Dustin Mulvaney, an associate professor of environmental studies at San Jose State University and author of Solar Power: Innovation, Sustainability, and Environmental Justice (available now from UC Press), is editor, along with Maria Petrova, of the Energy and the Environment section of UC Press’s journal Case Studies in the Environment.

UC Press: There’s so much discussion of energy transitions by environmental researchers. What are energy transitions, and why are they important?

Dustin Mulvaney: Since the topic of “energy transitions” has taken off in the past decade, there are a probably a few different takes on what it precisely means, but I consider energy transitions to be major changes to our sources and carriers of energy, energy infrastructure, and patterns of energy consumption. These can be sector specific, such as the transition from coal-fired power to natural gas and renewables seen recently in the U.S. electricity system, or Brazil’s shift from gasoline powered automobiles to a fleet of flex-fuel vehicles run mainly on ethanol in the 1980s. Energy transitions can also refer to economy-wide phenomena, such as agrarian societal shifts from renewable and animal power to the use of fossil fuels in the 19th century.

Energy transitions have become an important topic because as many recognize the climate challenges associated with our fossil fuel economy, there is interest in shifting away from these sources of energy. The question therefore becomes how can we facilitate, govern, or incentivize this shift and how long will it take? The fact the energy infrastructure represents some of the largest financial outlays in human civilization suggests to some that energy transitions are long, grueling endeavors, and we should not expect them to occur quickly. On the other hand, there are examples of relatively rapid transitions in specific areas, most recently with the rapid deployment of LED lighting, or shift from away from coal to natural gas and renewables for electricity.

UC Press: As section editor of Case Studies in the Environment, you recently launched a call for papers for a special collection of case studies in energy transitions. Tell us more about the case studies approach, and how this approach can help advance our understanding of energy transitions.

Dustin Mulvaney: The value in a case study approach is a detailed investigation into some place, idea, phenomena, or technology in effort to identify patterns, reoccurring themes, challenges, opportunities, or lessons learned. Because energy issues are often very local in substance, but also influenced by global activities, case studies of energy transitions can be quite useful in understanding a range of possibilities and outcomes. Case studies of energy transitions also help us understand that sometimes there are no “one-size-fits-all” solutions and that issues related to the availability of natural resources, types of governance, constraints on land, synergies with economic conditions can all be idiosyncratic. More general studies across many energy systems or transitions may end up saying, “the devil is in the details.” With the case study approach, the details should stand out front and center.

UC Press: What are some of the articles you’d like to see submitted for this collection?

Dustin Mulvaney: Among the types of cases I would like to see in the special collection are those that grapple with environmental and social challenges. How are electric battery producers working out the human rights and environmental issues related to manganese and cobalt in their supply chain? How are utility-scale solar project developers working with, rather than against, nature in the development of new solar farms? What are the best practices with avoiding avian mortality at wind farms? What can be done to keep nuclear power plants operational to avoid their replacement with natural gas? What are successful examples of job retraining efforts to bring fossil fuel workers into the newly emerging job markets in clean technologies? There are countless areas to explore on this topic, so I expect to see a number of papers tackling topics I’ve never thought about yet.

UC Press: You’ll also be at the American Association of Geographers’ annual meeting April 3-7, in Washington DC, participating in the session Frontiers of Rent and Rentiership in the Green Economy. What do you hope to accomplish while at AAG?

Dustin Mulvaney: This is my first trip to the AAG in a few years. It is one of my two favorite conferences (alongside AESS) and definitely the one I’ve attended the most over the years. There is a series of sessions organized by Dr. Sarah Knuth (Durham University) and Dr. Tyler Harlan (Cornell University) on “Frontiers of Rent and Rentiership in the Green Economy” where several scholars including me will be presenting research on how value is extracted from new decarbonization efforts. In other words, who benefits from these new turns in the green economy, and are emerging institutional forms reproducing old forms on inequality. So my hope is to learn about what is happening in this space and catch up on all the great research I’ve been missing since I’ve been focused on my own work.

UC Press: Lastly, congratulations on your new book Solar Power: Innovation, Sustainability, and Environmental Justice! The early reviews have been amazing!

Dustin Mulvaney: Thank you. I have been receiving excellent feedback so far. I think there are a lot of stories about energy transition across the entire solar energy commodity chain in the book, and my hope is that some budding researcher will pick up on some of the threads as the industry has grown substantially. I’m sure there are more stories to tell.


Quality cases, comprehensive coverage of environmental issues

Case Studies in the Environment is a journal of peer-reviewed case study articles and case study pedagogy articles. The journal informs faculty, students, researchers, educators, professionals, and policymakers on case studies and best practices in the environmental sciences and studies.