First social scientist selected as Oak Ridge National Laboratory Wigner Fellow



Benjamin K. Sovacool and his advisor Richard Hirsh, professor of history at Virginia Tech, visit the solar panels on top of a campus building. Hirsh directs the multi-disciplinary Consortium on...
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Blacksburg, Va. -- 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 based on his research 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 was the first social scientist to have ever 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." Savacool traveled to Burlington, Vt., Albany, N.Y., Washington, D.C., 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.

Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) is a multi-program science and technology laboratory managed for the U.S. Department of Energy by UT-Battelle, LLC. ORNL has more than 1,000 employees and a budget of more than $1.2 billion. The Wigner Fellowship is the flagship postdoctoral program at ORNL. The fellowship pays a competitive salary for two years to complete research on an important social topic relating to science and technology.

Sovacool has published numerous articles and traveled to New Zealand, South Korea, Vietnam, Thailand, China, Israel, Turkey, Jordan, and Egypt, among other countries, to present his research. While on these trips, he skydived, scuba-dived, hiked, and rafted. "My travels have allowed me to walk through a North Korean minefield in the Demilitarized Zone between North and South Korea, hold an Israeli M-16 in the West Bank, and fish for octopi in the Yellow Sea," he said.

Sovacool's advisors are Richard Hirsh, history professor and director of Virginia Tech's Consortium on Energy Restructuring, and Daniel Breslau, associate professor of science and technology studies. Sovacool was a graduate research assistant (GRA) with the consortium.

Also during his time at Virginia Tech, Sovacool had a radio show for two years called "Janet Reno's Dance Party" that played electronic dance music and resulted in a techno CD that was released in Germany. He volunteered part time at both the Women's Resource Center and the RAFT hotline of the New River Valley Community Center (RAFT is a crisis hotline for victims of mental abuse, substance abuse, rape, and suicide).

He worked summers as a faculty member at the World Debate Institute in Burlington, Vt., and the Virginia Debate Institute at Liberty University. He was also a graduate teaching assistant at Virginia Tech before becoming a GRA.

Sovacool received his master of arts in communication studies in 2003 from Wayne State University and his bachelor of arts in communication and philosophy in 2001 from John Carroll University.

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Learn more about Virginia Tech's Consortium for Energy Restructuring at www.history.vt.edu/Hirsh/CER/CER-Base.htm


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