Meet the Experts — Tom Sproul

Dr. Thomas Sproul’s research background is in Agricultural and Resource Economics, with a focus on risk modeling, insurance and risk management. He has done research on a variety of topics, including pollution regulation, farm policy, strategic behavior in fisheries, and behavioral economics and finance. Here, he shares his perspectives on offshore wind energy, and how resource economics research can help us understand the benefits and tradeoffs of developing wind farms.    

For Tom Sproul, an Associate Professor in the Department of Environmental and Natural Resource Economics in the College of the Environment and Life Science at the University of Rhode Island, the most exciting aspect of his work, whether he’s working on agricultural, transportation, or offshore wind energy issues, is giving people information they need to make informed choices about important shared resources. 

“Economics is really about tradeoffs,” says Sproul. “With energy renewables, including offshore wind, it’s clear that there are benefits, but what’s fascinating is figuring out exactly how to get there. What are the incentives? What are the tradeoffs?”

By offering society a clean source of power, an alternative to fossil fuels, offshore wind energy is well worth consideration, Sproul indicates, but its value can’t be fully realized unless its pros and cons are fully understood – and that’s why the science is so important. 

“For example, with offshore wind, we are hearing a lot of talk now about whether or how fishermen are going to be able to navigate through turbines,” says Sproul. “The patterns matter, so we need good information about vessel transportation, the fish that are out there, and where fishermen are going to get them.”

Sproul is working on several collaborative efforts that are gathering and studying data to assist stakeholders in their decision-making about wind farms being proposed along the Atlantic seaboard. The research projects, including one funded by the National Science Foundation, include mapping, modeling, and statistical analysis and enhance the level of detail available about ocean resources. 

His guidance to students is to always remember that economics isn’t simply about numbers; it’s about very real issues that directly impact people’s lives and the environments they depend on. “Whether the industry we’re looking at is agriculture or offshore wind, what we’re really talking about generally is basic issues – food and jobs. 

And with climate change increasingly serving as the lens through which these basic issues are researched, it’s an exciting time for students considering futures as economists. “These are difficult issues, but they represent lots of opportunity to improve the state of the science,” says Sproul. 

Ultimately, the extent to which the country is truly able to reap the benefits of offshore wind energy will depend in great part upon the choices people make in developing wind farms, and whether sound and detailed science informs those decisions. 

“We absolutely need solutions to climate change, and renewables offer great possibilities,” says Sproul, “but we need to pay attention to the tradeoffs when we design systems like windfarms – if we don’t, we may really miss out on getting the benefits.”