How “clean” are clean energy and electric vehicles?

Several articles and reports published recently have re-visited the question: how “clean” is “clean energy”?  Here is a selection, beginning in October 2020 with a multi-part series titled Recycling Clean Energy Technologies , from the Union of Concerned Scientists. It includes: “Wind Turbine blades don’t have to end up in landfill”; “Cracking the code on recycling energy storage batteries“; and “Solar Panel Recycling: Let’s Make It Happen” .

The glaring problem with Canada’s solar sector and how to fix it” (National Observer, Nov. 2020) states that “While solar is heralded as a clean, green source of renewable energy, this is only true if the panels are manufactured sustainably and can be recycled and kept out of landfills.” Yet right now, Canada has no capacity to recycle the 350 tonnes of solar pv waste produced in 2016 alone, let alone the 650,000 tonnes Canada is expected to produce by 2050. The author points the finger of responsibility at Canadian provinces and territories, which are responsible for waste management and extended producer responsibility (EPR) regulations. A description of solar recycling and waste management systems in Europe and the U.S. points to better practices.  

No ‘green halo’ for renewables: First Solar, Veolia, others tackle wind and solar environmental impacts” appeared in Utility Drive (Dec. 14)  as a “long read” discussion of progress to uphold environmental and health and safety standards in both the  production and disposal of solar panels and wind turbine blades. The article points to examples of industry standards and third-party certification of consumer goods, such as The Green Electronics Council (GEC) and NSF International. The article also quotes experts such as University of California professor Dustin Mulvaney, author of Solar Power: Innovation, Sustainability, and Environmental Justice (2019) and numerous other articles which have tracked the environmental impact, and labour standards, of the solar energy industry.

Regarding the recycling of wind turbine blades:  A press release on December 8 2020 describes a new agreement between  GE Renewable Energy and Veolia, whereby Veolia will recycle blades removed from its U.S.-based onshore wind turbines by shredding them at a processing facility in Missouri, so that they can be used as a replacement for coal, sand and clay in cement manufacturing.  A broader article appeared in Grist, “Today’s wind turbine blades could become tomorrow’s bridges” (Jan. 8 2021) which notes the GE- Veoli initiative and describes other emerging and creative ways to deal with blade waste, such as the Re-Wind project. Re-Wind is a partnership involving universities in the U.S., Ireland, and Northern Ireland who are engineering ways to repurpose the blades for electrical transmission towers, bridges, and more.  The article also quotes a senior wind technology engineer at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in the U.S. who is experimenting with production materials to find more recyclable materials from which to build wind turbine blades in the first place. He states: “Today, recyclability is something that is near the top of the list of concerns” for wind energy companies and blade manufacturers alike …. All of these companies are saying, ‘We need to change what we’re doing, number one because it’s the right thing to do, number two because regulations might be coming down the road. Number three, because we’re a green industry and we want to remain a green industry.’”

These are concerns also top of mind regarding the electric vehicle industry, where both production and recycling of batteries can be detrimental to the planet.  The Battery Paradox: How the electric vehicle boom is draining communities and the planet is a December 2020 report by the Dutch Centre for Research on Multinational Corporations (SOMO). It reviews the social and environmental impacts of the whole battery value chain, (mining, production, and recycling) and the mining of key minerals used in Lithium-ion batteries (lithium, cobalt, nickel, graphite and manganese).  The report concludes that standardization of battery cells, modules and packs would increase recycling rates and efficiency, but ultimately,  “To relieve the pressure on the planet, …. any energy transition strategy should prioritize reducing demand for batteries and cars… Strategies proposed include ride-sharing, car-sharing and smaller vehicles.”

GM and Unifor agreement brings production of electric commercial vans to Ingersoll Ontario

The 1,900 workers at the CAMI auto plant in Ingersoll Ontario had been facing an uncertain future, as production of the Chevrolet Equinox was due to be phased out in 2023. Yet on January 18, 91% of Unifor Local 88 members  voted to ratify a new agreement with General Motors , and as a result, GM will  invest in the large scale production of EV600’s, a zero-emissions, battery-powered commercial van said to be the cornerstone of a new GM business unit called BrightDrop, itself only just unveiled in January at the Computer and Electronics (CES) Trade Show.  

The official Unifor CAMI Agreement Summary provides details of the terms of the three-year CAMI agreement , and includes a GM Product and Investment Commitment Letter. It states:  “the investments described below underscore GM’s commitment to our customers and employees; and are conditional on stable demand, business and market conditions; the ability to continue producing profitably; and the full execution of GMS. Subject to ratification of a tentative 2021 labour agreement reached with Unifor and confirmation of government support, General Motors plans to bring production of its recently announced BrightDrop electric light commercial vehicle (EV600) to CAMI Assembly. In addition, there are other variants of the electric light commercial vehicle program which are currently under study. This investment at CAMI Assembly will enable General Motors to start work immediately and begin production at the plant in 2021, making this the first large scale production of electric vehicles by a major automotive company in Canada. This will support jobs and transform work at the plant over the life of this agreement from the current two shifts of Chevrolet Equinox production to a new focus on the production of the all new EV600 to serve the growing North American market for electric delivery solutions.” GM pledges a total of C$1.0 Billion capital investments for facilities, tools, M&E and supplier tooling. It also states: “…….This investment is contingent upon full acceptance of all elements contained within this Settlement Agreement and the Competitive Operating Agreement.” (which has not been made public).

The GM Canada press release summarizes the recent progress at other GM locations:  “C$1.3 billion Oshawa Assembly Pickup investments; a C$109 million product and C$28 million Renewable Energy Cogeneration project at St. Catharines; a C$170 million investment in an after-market parts operation in Oshawa; expansion of GM’s Canadian Technology Centre including investments in the new 55-acre CTC McLaughlin Advanced Technology Track” in Oshawa. As previously reported in the WCR , Unifor has also negotiated historic agreements to produce electric vehicles in the 2020 Big Three Round of Bargaining. As Heather Scoffield wrote in an Opinion piece in the Toronto Star on January 18, “Never mind pipelines: Ontario automakers are showing us a greener way to create jobs now”.

Over 400,000 Clean Energy jobs lost in the U.S. since the start of the pandemic

U.S. government employment figures for December 2020 show that the U.S. clean energy sector added 16,900 jobs in December. However, analysis released on January 13 reveals that the recovery is slow, and the industry now has its lowest number of  workers since 2015, having suffered a loss of over 400,000 jobs (12%) during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Clean Energy Employment Initial Impacts from the COVID-19 Economic Crisis, December 2020  was prepared by BW Research Partnership, commissioned by industry groups E2 (Environmental Entrepreneurs), E4TheFuture, and the American Council on Renewable Energy (ACORE) . The 17-page report provides data by state and by technology, with energy efficiency leading the losses with 302,164 total jobs lost nationally between February and December 2020. California was the hardest hit state. 

This is the latest in a monthly series of reports tracking the impact of Covid-19 on clean energy jobs – the series is available at the E2 website here. These reports document the dramatic shift in clean energy employment in the U.S; the E2 Clean Jobs America 2020 annual report  outlines the industry’s policy recommendations for recovery as of April 2020.     

  

A Call for Skills Training to support the transition to zero-emissions freight vehicles

The transportation sector represents a quarter of Canada’s greenhouse gas emissions, and of that, movement of freight currently represents 42% nationally.  Building a zero-emission goods-movement system: Opportunities to strengthen Canada’s ZEV freight sector reviews current Canadian policies to promote zero-emission freight vehicles at the municipal, provincial and national level, and identifies ten “opportunities” to reduce emissions. A unique contribution of this report: one of the “opportunities” recognizes the need for  technical training for EV infrastructure installation and vehicle maintenance. Further, it sees a role for joint, cost-shared government/employer programs.

“Investments in labour market programs to support good paying jobs and this new energy system are essential for the successful deployment and maintenance of zero-emission vehicles in commercial fleets, especially as the sector moves to scale up from pilot to mass adoption.”   …..  “Examples of existing programs include the Electric Vehicle Infrastructure Training Program, which provides training and certification for electricians installing electric vehicle supply equipment in North America, or the Electric Vehicle Maintenance Training program offered at the British Columbia Institute of Technology. Currently these training programs are concentrated in British Columbia. At a minimum, an investment of $36 million over five years is needed to expand and create new skills-training programs to support the deployment of zero-emission trucks in high-potential and high-demand markets across Canada. Similar to existing labour market programs, a cost-sharing model could be applied between government and employers.”

Although it was only launched in 2020, this is not the first time the BCIT EV Maintenance program has been recognized. (Details of the part-time course are here).   According to “Will there be someone to fix the electric vehicle you just bought? (National Observer, Oct 2020), the program was financed with $325,000 in provincial funding through CleanBC,  and followed a pilot program developed in cooperation with the green-fleet technicians of the City of Vancouver. The National Observer article provides an overview of policy initiatives regarding electric vehicles in general (not specifically freight vehicles), and notes the Green Budget Coalition recommendations made in October 2020, which included a call for $10 million “for ZEV automotive technician training program, modelled on the provincially-supported EV Maintenance Training Program at the British Columbia Institute of Technology.”

The labour market recommendations are significant, but form a small part of the message in Building a zero-emission goods-movement system .The report discusses the ZEV policy landscape into four categories: long-range strategic planning and regulations; incentives (financial and non-financial) for vehicle procurement and widespread deployment; charging infrastructure; and fleet-capacity development.   A Technical Appendix offers an inventory of federal and provincial policies, as well as those in six major Canadian cities: Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Toronto, Montreal, and Halifax. This condenses information published by the Pembina Institute in The next frontier for climate action:  Decarbonizing urban freight in Canada  (Feb. 2020). Both reports are part of a Pembina-led initiative called the Urban Delivery Solutions , a national network which includes  businesses (including UPS, Purolator and Canada Post) and researchers (including the International Council on Clean Transportation), as well as environmental organizations .

Updated Net-zero strategy for Greening Canadian government operations includes work from home provision

The Treasury Board of Canada released a statement on November 26, updating the Greening Government Strategy  which governs operations and procurement by the federal government. Because the government is the largest owner of real property in Canada and the largest public purchaser of goods and services (more than $20 billion in 2019), the strategy promises to make an actual impact on GHG emissions, as well as provide a model strategy for Crown Corporations and other employers.  According to the press release, “the new strategy includes, for the first time, commitments to achieve net-zero emissions from national safety and security (NSS) fleet, green procurement and employee commuting. In addition, Crown Corporations are being encouraged to adopt the Greening Government Strategy or an equivalent strategy of their own that includes a net-zero by 2050 target.”

The full Green Government Strategy is here , and includes goals for buildings and retrofits, clean energy, waste management, water, as well as employee engagement and transparent reporting of GHG emissions reductions. Highlighted changes below come under the heading “Mobility”, and  will impact employee commuting, work-from-home, and business travel:

  • The Centre will encourage employees to use low-carbon forms of transportation to reduce emissions from employee commuting and will track these emissions by the 2021 to 2022 fiscal year.
  • The government will facilitate opportunities for flexible work arrangements, such as remote work, by enabling remote computing telecommunications and by supporting information technology (IT) solutions.
  • The government will promote and incentivize lower-carbon alternatives to work-related air travel. Departments will contribute to the Greening Government Fund (GGF) based on their air travel emissions.  The GGF aims to incentivize lower-carbon alternatives to government operations by providing project funding to federal government departments and agencies to reduce GHG emissions in their operations.
  • Emissions from other travel related to operations, such as major events hosted and ministerial travel, may be offset by departments.
  • Purchase of carbon offsets for events, conferences and travel may also be used as an eligible expense for grants and contribution program recipients.
  • Regarding vehicle fleets, 75% per cent of new light-duty unmodified fleet vehicle purchases will be zero-emission vehicles (ZEVs) or hybrids, with the objective that the government’s light-duty fleet comprises at least 80% ZEVs by 2030. Priority is to be given to purchasing ZEVs.
  • All new executive vehicle purchases will be ZEVs or hybrids.

An update of the Greenhouse Gas Emissions Inventory of emissions from federal operations was also released, showing a decrease of 34% from 2005 levels from real property and conventional fleet operations.  The details from the Inventory are here .

More detailed information about each of the priorities is available from the Greening Government Centre website.