News

Mellon Grant to Support Research on Energy Transitions

July 15, 2009

The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation recently awarded a $150,000, one-year grant to professors Cutler J. Cleveland and Adil Najam of the Department of Geography and Environment to lead an interdisciplinary seminar on energy transitions—shifts in the types of energy (e.g., coal, nuclear, wind) used by societies. The research will be part of the Mellon Foundation’s John E. Sawyer Seminars on the Comparative Study of Cultures, established in 1994 to provide support for comparative research on the historical and cultural sources of contemporary developments. Both professors are also involved with BU’s Frederick S. Pardee Center for the Study of the Longer-Range Future, where Najam is the director and Cleveland a faculty fellow.

The researchers will draw on international experts in both the social sciences and humanities as they compare how the United States and various European nations have reacted culturally and technologically to past energy transitions such as the one from wood to fossil fuels. They will also do a case study of the large developing nations of China and Brazil, examining their energy use and the implications for future economic development and greenhouse gas emissions. “Energy is a basic development need, and if developing countries are to make transitions towards more sustainable energy use, then they will need to learn much from the lessons that energy transitions in industrialized countries have to offer,” says Najam.

The researchers’ goal is to answer questions such as: What were the cultural, social, and historical forces that generated earlier energy transitions? Why did some societies respond to and adapt to new energy systems faster and to a greater extent than others? How are social and cultural conditions today the same or different than those that existed during earlier energy transitions? How will those differences affect the composition and trajectory of the next energy transition?

The researchers will also study what they see as an impending energy transition from oil (a dwindling resource) to more sustainable energy sources. They will examine the attitudes, behaviors, policies, and institutions that are needed to manage—or perhaps even engineer—the impending energy transition. They will also look at the cultural barriers to these changes and how they differ between developed and developing nations.

The award allows for extensive collaboration with other experts in the field. “This award will form the focal point for collaboration among faculty and students with energy interests from every corner of the University,” says Cleveland.

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