Farrell will receive $400,000 through the NSF’s Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) program, which supports the research of early-career faculty.
During the five-year study, he will examine the economic and social impacts of the transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources in places like Wyoming, where much of the nation’s coal and natural gas is extracted — and where the production of these traditional energy sources is a defining part of the regional identity.
While the U.S. energy economy still relies heavily on fossil fuels — and the Trump administration aims to revitalize, among other sources, a languishing coal sector — market forces will increasingly make a transition to renewables inevitable, Farrell says. And in rural communities the effects will be deep and significant.
“There’s so much optimism about new energy around the U.S., but many Americans don’t realize that it will come at a cost for a lot of people,” he said. “Obviously it’s important that we rapidly move to new forms of energy, but when you’re talking about entire communities changing their identity it’s really difficult.”
The National Science Foundation’s CAREER program offers awards that support early-career faculty who have the potential to serve as academic role models in research and education and to lead advances in the mission of their department or organization. The program targets activities that “build a firm foundation for a lifetime of leadership in integrating education and research.”
A native of Cheyenne, Wyoming, Farrell studies environment, rural inequality, elites, and social movements. Using a combination of computational text analysis, ethnographic fieldwork, and network science, he has examined the relationship between people and the land in the American West, as well as the environmental implications of changing economies and land use visions. (His 2015 book, “The Battle for Yellowstone,” explored the cultural, moral, and spiritual roots of deeply entrenched conflicts in the greater Yellowstone region.)
For this study he expects to again conduct much of his research in Wyoming, which he calls the “energy capital of the United States.” Specifically, he plans to use social network analysis to better understand the relationships between people in rural communities — and to spend long stretches of time in the field, interviewing individuals associated with all parts of the energy sector. He’ll analyze historic documents and articles to determine how these issues have evolved over time.