Renewable Energy companies seen as barriers to a successful public energy transition

Recent issues of New Labor Forum include articles promoting the concept of energy democracy, and bringing an international perspective.  In “Sustaining the Unsustainable: Why Renewable Energy Companies Are Not Climate Warriors” (New Labor Forum, August),  author Sean Sweeney argues that renewable energy companies “are party to a “race to the bottom” capitalist dynamic that exploits workers – citing the example of alleged forced Uyghur labour in China-based solar companies, and the offshoring of manufacturing for the Scottish wind industry. He also argues that “large wind and solar interests’ “me first” behavior is propping up a policy architecture that is sucking in large amounts of public money to make their private operations profitable. They are sustaining a model of energy transition that has already shown itself to be incapable of meeting climate targets. In so doing, these companies have not just gone over to the political dark side, they helped design it.”   

The theme of the Spring New Labor Forum was  A Public Energy Response to the Climate Emergency , and includes these three articles: “Beyond Coal: Why South Africa Should Reform and Rebuild Its Public Utility”; “Ireland’s Energy System: The Historical Case for Hope in Climate Action”; and Mexico’s Wall of Resistance:  Why AMLO’s Fight for Energy Sovereignty Needs Our Support .

The author of Sustaining the Unsustainable is Sean Sweeney, who is Director of the International Program on Labor, Climate & Environment at the School of Labor and Urban Studies, City University of New York, and is also the coordinator of  Trade Unions for Energy Democracy (TUED).  In August, TUED convened a Global Forum, “COP26: What Do Unions Want?”   – with participation  from 69 unions, including the Scottish Trades Union Congress (STUC), the UK Trades Union Congress (TUC), the International Transport Workers Federation (ITF), Trade Union Confederation of the Americas (TUCA), the UK’s Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS), and Public Services International (PSI). Presentations are  summarized in TUED Bulletin 111, (Aug. 18), and are available on YouTube here .  

Benefits of wind energy exceed its cost

The Land-based Wind Energy Report 2021 released by the U.S. Department of Energy states that wind power represented the largest source of U.S. electric-generating capacity additions in 2020 – constituting 42% of all new capacity additions, with the state of Texas maintaining its status as having the most wind energy capacity.  A forecasted decrease in land-based wind installation for 2022 and 2023 is attributed to the scheduled expiration of federal tax credits and anticipated growth of offshore wind.

Health and climate benefits of Wind

In addition to providing statistics and analyzing trends, the Land-based Wind Energy Report 2021 states that “The health and climate benefits of wind are larger than its grid-system value, and the combination of all three far exceeds the levelized cost of wind. Wind reduces emissions of carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxides, and sulfur dioxide, providing public health and climate benefits. Nationally, these benefits averaged $76/MWh. …… almost three times the average LCOE ” (which has fallen to around $33/MWh  nationally).

A second new report from the U.S. Department of Energy is Offshore Wind Market Report: 2021 Edition , which provides detailed information about technology and market trends in the U.S. and globally. The report describes the status of over 200 global operating offshore wind energy projects through December 31, 2020, with an update about the most significant domestic developments and events from January 1, 2020, through May 31, 2021. It also describes projects in various stages of development – stating that global offshore wind energy deployment is expected to accelerate in the future, and citing a forecast by Bloomberg New Energy Finance of a seven-fold increase in global cumulative offshore wind capacity by 2030. In the U.S., the expansion and growth of the offshore wind energy market is  primarily attributed to  increasing state-level procurement targets in the Northeast and mid-Atlantic, and growing infrastructure investments needed to keep pace with development. The Biden Administration’s national target goal of 30-GW-by-2030 goal is also noted (and is described in this White House Fact Sheet from March 2021).  The report estimates that  the average levelized cost of energy (LCOE) of fixed-bottom offshore wind energy installations is now below $95/megawatt-hour (MWh) globally –a decrease ranging from 28-51% between 2014 and 2020. The experts surveyed for the report predict LCOE levels of approximately $56/MWh by 2030, and a range of $44/MWh to $72/MWh by 2050. 

On 9 September, the Global Wind Energy Council will provide more statistics, when it releases its third annual Global Offshore Wind Report 2021.  In the September 3 press release announcing the GWEC 2nd Quarter Report, the Council observed “Overly complex and bureaucratic permitting procedures remain a critical market barrier, which creates high attrition rates for project applications and are slowing down wind power deployment in countries around the world, from Germany to India. To achieve our international climate targets, a sensible and positive regulatory environment needs to be in place to ensure successful procurement and smooth project timelines for both onshore and offshore wind.”  In July, the Council and 25 wind energy company CEO’s sent an Open Letter to G20 Ministers, calling on them to “get serious” about wind energy, and citing the International Energy Agency (IEA) assessment that annual wind deployment must quadruple from 93 GW in 2020 to 390 GW in 2030 to meet a net zero by 2050 scenario. 

Clean energy jobs as a transition destination

Released on June 3, Responding to Automation: Building a Cleaner Future  is a new analysis by the Conference Board of Canada, in partnership with the Future Skills Centre. It investigates the potential for clean energy jobs as a career transition destination for workers at high risk of losing their jobs because of automation. The clean energy occupations were identified from three areas: clean energy production, energy efficiency , and environmental management and the “rapid growth” jobs identified range from wind turbine technicians and power-line installers to industrial engineers, sheet metal workers, and  geospatial information scientists. Based on interviews with clean economy experts, as well as the interview responses from over five hundred workers across Canada, the analysis identifies  the structural barriers holding employers and workers back from transition:  Lack of consistent financial support for workers to reskill • Employer hesitancy to hire inexperienced workers • Current demand for relevant occupations which makes change less attractive • Lack of awareness around potential transition opportunities • Personal relocation barriers, such as high living costs in new cities, and family commitments. None of the recommended actions to overcome the barriers include a role for unions, with the burden for action falling largely on the individual employee. Only summary information is presented as a web document, but this research is part of a larger focus on automation, so it can be hoped that a fuller report will be published – if so, the partner group, Future Skills, maintains a Research website where it will likely be available.  

Other news about renewable energy jobs:

“Renewable Energy Boom Unleashes a War Over Talent for Green Jobs” appeared in Bloomberg Green News (June 8), describing shortages of skilled workers in renewable energy, mainly in the U.S.. It also summarizes a U.K. report which forecasts a large need for workers in the U.K. offshore industry, which is expected to be met by people transferring from the oil and gas sector.  

A report by the Global Wind Energy Council forecasts a growth of 3.3 million wind jobs worldwide by 2025, and suggests that offshore wind energy jobs could offer a natural transition for workers dislocated from offshore oil and gas and marine engineering workers. According to the analysis, in 2020, there were approximately 550,000 wind energy workers in China, 260,00 in Brazil, 115,000 in the US and 63,000 in India.  A related report, The Global Wind Workforce Outlook 2021-2025 forecasts a large training gap: the global wind industry will need to train over 480,000 people in the next five years to construct, install, operate and maintain the world’s growing onshore and offshore wind fleet. That report is available for download here (registration required), and is summarized in this press release.

And forthcoming:   Clean Energy Canada will release its research on the clean energy labour market in Canada on June 17.  Their last jobs report, The Fast Lane: Tracking the Energy Revolution, was released in 2019.

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.”

Wind and solar PV will surpass coal and natural gas by 2024, according to latest IEA forecast

The International Energy Agency released another of its flagship reports in November: Renewables 2020: Analysis and Forecast to 2025.  This comprehensive report focuses in turn on each of: renewable electricity, renewable heat, solar pv, wind, Hydropower, bioenergy, CSP and geothermal, and transport bioenergy.  Overall, the report forecasts global energy demand is set to decline by 5% in 2020, and although all other fuels will decline, overall renewable energy demand will increase by 1%, and renewables used for generating electricity will grow by almost 7% in 2020.  The report provides statistics and comments on the impacts of Covid recovery policies.

Some highlights:   “The renewables industry has adapted quickly to the challenges of the Covid crisis…. Supply chain disruptions and construction delays slowed the progress of renewable energy projects in the first six months of 2020. However, construction of plants and manufacturing activity ramped up again quickly, and logistical challenges have been mostly resolved with the easing of cross-border restrictions since mid-May.” As a result, the IEA has revised its May 2020 forecast of global renewable capacity additions upwards, and forecasts a record expansion of nearly 10% in 2021 for new renewable capacity, led by India and the EU.  Other eye-catching statements:  “ Solar PV and onshore wind are already the cheapest ways of adding new electricity-generating plants in most countries today… Overall, renewables are set to account for 95% of the net increase in global power capacity through 2025…..Total installed wind and solar PV capacity is on course to surpass natural gas in 2023 and coal in 2024. Solar PV alone accounts for 60% of all renewable capacity additions through 2025, and wind provides another 30%. Driven by further cost declines, annual offshore wind additions are set to surge, accounting for one-fifth of the total wind annual market in 2025.”

The Renewables 2020 website is here ; a 9-page Executive Summary is here .