As Maddy Kroot drove through small towns on her way to hike in the White Mountains of New Hampshire around 2016, the bright-orange signs dotting the landscape stood out amid the pine trees and snow: “Stop Northern Pass.” The undergraduate student in geography at Dartmouth College was intrigued: What was the story behind the signs?
That story — a successful, people-powered protest that led to the eventual defeat in 2019 of Eversource’s planned $1.6 billion project to build a 192-mile transmission line through the Granite State, bringing hydropower from Canada to southern New England — became the basis of Kroot’s senior thesis. It also led her to apply to Clark University’s Graduate School of Geography (GSG), where she has continued her research, comparing the public response to three separate hydroelectric transmission projects in Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine.
Kroot wanted to study with James McCarthy, professor of geography, Leo L. and Joan Kraft Laskoff Professor of Economics, Technology and Environment, and director of GSG. Through her research and discussions with undergraduate professors at Dartmouth College — including Clark trustee and alum Mona Domosh ’79, M.A. ’83, Ph.D. ’85, the Joan P. and Edward J. Foley Jr. Professor of Geography — she learned about McCarthy’s focus on the emerging field of “renewable energy geographies.”
Kroot had first encountered McCarthy’s research when she read his 2002 Environment and Planning A: Economy and Space article, “First World Political Ecology: Lessons from the Wise Use Movement.” In it, McCarthy argues that the tools and insights of political ecology — the study of economic and power dynamics around environmental change — could be used to better understand resource conflicts like those that occurred in the U.S. West during the 1980s and ’90s when property rights advocates supported development of federal lands.
“I realized I didn’t need to go across the world to learn about these issues,” Kroot recalls. “I could do it right here, where I was living.”
McCarthy is now her doctoral advisor — and Kroot is one of a growing number of doctoral students over the past decade who have come to Clark to pursue research into renewable energies. Kroot’s dissertation work is grounded in the “first-world political ecology” described in McCarthy’s 2002 article. (Read about three doctoral research projects on renewable energies.)
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As part of a growing focus on renewable energy research in the Graduate School of Geography, McCarthy launched a new graduate course, Energy Geographies, and Professor Christopher Williams teaches an undergraduate course, Getting to Zero: Clean Energy for a Climate-Safe Future. Meanwhile, Professor John Rogan and a team of students have conducted research on how forests in Massachusetts and Rhode Island are being impacted by solar farm development.
Fortuitously, McCarthy moved from Penn State to Clark in 2011, around the time that interest in renewable energy — and the research surrounding it — started taking off. He is still guided by the belief — and the science — “that a shift to an energy supply powered primarily, or entirely, by renewable forces is physically possible,” he says. “There is an enormous amount of energy in sunlight, in wind, and in heat from the earth.”
While doing some work with Oxfam America, he began exploring renewable energy as part his research into “major challenges in the domain of sustainability and social justice,” he recalls.
“How do you reconcile the facts that, on the one hand, we as a species desperately need to stop using fossil fuels, and on the other, there are many millions of people in the world who don’t have enough energy for lights or cooking?” he asks. “That implies the need for a lot more energy.”
According to the U.N. Sustainable Goals Report for 2022, 733 million people worldwide still lack electricity for cooking, 4 billion people still use inefficient and polluting cooking systems, and the pace of electrification has slowed. Meanwhile, the share of renewables in total energy consumption has risen to 17.7 percent, but that’s still not enough to keep pace with demand and energy-efficiency targets.
“For any of this to make a difference for climate change, it’s imperative that we don’t just add a lot of renewable energy — we have to rapidly wind down the use of fossil fuels at the same time,” McCarthy points out. “What’s happening right now is that we’re using as many or more fossil fuels as we were before, and we’re just adding renewables on top of that.”
With the expansion of renewable energies, questions of equity continue to arise. Even as marginalized communities lack electricity, many impoverished, rural, often indigenous people are being displaced by huge renewable energy projects driven by national governments and global corporations, according to McCarthy.
“It’s cheapest to put wind and solar farms where land is cheapest,” he says, “and who loses out in those contests? The people with the least amount of political power or voice.”
In January, McCarthy traveled to the western state of Rajasthan, India, as part of a research project based at the University of Bergen in Norway to study the impact of large solar farms on the people who inhabit the desert lands.
The good news is that, under the Paris Agreement of 2015, India is ambitiously seeking to meet targets for reducing carbon and greenhouse gases, McCarthy says. “The bad news,” he adds, “is that there are people who live, farm, and raise livestock on these lands, and many are being pressured to sell or lease their land against their will — land that has been in their families for centuries.”
Over the past 10 years, solar and wind technologies have expanded precipitously, McCarthy says, “to the point where, in the last couple years, they are actually cheaper than fossil fuels.”
The conundrum is that, while we may seek to expand renewable energies, producing them requires much more land than fossil fuels because the energy from wind and sunlight is more diffuse than traditional sources of energy.
“To substitute for a coal-fired power plant, or so many barrels of oil, or a nuclear power plant, you need to be capturing sunlight or wind 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, over a really substantial area of the earth’s surface,” he says, “and there is not much of the earth’s surface that people aren’t already using and claiming and fighting over, for all kinds of different land uses.”
As the demand for renewable energy grows worldwide, geographers — including students and faculty in the Graduate School of Geography — will have multiple avenues to study.
“When you introduce a huge new land use — this global energy transition — it affects all kinds of geographies,” McCarthy says.
As an example, he explains, “there might be places that are terribly windy, where that was seen as a detriment, and now that’s great. There might be places that are traditionally coal-producing regions, or oil-producing or natural gas-producing regions, that are not so great at producing renewable energy. There are geographies of where the mineral resources for renewable energy technologies come from. All of these shifting geographies of energy production have geopolitical consequences as well. There are questions of how we make buildings more energy efficient, or electrify transportation, all of which have geographical implications.
“Changing energy geographies,” he adds, “are really changing where and how people live on and use and move around the surface of the earth, which is the essence of geography.”