Q&A with Kirby Calvert

Thursday, November 7, 2013 - 4:12pm

Kirby Calvert


"In fact, RE systems have inherent functional and strategic advantages over

incumbent energy systems that strongly recommend widespread adoption,

independent of climate change and fossil resource scarcity."


Kirby Calvert joined the Department of Geography as an assistant professor in August 2013.

Q: How did you initially become interested in energy policy?

A: I became interested in energy policy through my interests in land-use and land-cover change. In my capstone undergraduate course I wrote a paper on the land-use impacts and environmental uncertainties related to ethanol production and consumption in North America. I quickly realized that the shift toward renewable energy (RE) in general, and especially biofuels, was going to play a significant role over the next century in shaping physical and social landscapes.     
     I also realized that as a geographer I had the background knowledge and a set of skills to understand these impacts, and to provide decision-support for future energy planners and policymakers.

Q: What are some commonly held misconceptions about RE?

A: I think the most common misconception is that the only reason for deploying RE technologies is because of climate change and peak oil. In fact, RE systems have inherent functional and strategic advantages over incumbent energy systems that strongly recommend widespread adoption, independent of climate change and fossil resource scarcity. In the near term, RE systems provide useable forms of energy in remote or isolated locations without the need to bear the economic costs and environmental risks of resource transport; offer decentralized and embedded micro-scale electricity generation, which has the benefit of alleviating utility system congestion, reducing infrastructural sprawl, and enabling community ownership in the energy sector; and present opportunities for a more diverse and indigenous fuel mix that has potential to be more resilient than one that relies on a monoculture of foreign resources. In the long term, a transition to RE will place corporations and states at the competitive edge of the most lucrative sector in the global economy. In fact, the RE option must precede the development of a sustainable hydrogen economy, which itself would establish the theoretical and technical scaffolding for the climb to fusion technology.
     The second common misconception is that the shift toward RE can only be positive. In fact it is not. I want to be clear here because I realize that statement can be misinterpreted—I recognize and believe whole heartedly that a transition toward RE is the only possible pathway through which society will achieve sustainability. And I think the quicker we can shift from non-renewables toward renewables, the better. My point is that we need to exercise some caution in how we think about and subsequently develop our renewable resources. Without a thoughtful policy and planning framework, the development of renewable resources can compromise local ecosystem integrity, perpetuate environmental injustices, and contribute to widening socioeconomic disparities. Let’s not make the same mistake as when fossil resources were developed by getting the resources into the system whatever the cost.

Q: What is one of the most interesting/surprising things you have learned through your work to date?

A: The transition toward RE is not a simple shift in the fuel mix—in other words, it is not simply a matter of replacing coal with biomass or natural gas with sunlight. The transition toward RE represents much broader geographical and social changes. Our existing energy system is largely (>80%) based on a set of resources (coal, oil, gas, uranium) that can be tied into global distribution networks. Energy resources from one part of the world can be consumed in another. By contrast, the friction of distance is strong when it comes to RE—it is just not possible to transport the sunshine falling on the Middle East to North America. This apparently simple difference is profound. It means that we need to use our local land and resources in new ways. We need new infrastructure and new engineering practices in order to connect sources of RE with energy users. We need to develop social and technical (or, more accurately, socio-technical) systems that work with, rather than against, the rhythms of the natural world.

Q: Have you seen the billboards that say “Wind Dies, Sun Sets … You need reliable, affordable, clean coal electricity”? What can scientists do to effectively rebut this kind of propaganda?

A: The first part of the statement, in and of itself, is absolutely true. But this is not the point, and I think the best way to rebut this statement is to shift the focus from the wind or the sun toward the technologies that harness the power of those resources, toward human ingenuity. There are ways to implement, organize, and manage energy systems in such a way that the intermittency of those resources is controlled and electricity provision is made reliable in the sense that when you flick your light-switch, it will work.
     The terms “reliable,” “affordable,” and “clean” are also incredibly problematic in the context of coal. We can only consider coal reliable on a relatively short time frame. Is coal a reliable energy resource for future generations?  We can only consider coal affordable if we dismiss the incredible environmental/ecological externalities that are not included in the market price. What would be more or less affordable if we were forced to pay for military support and ecological remediation involved in the provision of fossil energy directly through the market price rather than through the tax base?  And while new technologies are making coal cleaner than in the past, it is indisputable that coal will never be as clean as renewables.  For me, the far more unsettling advertisements are those that read “Affordable coal energy: increasingly green and always red, white, and blue.” Here we see that the production and consumption of coal is tied directly to a national identity—very powerful rhetoric. We are beginning to see similar discursive strategies deployed in Canada, where debates about the development of the oil sands in Alberta are somehow evolving into debates about Canadianness and what it means to be Canadian.We need to continue to challenge the underlying assumptions of these communications strategies in a way that resonates with the public.

Q: What are your future research plans?

A: I have both short and long-term research plans. In the short-term I hope to leverage my Ph.D. work to study some of the challenges faced in Ontario with their roll-out of a feed-in tariff (FIT) program for renewables. With such a critical mass of technology deployment in that province, we have a wealth of data that we can tap into to answer some questions about the geographical implications of and barriers to RE development. One of the big issues is land-use change. The land-energy nexus has been well studied in the context of bioenergy, but less attention has focused on solar PV developments.  We know that these systems are cheaper to build, and economies of scale can be achieved, on agricultural land. And while the Ontario government placed restrictions on the amount of agricultural land that could be re-purposed toward solar PV  production, it will be interesting to know what factors were considered in siting decisions, what land-use changes are occurring, and the scale of those changes under future development scenarios. These are all unanswered questions in a lot of ways—while we’ve modeled some of this stuff there is a serious need for exploratory, empirical research in this area.
     In the long term I hope to develop and implement a RE resource management system that can be used to bring coherence to the scientific assessment and communication of resource potentials, and to develop spatial plans for the integrated development of RE resources.
     This will look something like the system used by the petroleum industry to distinguish resources from reserves and to prioritize their development from a business and policy standpoint.
     My second objective is to understand not only the physical but also the social dynamics that are entangled within the operation of energy systems, and which will be re-configured by policy attempts to facilitate a sustainable energy transition. In order to change our social and technical systems to accommodate and accelerate RE development, we need to understand how those systems work. To date, there has been a woeful lack of integration between those disciplines or theoretical frameworks that are currently providing theoretical insights to these matters—including innovations theory, evolutionary economics, science and technology studies, etc.—and geography, but more particularly contemporary spatial theory and landscape theory. I want to bring these together theoretically to begin to answer questions such as:

  • What social and physical factors are influencing how and why RE technologies are dispersing geographically? 
  • What new social networks and geographic connections are being made, and with what consequence? 
  • In what ways are these technologies being made to adapt to regional/local settings? 
  • Do small regional or local differences matter in explaining the pace, scale, and outcome of energy transitions and if so, which ones are most important? 
  • How are regional and national economies responding to the distortive effects (in, e.g., socio-spatial relations and global value chains) of emerging energy industries? 
  • What are the links between energy transitions and other socio-political spatial strategies (e.g., the post-staples economic transition; landscape / nature conservatism; neo-liberalism; spatial planning)?


Empirically I intend to use the living laboratories that lie right outside my backdoor: my home province of Ontario and my new home Pennsylvania.