As the world expands the use of renewable energy to decrease fossil fuel emissions, Clark University’s Graduate School of Geography is attracting students interested in researching the impacts on people, communities, and the land.
Over the past decade, several students have worked in the emerging field of “renewable energy geographies” research, advised by James McCarthy, the Leo L. and Joan Kraft Laskoff Professor of Economics, Technology and Environment and director of the Graduate School of Geography.
“James has done a great job of understanding what his doctoral advisees’ interests are and how those can be articulated or related to issues of energy transition,” says William Westgard-Cruice, a fourth-year doctoral student currently working on his dissertation in Germany. (Read about Professor McCarthy’s research.)
Below, meet Westgard-Cruice and two other doctoral students in the Graduate School of Geography — Maddy Kroot and Mara van den Bold — who are focused on the impact of renewable energy projects in the U.S. Northeast, Europe, and Senegal.
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As a geography student at Dartmouth College, Maddy Kroot had a front-row seat to observe what happens when local people feel shut out of the process to develop renewable energy solutions.
For four years, she studied the public backlash against the planned Northern Pass, a 192-mile transmission line through New Hampshire that would have brought Canadian hydroelectric power to New England. The decade-long struggle — which ended in defeat just after she graduated in 2019 — had provided much material for her senior honors thesis, “Trees, Towers, and Energy Transitions: A Political Ecology of the Northern Pass Project.”
“I realized that folks were contesting this power line because they saw that the benefits were going elsewhere — to Massachusetts, to meet its decarbonization goals — whereas the negative impacts were hyper-local,” Kroot recalls. “The project was being framed in terms of global carbon emissions and regional grid updates, but for the communities along the line in New Hampshire, what mattered was not only the potential damage to their property values, but the perceived destruction of their natural heritage and the solidarities they developed with other communities along the line.”
Now a third-year doctoral student, Kroot realizes that she has only started to unpack the complex story of public responses to transmission development in northern New England.
At Clark, her dissertation will compare the defeated Northern Pass plan with a similar proposed high-voltage transmission project in Maine. She will examine how communities have questioned the impacts of transmission lines and contested the processes through which projects are planned and permitted.
In New Hampshire, some activists depicted the fight over the Northern Pass as a a David and Goliath story pitting the people of the White Mountains against two huge, corporate outsiders: Connecticut-based Eversource, which spent $318 million over a decade on the proposal, and Hydro-Québec, the largest energy utility in Canada, which would have provided the hydropower. The media, Kroot says, often painted the opponents as privileged, not-in-my-back-yard (NIMBY) homeowners.
“Instead, there were all these complicated dynamics at play, and fascinating alliances and solidarity movements,” she says. “You had rich towns partnering with the poorest county in the state, Coos County, which in turn was partnering with the First Nations,” the indigenous people of Canada, who “have a long history of fighting Hydro-Québec.”
In her doctoral research, Kroot again is deploying the lens of “political ecology” — the intermingling of political, economic, and social dynamics that arise from environmental change — which she first encountered at Dartmouth when reading a journal article by James McCarthy.
In the emerging field of research on “renewable energy geographies,” Kroot has found a niche.
“There really isn’t a lot written about power lines in the literature,” she says. “A lot of energy geographies is focused on the energy source itself, but not so much how it gets from point A to point B, even though that’s really a central pillar of the Biden administration’s infrastructure plans, and conflict over transmission lines is increasingly slowing or halting decarbonization plans.”
This summer, Kroot will conduct research in Massachusetts, diving deeper, she says, into the “rationales that energy planners give for focusing on interstate transmission to meet the state’s decarbonization goals.”
Overall, her research has been guided by the need to understand: “How do we balance the need for public participation and accountability against the need to decarbonize fast?” she says. “I think that’s so interesting, and it’s going to be the question for the times.”
Before starting the doctoral program at the Graduate School of Geography in 2016, Mara van den Bold spent nine years at the International Food Policy Research Institute. As a senior research analyst, she worked in Washington, D.C., and spent time in Senegal, and Burkina Faso, focused on poverty, health, and nutrition issues.
That work informs her dissertation research on just energy transitions in Senegal, notably how to ensure equity in the development and implementation of renewable energy projects.
“Renewable energy is interesting because it’s an issue that no one is against, but it does have these local-level implications for communities,” she explains. “That kind of tension brought together my interest in climate change, and my interests in land, and control over land.”
Van den Bold is focused on the impact of Parc Eolien Taiba N’Diaye (PETN), an onshore wind project about 55 miles northeast of Dakar, and the largest wind power project in West Africa. Opened in 2020, the nearly 159-megawatt project is expected to increase Senegal’s power capacity by 15 percent and provide energy for 2 million people.
“I’m looking at the reasons why Senegal is moving toward renewable energy, and how it’s doing that, and who’s involved,” she says. “I’m looking at the question of: Does the way in which Senegal is pursuing renewable energy have any adverse implications with regard to justice and equity, specifically for local communities near these big projects?”
Climate change mitigation, she discovered, is not the main motivator in Senegal’s desire to decrease its reliance on fossil fuels. Instead, the country wants to curb its decades-long dependence on oil imports and lower the high prices people pay for electricity.
By 2030, Senegal seeks an energy mix that includes 50 percent domestic natural gas and 30 percent solar and wind power. To become more independent, the country is building out its natural gas infrastructure, and has eight large-scale solar projects in addition to the Taiba N’Diaye wind park.
Over six months in 2019-20, van den Bold interviewed project developers, project managers, and community members around Taiba N’Diaye.
“Community members are not against the idea of renewable energy — they think it’s a positive element — but there has been some displacement,” van den Bold says. “Farmers lost fields to the project. Because most of the land is owned by the state, they don’t have a say in how and whether they can keep ownership.”
In addition, community members “were really hoping that a project like this would generate a fair amount of employment,” she says, but in the end, “it didn’t provide opportunities.”
Inequities also can arise from the terms set by global financing of projects like Taiba N’Diaye, and the private developers who see investment opportunities, she explains.
In a process called onselling, the original investors can sell a project to second buyers. “This means the project becomes further and further removed from the original owners of the company, and from the communities,” van den Bold says. In the case of the Taiba N’Diaye project, “the first owners were very invested in the community, and this new company doesn’t seem like they have been as invested.”
Overall, the country faces a “tricky” situation, she says. “Senegal has this grand vision for becoming an emerging economy by 2030, but it has to do that by increasing equity between urban and rural areas while becoming energy-independent.”
William Westgard-Cruice grew up in Philadelphia, has two degrees from Utrecht University in the Netherlands, and has traveled widely in the United States and abroad, giving him a transnational perspective on his research focus: the global political economy of renewable energy. His work as a labor and environmental activist has shaped his understanding of the economic and political power dynamics at play as countries and multinational corporations scramble to build massive renewable energy projects.
Westgard-Cruice is now focused on researching and writing his dissertation about the industrialization of the offshore wind energy sector in the U.S. Northeast and Europe. He currently is a visiting researcher in the Institute of Geography at the University of Bremen in Germany, and he spent last summer as a visiting research fellow at the City University of New York School of Labor and Urban Studies.
“My particular emphasis is on how the industry is becoming increasingly fragmented across sites and countries,” Westgard-Cruice says.
When wind energy was first developed in Europe, the industry popped up in clusters around Denmark and northern Germany. “Now they are spreading to different countries,” he explains. “Not only are companies building offshore wind farms, but they are producing components for wind energy at more and more sites around the world.”
Companies are standardizing parts and pushing to increase the size and power of wind turbines to meet governments’ renewable energy targets. These parts are then shipped thousands of miles, across oceans, to the sites where they will be used. “There are sustainability problems associated with that,” Westgard-Cruice points out. “The great irony is that components are shipped across the world on container ships that are burning fossil fuels.”
Ultimately, he says, “we have to understand that companies are doing what is most profitable for them; sustainability is secondary. But there can be changes made that are both profitable and sustainable, such as making blades recyclable.”
The offshore wind farms planned for the U.S., Europe, and Asia need workers on an unprecedented scale to make blades and other parts, assemble generators, weld foundations, install turbines and towers, and maintain and operate them.
“These are massive undertakings, and the workforce to build and maintain these projects is not yet in place,” Westgard-Cruice says. “Many of these installation workers exist — they are electricians, ironworkers, pile drivers, carpenters, millwrights — and they already work with wind turbines, but they need specific training to work offshore.”
Unions have played a large role in supporting and organizing training, but governments could do more, he says. Massachusetts, for example, needs to support public educational institutions and establish programs to build workers’ offshore wind skills, he suggests. And states need to follow through on their commitments to foster development of sustainable energy.
“If we’re serious about getting off fossil fuels in Massachusetts and New England, there needs to be considerably more investment in these areas, and there needs to be commitment to projects,” Westgard-Cruice adds. “You don’t want to train a bunch of people, and then the wind farms don’t get built. That leads to cynicism.”