Abe Tidwell

HSD PhD student

To many, the Hawaiian Islands are just a beautiful vacation destination full of bent palms, grass skirts, and mai-tais, but to HSD candidate Abe Tidwell they are the site of major energy transitions complicated by racial and post-colonial politics. Tidwell’s dissertation is a study of how the move to 100% renewable energy sources over the next thirty years – an initiative announced by Hawaii’s governor in June, 2015 – will change the way Hawaiians live, how they experience energy both physically and economically, and how they understand the role of energy in constituting our modern society.

Currently, Hawaii gets 70% to 90% of its energy from imported petroleum, most of it from Eastern and South-eastern Asia. The extreme burden of these costs are largely borne by residents, resulting in residential electric bills on par with San Francisco and New York City. Another major driver of the transition to renewables is climate change, which will likely impact the Islands through increased storm severity and rising water.

Because the research has such strong social and cultural dimensions, Tidwell has decided that it demands a long term, embedded commitment. If the project receives funding (an application has been submitted for an NSF grant) he will spend 2 years on the Islands conducting fieldwork. Furthermore, because the research links in many ways to several Global Institute of Sustainability (GIOS) projects, Tidwell expects his involvement will likely continue even after finishing his PhD with SFIS.

This will not be Tidwell’s first involvement with an NSF grant application. He was a part of the team that wrote the successful proposal for Socio-Technical Integration Research (STIR) Cities comparing Phoenix and Portland’s smart grid designs. Tidwell also authored a piece for Science, Technology, and Human Values – a core journal for research in science and technology. What gratifies Tidwell most of all, though, is being art of a GIOS team working with a native Hawaiian homestead to help them implement a vision of small scale agriculture incorporating replicable greenhouses. “I am really proud of that,” Tidwell says, “because its an opportunity to work with a community in a productive way that is going to generate an economic income and also provide a dynamic way for the community to identify, and then develop, a future for itself.”

Tidwell’s humanitarian values make him right at home at SFIS. “Everyone here is all about that New American University vision of doing work with a purpose,” Tidwell maintains. “There are no particular boxes we check when we’re looking for people to join us. It’s about being able to think differently and creatively about big questions.” He is grateful to have worked with Clark Miller, who supported Tidwell’s insistence on conceptual “deep dives” to uncover energy’s impact on society and social organization.

Tidwell hopes that future HSD candidates are sure to introduce themselves to everyone they can. “Don’t forget that we have a lot to draw from and sometimes it’s the person that’s not around much that you really want to be interacting with. Become known.”