GEOG 430
Human Use of the Environment

Energy Geographies


What is energy geography?

  • “The study of energy development, transportation, markets, or use patterns and their determinants from a spatial, regional, or resource management perspective” (Solomon & Pasqualetti, 2004).
  • “Geography is central to understanding and addressing the current energy dilemmas. The resource systems of energy production, distribution, and consumption are thoroughly entwined as social–environmental interactions occurring across multiple scales” (Zimmerer, 2011).
  • “Energy geographies represent the convergence of concepts and techniques borne out of geography’s core sub-fields to past, prevailing, and future patterns of energy production, distribution, and use at various geographical scales. This includes an emphasis on the material (e.g. biophysical, technological) as well as immaterial (discursive, cultural) spatial dimension of scientific (academic) and policy (applied) imperatives.” (Calvert, 2016).

While energy geography has existed as a sub-field within geography for at least the past three decades, the interest in energy issues has been cyclical, spiking around the time of energy crisis (Solomon & Calvert, 2017). However, with energy taking center stage in regional, national, and international policy and public debates, scholarship in energy geography has seen a resurgence since the mid-2000s (Huber, 2015). Geographers argue that the inter-disciplinary nature of geographical research makes the discipline well-placed to engage with critical question of energy as well as affecting policy. 

Calvert (2016) suggests that the approach of geography to energy studies is best thought of as “an academic borderland”, as it lies somewhere in the overlap between the (four) sub-disciplines of geography. 

Energy is simultaneously: 

(a) a physical entity that is derived from natural processes and transformed through physical systems, and therefore partly the domain of the ‘physical geographer’; 

(b) a social relation to the extent that physical entities are socially constructed as energy resources through political-economic and cultural processes but also a primary agent in the spatialization of social activities, and therefore partly the domain of the ‘human geographer’; 

(c) a primary mediator of our relationship with the environment and therefore partly the domain of the ‘nature-society’ or ‘human-environment’ geographer; and 

(d) non-uniform over space and made accessible or not by site-level conditions and therefore partly the domain of the ‘GIScientist’ and ‘cartographer’

What do energy geographers study?

Energy geographers have studied the entire value chain of energy, from fuels and the extraction of energy to its distribution and consumption. A large part of the geographical work on energy has been to highlight the unequal distribution of benefits and costs that emerge from energy systems. Pasqualetti (2011), in his review of books in energy geography, notes the shifts that have occurred in the subjects studied by energy geographers since the 1950s. While in its formative years, energy geography concentrated on the location of resources, regional energy systems and nuclear power; since the 2000s, the focus has moved to climate change, energy justice, energy security, and renewable energy. While oil has been the most studied resource, recent scholarship in energy geography has turned its attention towards renewable sources of energy (solar, wind) as well as non-conventional sources (shale gas, oil sands).  

In his review of energy geography, Calvert (2016) concludes that energy geography scholarship includes the description and explanation of:

  • the spatio-temporal distribution of energy stocks and flows as well as the geophysical processes which underlie that distribution;
  • the relationship between the spatial form of socio-ecological systems and energy availability, production, distribution, and use at various geographic scales;
  • national and regional differences in the above, as well as how they are intertwined with inter- and intra-regional distributions of political- economic power and social activities;
  • the ways in which energy production and consumption mediates, and is mediated by, spatial politics and the human-environment relationship;
  • the co-constitution of energy production and consumption with place-making activities, geographical imaginaries, spatial identities, and spatial representations;
  • the geographical dimensions of the political tensions, social injustices, and scientific uncertainties that surround prevailing and future energy resource management decisions;
  • the study of place-based solutions to the social, economic, and environmental problems of energy system development including integrated regional supply-demand planning, integrated land-energy planning, and (critical) energy-GIS (p. 119).

Palm Oil as a Biofuel and Deforestation in Indonesia

Dedicated to the 25 orangutans we lose every day” “Let’s stop palm oil destroying the forest”.

These are the lines with which the Greenpeace video on palm oil deforestation ends. This video, released by the organization on the internet in August 2018, recently made headlines when it was banned from being telecast to UK television screens when it was submitted as a Christmas ad.

Palm oil is extracted from the fruit of the Oil Palm trees. It is an efficient crop and a highly versatile oil, which has resulted in it being used in the manufacture of all sorts of products – from pizza to shampoos; from detergents to diesel. However, palm oil production is a major driver of deforestation and is destroying the habitat of endangered animals like the orangutan. A large part of the palm oil produced is exported to other countries (European Union, China, India, etc.) where it is used for a variety of purposes, including conversion to Biofuel. 

In thinking about the geographies of palm oil, consider the following: 

Indonesia and Malaysia currently account for 86% of the global palm oil production, and palm oil production is increasingly contributing to the 1.5% annual deforestation rate in these countries (Fargione, Hill, Tilman, Polasky, & Hawthorne, 2008).

The population of orangutans in Borneo has fallen by 80% over the past 75 years as a result of habitat destruction. The Sumatran Orangutan was declared critically endangered in 2016 (Emont, 2017). 

The impact of biofuels on climate change is not clear: “Our analyses suggests that biofuels [such as palm oil], if produced on converted land, could, for long periods of time, be much greater net emitters of greenhouse gases than the fossil fuels that they typically replace” (Fargione et al., 2008, p. 1237)

Conversion of native ecosystems to biofuel production chart (described in caption)
Carbon debt*, biofuel carbon debt allocation, annual carbon repayment rate, and years to repay biofuel carbon debt for nine scenarios of biofuel production. Credit: (Fargione et al., 2008). Note: Means and SDs are from Monte Carlo analyses of literature-based estimates of carbon pools and fluxes. (A) Carbon debt, including CO2 emissions from soils and above ground and below ground biomass resulting from habitat conversion. (B) Proportion of total carbon debt allocated to biofuel production. (C) Annual life-cycle GHG reduction from biofuels, including displaced fossil fuels and soil carbon storage. (D) Number of years after conversion to biofuel production required for cumulative biofuel GHG reductions, relative to the fossil fuels they displace, to repay the biofuel carbon debt.

However, the palm oil story is much more complicated. Consider the following:

  • Palm oil industry employs 15 million Indonesians (Meidiwaty, 2017).
  • Indonesia also protects 106 million acres of forests
  • Palm oil is an efficient crop, such that it uses only 5.5% of global land use for cultivation, but produces 33% of global oils and fats (Keller, 2018). Replacing palm oil with other types of oils may require even more farmland.

Read more on Palm Oil here:

Calvert, K. (2016). From “energy geography” to “energy geographies”: Perspectives on a fertile academic borderland. Progress in Human Geography, 40(1), 105–125.
Emont, J. (2017, April 25). A Refuge for Orangutans, and a Quandary for Environmentalists. The New York Times. 
Fargione, J., Hill, J., Tilman, D., Polasky, S., & Hawthorne, P. (2008). Land Clearing and the Biofuel Carbon Debt. Science, New Series, 319(5867), 1235–1238. 
Huber, M. (2015). Theorizing Energy Geographies. Geography Compass, 1–12. 
Keller, E. (2018). 10 things you should know about palm oil. Retrieved December 14, 2018, from
Meidiwaty, D. J. (2017, May 8). Opinion | Indonesia and Palm Oil. The New York Times. 
Pasqualetti, M. J. (2011). The Geography of Energy and the Wealth of the World. In Annals of the Association of American Geographers (Vol. 101, pp. 971–980).
Solomon, B. D., & Calvert, K. E. (2017). Introduction: Energy and the geographical traditions. In B. D. Solomon & K. E. Calvert (Eds.), Handbook on the Geographies of Energy. Edward Elgar Publishing.
Solomon, B. D., & Pasqualetti, M. J. (2004). History of energy in geographic thought. In C. J. Cleveland (Ed.), Encyclopedia of Energy (Volume 2, pp. 831–842). San Diego, CA: Elsevier.
Zimmerer, K. S. (2011). New Geographies of Energy: Introduction to the Special Issue. Annals of the Association of American Geographers, 101(4), 705–711.