Renewables Q and A with Dr. Benjamin Sovacool

Prepared By: Rebecca Toomey
Date: July 2022

The SolHighlights team recently had the opportunity to speak with Dr. Benjamin Sovacool. We discussed his work with clean energy and climate change policy.

Dr. Sovacool has been involved as a researcher and consultant on hundreds of publications and projects relating to energy policy, energy security, and climate change.

Who is Dr. Benjamin Sovacool?

Professor Sovacool researches clean energy policy, energy security, and climate change adaptation and mitigation. He is a professor at Boston University in Massachusetts and at the University of Sussex in the United Kingdom. Dr. Sovacool was also a Lead Author on the IPCC’s (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) Sixth Assessment Report, published in 2022.

We recently had a Q&A discussing clean energy and climate change policy with Dr. Benjamin Sovacool.

Dr. Benjamin Sovacool


What initially made you get into the renewable energy space?

I got into the renewable energy space in the late 1990s and early 2000s while I was a graduate student at Virginia Tech. We had won a grant from the United States National Science Foundation (NSF) dealing with energy security and distributed generation. Distributed generation is when you make energy close to where you use it.


Distributed solar and combined heat and power was an important issue post 9/11 because the military was concerned that someone was going to try to take down the grid. So, how can we use small scale distributed resources to enhance resilience and improve security…

It opened my eyes. I learned in my first week how much conventional energy supply contributes to death from air pollution, cancer, etc.. More people die from power plant pollution than car crashes, depending on which evidence you use. I also learned amazing things like an average power plant wastes two-thirds of its fuel in watt energy. So, if you have 100 units of fuel and it goes through a conventional coal-powered turbine, you can get 33 units of energy out of it. So you're losing two thirds of energy. I thought, how can we build an energy system that is wasting so much amount of energy? And it kind of just went from there. I got fascinated with it and did a whole PhD on renewable energy and energy efficiency.

What specifically was your research grant from the NSF focused on?

So the entire schema was called the Electric Power Network Efficiency and Security (EPNES) and it was jointly funded by the military, so there was a heavy security effort. I remember there were about 20 different projects funded, and 19 of the 20 were all technical. For example: How do we build better grid infrastructure? How do we build better transformers? How do we do materials substitution? How do we make a better energy battery? Ours was the only one that was more social. We were the only one of the 20 that was looking at policy mechanisms, social acceptance, social opposition, and business models.


I think that that really underscored both the strength and the problem of the program. It presumed that our fix to security was a technical one. Just build a better grid. In doing so, it missed all the other things: price incentives, policy, corruption, lobbying, politics, social knowledge, lack of knowledge that are equally important. It made my PhD very interesting because my PhD was entirely on the non-technical aspects of energy security. Which I broke into political and social and behavioral and cultural. So I think it was a nice kind of compliment to all of the tech work that was going on.

Have opinions about the cultural and societal components of renewable energy shifted over the past decade?

It has shifted, but it was growing from a very small base to begin with. And so, we can put something into perspective if you type in and look up an article we did later. It's called the Misallocation of Climate Funding. We looked at global funding schemes across like a hundred different countries and about 180 research councils for 50 years. We're talking like trillions of dollars of funding, and one of the first things that we found is that climate change actually isn't very well funded. Research on climate change as a whole, technical or not, is not as well funded as health or space or a whole bunch of other things. So it's something like fewer than 5% of all those projects that have anything even to do with climate change. And then within that, it was something like 0.19% were dealing with social aspects.


So even then, even now, over the past few decades, we still love this allure of these technical fixes to climate change, because it's simple. It doesn't require us to change our behavior. All we need is more wind turbines or a better EV with better range or a heat pump in the home and done, we're done! That's not really what the science is telling us. Science is telling us that we have to radically adjust and decarbonize our lifestyles. If you've read the latest IPCC report which came out last month (the Sixth Assessment Report). Chapter 5 says that we have to achieve a 50% to 70% reduction in demand and consumption by mid-century. Not only do we not need to grow, we have to shrink our consumption 50% to 70% to be compatible with a net-zero economy.

You were one of the Lead Authors of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Sixth Assessment Report focusing on mitigation and developmental pathways. What actions could global policy-makers take following the 2022 updated report?


We do have policy tools: feed in tariffs, renewable portfolio standards, investment tax credits, production tax credits, accelerated depreciation. There's about 90 of these different mechanisms all of which can help stimulate renewables. The IPCC report is quite neat in its Chapter 5 because it talks about a new way of doing policy. It has this policy framework that you have to do three policy levers at the same time: avoid, shift, and improve.

We’re not currently doing a lot of ‘avoid’ policies. ‘Avoid’ is policies that prohibit carbon intensive activity. For example: ban cars, ban incandescent light bulbs, ban coal fired power plants. Denmark has been under a moratorium on coal fired power plants since the 1990s. These progressive instruments do exist…These are the types of incentives that you need and we know work, and we have a lot of examples of where they have worked. Feed in tariffs are in 80 countries and renewable portfolio standards are in 75 countries. So, I think that those types of avoid policies are kind of missing.

The ‘shift’ policies are about behavior change. For example: ride sharing if you have a car, using a bicycle instead of a car, eating meat one less day a week, washing your clothes in cold water, eating local food, using a fan instead of air conditioning in the summer. If you, for instance, gave up your car, stopped flying internationally, and became a vegetarian, you would cut your carbon footprint by 80% immediately. And you could do this tomorrow, right? If you want to. Those three simple steps could make a huge difference on the climate.

Then ‘improve’ is technical innovation. We need to continue to make improvements in the technology that we are going to use: bicycles, cars, stoves, furnaces, buildings, windows, etc.. I kind of like that because the ‘avoid’ stuff is all policy, the ‘shift’ stuff is all behavior, and the ‘improve’ stuff is all technology. There's a role for all three.

Of the three policy levers you just discussed, which would you say is the most difficult?

I think they're both difficult. I think the behavioral aspect is difficult for us consumers and I think the ‘avoid’ aspect is the one that's the most difficult for politicians…The challenge of climate change is that it requires politicians to make costs in the present for gains in the future. They would far, far, far better like costs in the future for gains in the present. So, it really splits the political logic of how even democracies operate.


Have you directly worked with policy-maker's toward a shift in climate change policies?


I was a Lead Author for Chapter 4 of the IPCC Report. Chapter 4 has a section about subnational actors. Subnational actors are a proxy for non-conventional actors. These are industry corporations that band together into trade groups or cities or other initiatives like within forestry or buildings or the IEA has a few of these kinds of just global initiatives that operate independently of the nation state.

And what we found is, these subnational actors are moving so quickly to address climate change that by the year 2030, they will actually save more carbon than the Paris Accord. The Paris Accord is operating under the political system and you have the Nationally Determined Contribution. So it's close. These sub-national actors and their initiatives are like a few tons saved more than the Paris Accord. But that's shocking. They're taking it seriously, and they're not waiting for states to sort themselves out. They're going now because it's good for business or because they realize it's a climate emergency and we cannot be too late. So there's your inspiration as slow as it takes the US Congress to decide things, others have said enough, we're not even going to work with that system anymore, we'll do it on our own.

What kind of radical/transformational community based, local initiatives do you know about that address the climate crisis?

As someone who's gotten frustrated with traditional policy levers and policy action, we did a really provocative article called Anarchy, War, or Revolt? I teamed up with an eco-anarchist, Alex Dunlap, a professor in Norway. We look at non-traditional ways of catalyzing social transformation and those three terms reflect three very different approaches.

You have people who talk about civil disobedience, you have people who talk about eco-anarchy, and you have people who talk about insurrection and guerilla warfare. We go through a hundred years of tactics that all of these social movements have used and it's things like boycotts, sit-ins, protests. There is also what's called intelligent sabotage where they'll disrupt direct action techniques that disrupt strikes: hunger strikes, labor strikes. I think many of those are very inspiring. You've got people willing to go to jail and get mass arrested to make a statement.


There are some very inspiring movements like the Sunrise Movement, Fridays for the Future, and Extinction Rebellion, that are really pushing the envelope. There's one in the UK called Insulate Britain, where every now and then, they get arrested for closing down the highways around London…What they're after is just adequate housing standards after Grenfell Tower. In the UK, about five years ago, there was a horrific accident where a low income housing block burnt down. It burnt down because of floor cladding, and the cladding was for energy efficiency. So, it was basically like someone messed up the energy efficiency upgrade and it killed about 40 people. And after that accident happened, everyone promised ‘oh, we're gonna properly insulate British buildings,’ and they never did. So, these protesters are willing to risk their lives. Walking into a highway and trying to get people to slow down and stop and then get arrested just to hold the government to its previous obligations.

I think in these types of movements – the self-sacrifice and bravery are very, very compelling. And so many of them around the world, France, Spain, the UK, the US, Canada, etc. People are getting frustrated and they're starting to take action. And if you look at the history of where we've had major changes in our country: Slavery, Women Suffrage, the Temperance Movement, Women's Reproductive Freedom…All four of those were not the result from policy, and they were not the result of science. They were the result of sustained social movements, Civil Rights is the first one– the Civil Rights Act. So it really does tell us that if you want rapid social change, policy and science are never, historically, the way we do it. You do it by rising up and doing sustained protest.

How do you envision the future and the growth of renewable energy worldwide?


If you look at the projections…There is a massive shift going on in the next 30 to 40 years. There's a shift in population growth, a shift in energy consumption, and a shift in emissions. It's something like 80% of future growth in energy demand will be in developing countries. And something like 90% of future emissions will also be in developing countries. So in a way the problem isn't so much of the United States in the European Union. It is a problem of China, India, Brazil, Russia, South Africa, and all of the other rapidly developing states – Indonesia as well, because they have such high rates of deforestation. So future markets, it's a geopolitical shift. And I think there's the most money to be made and the most investments you occur won't even be here. It'll be in those very rapidly growing markets.

I do think that China’s plan is eventually to replace all of that with renewables but I think we're talking mid-century, we're talking 2050. And there's an expectation in China that they shouldn't have to go any faster, because it's not their fault that we have climate change. Because historically, the US and Europe are responsible for about 90% of the emissions that have caused climate change. They're like, we have the right to develop just like you did. We have the right to use these fossil fuels to the same state of economic modernization and we can then plot one from in the century to be low carbon. So I think they definitely have a plan but it's not fast enough to stop climate change because they want to put that burden of responsibility on us.

What type of projects are you working on?

One stream of work is on creating a Net Zero Industrial Base. So we have a project called the Industrial Decarbonization Innovation and Research Center, and it is all about how to create net zero, completely decarbonized, industrial production. These are all the really difficult things like steel, concrete, cement, beverages, refining, chemicals, paper and so on. And so that's very applied and we're working with 80 industries to develop a net zero supply chain.


The other one is Plan C of Climate Action. Most climate change policy is focused on mitigation, which is stopping emissions or adaptation, which is building resilience to the impacts of climate change. We have a really neat project that says: what if each of those fail and we have to do the really radical stuff? What about stratospheric aerosol injection, marine cloud brightening, sun shades, enhanced weathering, direct air capture, biochar, or ocean fertilization. So we're looking at these very radical changes as well, in a project called the Governance of Negative Emissions Technologies in Europe.

We are huge fans of dinosaurs here, so much so that we have a replica raptor skeleton in our lobby. So we would like to ask, what is your favorite dinosaur and why?


I like the velociraptor. Probably because of Jurassic Park. But also because I think that there's a metaphor there and I think that low carbon solutions are the Velociraptors of our modern economy. They come and shake things up, and once they’re done, they'll probably dominate.