Meet 2020 Carnegie Fellow Thea Riofrancos, Providence College

The Andrew Carnegie Fellows Program recognizes an exceptional group of both established and emerging scholars, journalists, and authors with the goal of strengthening U.S. democracy, driving technological and cultural creativity, exploring global connections and global ruptures, and improving both natural and human environments. 

How will the Andrew Carnegie Fellows Program impact your research and overall career?

The Andrew Carnegie Fellowship affords me the time and funding to pursue my second book project, tentatively titled Brine to Batteries: The Extractive Frontiers of the Global Energy Transition. Given that I work at a relatively teaching-intensive liberal arts college, which means that advancing my research agenda during the academic year is challenging, I am very grateful for the external support. In light of the current limitations on travel, I have scrapped my summer fieldwork plans and will spend the foreseeable months on secondary reading, writing, and analyzing data from the fieldwork I conducted in Chile last year, and from interviews with EU and US government officials. However, when travel becomes safe and feasible again, I plan to return to Chile, and conduct new fieldwork in China.

What research topics do you primarily focus on? How can people access your work?

My first book, Resource Radicals: From Petro-Nationalism to Post-extractivism in Ecuador (Duke University Press 2020), explores the conditions and consequences of political conflict around oil and mining projects in the context of the commodity boom and left-wing governance in Latin America. Brine to Batteries delves into the contentious politics of the transition to renewable energy through the lens of one of its key technologies: lithium batteries, used in electric vehicles, renewable energy storage, and portable devices. My research asks: Who will control the global transition to renewable energy and how will it be organized? Who will benefit from new energy systems and who will bear their costs? Will the transition reinforce or reduce inequality? I trace the supply chains of lithium battery production, from extraction to consumption, revealing the competing visions of states, firms, workers, and communities at every node of this global process.

Do you have any advice for students in political science, including tips on how to find funding and support for research projects?

It is such a fraught and difficult moment to offer advice, as we watch a severe economic crisis ripple through higher education. In addition, as someone lucky enough to have job security in a highly precarious field, I am wary of offering advice to those without such security. That being said, I have benefitted tremendously from mentor relationships that I have cultivated since graduate school. I have also benefited from engaging in the world beyond academia, in the form of both public writing and political activism. The latter two keep me grounded and give me a broader perspective, by ensuring that scholarship isn’t the entirety of my existence, and also encourage me to orient my research towards evolving political events.

Thea Riofrancos is an assistant professor of political science at Providence College with interests in resource extraction, renewable energy, climate change, green technology, social movements, and the left in Latin America. She examines what conditions make resource extraction the focus of political conflict and the consequences of that conflict. Dr. Riofrancos is currently studying the extraction and supply of lithium, which is used in batteries, as a lens for exploring the politics of the global transition to renewable energy.