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.”

New modelling forecasts 46 million jobs by 2050 in a 100% renewable energy scenario

achieving paris goals teske coverA newly-released book, Achieving the Paris Climate Agreement Goals, provides detailed discussion of the the implications, including job implications,  of a transition to 100% renewable energy.  The  book’s findings are summarized by Sven Teske of the Institute for Sustainable Futures, University of Technology Sydney, in “Here’s how a 100% renewable energy future can create jobs and even save the gas industry”,  which appeared in The Conversation (Jan. 23). That article states: “The world can limit global warming to 1.5℃ and move to 100% renewable energy while still preserving a role for the gas industry, and without relying on technological fixes such as carbon capture and storage, according to our new analysis.” The scenario is built on complex modelling – The One Earth Climate Model  – and foresees a gradual transition from gas to hydrogen energy, so that “by 2050 there would be 46.3 million jobs in the global energy sector – 16.4 million more than under existing forecasts….  Our analysis also investigated the specific occupations that will be required for a renewables-based energy industry. The global number of jobs would increase across all of these occupations between 2015 and 2025, with the exception of metal trades which would decline by 2%. ”

The article summarizes a book with a daunting title:  Achieving the Paris Climate Agreement Goals: Global and Regional 100% Renewable Energy Scenarios with Non-energy GHG Pathways for +1.5°C and +2°C . It is the culmination of a two-year scientific collaboration with 17 scientists at the University of Technology Sydney (UTS), two institutes at the German Aerospace Center (DLR), and the University of Melbourne’s Climate & Energy College, with funding provided by the Leonard DiCaprio Foundation and the German Greenpeace Foundation.   It was published in January 2019 by Springer as an Open Access book , meaning it is free to download the entire book or individual chapters without violating copyright.  Of special interest:  Chapter 9,  Trajectories for a Just Transition of the Fossil Fuel Industry , which provides historical production data for coal, oil and gas production, discusses phase-out pathways for each, and concludes with a discussion of the need “to shift the current political debate about coal, oil and gas which is focused on security of supply and price security towards an open debate about an orderly withdrawal from coal, oil and gas extraction industries.”

The data presented in Chapter 9 form the foundation of Chapter 10,  Just Transition: Employment Projections for the 2.0 °C and 1.5 °C Scenarios . This consists of quantitative analysis, ( the overall number of jobs in renewable and fossil fuel industries) and occupational analysis – which looks into specific job categories required for the solar and wind sector, and the oil, gas, and coal industry. The chapter provides projections for jobs in construction, manufacturing, operations and maintenance (O&M), and fuel and heat supply across 12 technologies and 10 world regions. The conclusion:  “Under both the 1.5 °C and 2.0 °C Scenarios, the renewable energy transition is projected to increase employment. Importantly, this analysis has reviewed the locations and types of occupations and found that the jobs created in wind and solar PV alone are enough to replace the jobs lost in the fossil fuel industry across all occupation types. Further research is required to identify the training needs and supportive policies needed to ensure a just transition for all employment groups.”

Can unions deliver good green jobs at Tesla?

tesla injury ratesThe “Driving a Fair Future” website has documented the complaints against Tesla for years – including an analysis of  Tesla injury rates between 2014 and 2017 at its Freemont California plant, which showed that injuries were 31% higher than industry standards.  In June 2018, the U.S. National Labor Relations Board  began to hear some of the workers’ complaints of safety violations and anti-union harassment, with the United Auto Workers representing them.  Two themes have emerged in the saga of Tesla’s bad labour relations:  1. how can the apparently “green jobs” become decent, good jobs?  and  2. would unionization at Tesla give a toehold at other precarious Silicon Valley workplaces such as Google, Amazon, and their like.

“Tesla’s Union Battle Is About the Future of Our Planet” (Oct. 9) in Medium describes the union drive at the Freemont California electric vehicle  manufacturing plant, in light of its environmental mission. The article contends : “ This case isn’t just about Tesla. It’s about the future of an industry that sees itself as key to addressing the climate crisis. Clean tech companies peddle a progressive vision of a low-carbon future, but Tesla’s anti-union fervor suggests that some in the industry have lost sight of their work’s bigger point.”

Workers from Tesla’s solar panel factory in Buffalo New York  expressed similar sentiments in interviews with the  local news organization . Taking pride in their green jobs, they are seeking better pay, benefits, and job security through a unionization drive announced in December.  The Tesla Gigafactory 2 in Buffalo received $750 million in taxpayer funding for the state-of-the-art solar production facility, promising new jobs in a high unemployment area; the unionization campaign involves about 300 production and maintenance employees in a partnership between the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and the United Steelworkers. The drive is endorsed by the Labor Network for Sustainability , which states: “We are hearing a lot about the need for a Green New Deal that will provide millions of good jobs helping protect the climate. These Tesla workers represent the Green New Deal in action.” Follow developments on the Facebook page of the Coalition for Economic Justice Buffalo.

Implications for High Tech workers: Why Elon Musk’s latest legal bout with the United Auto Workers may have ripple effects across Silicon Valley” is a thorough overview  about the UAW unionization drive at Tesla’s auto  manufacturing plant at Freemont California, from CNBC   in early December.  Similar themes appeared in  “What Tesla’s union-busting trial means for the rest of Silicon Valley” appeared in Verge in September 2018,  chronicling the arguments of the UAW and Tesla management – including Elon Musk and his tweets – during the NLRB hearings  in June 2018.   The article concludes that “Tesla’s case [is] a bellwether — particularly for Amazon. … Tesla might be a car company, but it’s also a tech company — and if its workers can unionize, tech workers elsewhere are bound to start getting ideas.”

What is life like for these high tech workers? A New Kind of Labor Movement in Silicon Valley” in The Atlantic (Sept. 4  )  gives a good overview, and introduces nascent groups as Silicon Valley Rising  and Tech Workers Coalition  .


Low-carbon technologies to the rescue: Solar PV, Electric Vehicles, CCS, and a replacement for cement

cover-expect-the-unexpected-300x225Expect the Unexpected: The Disruptive Power of Low-carbon Technology  is a new report by the Grantham Institute at Imperial College London and the Carbon Tracker Initiative. The report models energy demand by combining up-to-date solar PV and electric vehicle cost projections with climate policies based on the UNFCC Nationally Determined Contributions statements. The results are contrasted with the current “Business as Usual” scenarios of the major fossil fuel companies, and demonstrate how Big Oil underestimates the impact of solar and EV technologies. Expect the Unexpected forecasts peak oil and gas by 2020, with electric vehicles accounting for over two-thirds of the road transport market by 2050, and states that  Solar PV  “could supply 23% of global power generation in 2040 and 29% by 2050, entirely phasing out coal and leaving natural gas with just a 1% market share.”

The report and addresses the question, “What contribution can accelerated solar PV and EV penetration make to achieving a 2°C target?”   It  provides various scenarios, but concludes that decarbonisation of heavy industry (specifically iron and steel, cement, chemcials)  will  also be required and essential.  On this front, the report states that Carbon Capture and Storage (CCS) is unlikely to be financially viable in power generation, but “ In non-power sectors such as heavy industry, however, CCS is likely to have a much more important role because there are currently few viable low-carbon alternatives for achieving deep decarbonisation. Furthermore, if CO2 can be utilised in other industrial processes, this added value will serve to improve the viability of CCS.”

One such low-carbon alternative for cement production – albeit one which is still in development – is reported in a  recent article by University of Victoria’s Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions .  Based on the premise that most of the CO2 produced in cement manufacture is not in the kiln-heating process, but rather by the chemical reaction of turning limestone into quicklime, researchers at McGill University in Montreal  have developed a building product called Carbicrete, which  replaces Portland cement with steel slag (a waste product) as its main binding agent.   Read details in “Solving the Thorny problem of Cement Emissions”   (Feb. 1).

Use this link to view The Expect the Unexpected main report, a technical report, and an interactive dashboard allowing readers to manipulate elements of climate policy, technology price, and energy demand are available here.


Clean Energy Investment Slows in Canada; Canada ranks 11th in Clean Energy Jobs

The 2016 edition of  Tracking the Clean Energy Revolution: Canada  was released by Clean Energy Canada in June with an upbeat message, despite the fact that renewable energy investment and development slowed in some provinces ( 89% in Alberta, 52% in British Columbia, 15% in Ontario, and 9% in Quebec).  At the same time, investment grew in Atlantic Canada, Manitoba, and Saskatchewan, so that it was still Canada’s second-best year on record for clean energy spending, and  renewable generation capacity  grew by 4 per cent. The main message of the report, however, is that a new spirit of cooperation and ambition has developed with the change of leadership in the federal government.  The report lists the renewable projects, their size, and companies involved throughout the country, but doesn’t report on employment impacts. For that, consult the latest survey by the  International Renewable Energy Agency, Renewable Energy and Jobs 2016 . Canada ranks 11th, with an estimated 36,000 clean energy jobs, well behind the top countries of China (with 3.5 million jobs!), Brazil, the United States, India, Japan and Germany.  Solar Photovoltaics continues to be the largest renewable energy employer with 2.8 million jobs worldwide in 2015, an 11% increase over 2014.  For the first time, IRENA published gender-based employment figures, based on their own online survey.   Women represent 35% of the workforce in the 90 renewable energy companies surveyed from 40 countries – higher than the energy industry average of 20-25%.  On average, women represent 46% of the administrative workforce, 28% of the technical workforce, and 32% of management roles.  Earlier IRENA reports are here  .