to Burlington, Vermont, Albany, New York, Washington, DC, Los Angeles, San Francisco, and Chicago. “Understanding the impediments to DG/renewable energy systems is essential if our country is to transition to a more sustainable energy future,” Sovacool said. “If the obstacles are socio-technical rather than only technical, the government needs to do more than just aim subsidies and tax credits at singularly technical issues, such as capacity factors and capital costs. The United States is set to phase out a number of its hydroelectric and nuclear generators in the next two to three decades. This means that policymakers will have to rely on other sources of power – such as DG/renewables — to provide power to customers.” Sovacool said his research is important to anyone concerned about the environment, rising electricity costs, or keeping the power on – which is why he also received support from the Virginia Center for Coal and Energy Research at Virginia Tech and was an Oak Ridge Center for Advanced Studies 2005 Summer Graduate Fellow.
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