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 .

Annual review of Jobs in Renewable Energy, with gender analysis

The 2020 Annual Review of Renewable Energy and Jobs was released by the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) on September 20 , showing a total of 11.5 million jobs globally in renewable energy in 2019  – led by 3.8 million jobs in the Solar photovoltaics (PV) sector, (a third of all renewable jobs) and 1.2 million in wind power.  Asia accounted for 63% of total jobs in renewables, and China alone accounted for 38%.   The report provides statistics regarding the subsectors, country case studies and geographic analysis, gender analysis, and growth trends.  In addition, this year’s review includes a special feature highlighting the importance of education and training policies to avoid skills shortages as renewable energy continues to expand. IRENA’s press release summarizes the highlights.

The 2020 Annual Review continues the gender analysis begun with their 2019 publication, Renewable Energy: A Gender Perspective .  The 2020 Review repeats the gender balance comparison between renewables and the fossil fuel industry, as first reported in the 2019 report:  32% of renewables jobs held by women, as compared to 22% in fossil fuels .  

Related reports include Wind Energy: A Gender Perspective (2020) by IRENA, and the Status Report on Gender Equality in the Energy Sector, published in September by the International Energy Agency (IEA) and C3E. The report  summarizes statistics on women in management, women on Boards of Directors, and women in STEM, covering a full range of energy companies, such as Exxon, Shell, and Encana as well as Canadian Solar, Eskom, and Vatenfall. C3E is an abbreviation for “Clean Energy, Education and Empowerment” and is part of the Equal by 30 campaign, launched in 2018 at the 9th Clean Energy Ministerial (CEM) in Copenhagen. Members include Canada, Italy, Sweden, Finland, UK, USA, Japan, Germany, France, and more than 80 energy companies.

Calls for improvements to Ontario’s failed climate policies

failure-to-launchEnvironmental Defence released a one-year progress report on the climate change policies of the Ontario government in early October. Failure to Launch   reviews each of the promises/actions proposed by the Conservative government of Doug Ford under its much-citicized “ Made-In-Ontario Environment Plan,  which lowered Ontario’s target for GHG emissions reductions from 37 to 30 per cent below 2005 levels by 2030 and cancelled renewable energy programs.   Environmental Defence finds that the government has not even made sufficient progress in its first year to meet the diminished GHG reduction goals, and makes specific recommendations for accelerated action. A summary appears in the Environmental Defence blog .  Then, on November 7, thirty environmental advocacy groups, including Environmental Defence,  posted an Open Letter to the members of Ontario’s provincial parliament  on November 7, with specific demands which would take serious action on climate change.  This coincides with the recall of the legislature after an historic 4-month recess.

The government led  the new session with its  2019 Economic Outlook and Fiscal Review  under a new banner: “ A Plan to Build Ontario Together”.  Although analysts note many “about face” policy changes to some programs, the climate/environmental file hasn’t benefitted, as described in an article in the National Observer . It notes that there was no mention in the budget of the previously announced Ontario Carbon Trust, a fund of $400 million over four years to support the private sector in developing clean technologies .

Ontario to pursue carbon tax case, and dragging its feet on action

According to analysis of the Economic Outlook from TVO: “Anyone looking for signs of reasonableness from the Tories on carbon pricing will be disappointed: despite the recent federal-election results, the fall economic statement reiterates that the government will keep fighting the federal carbon tax in court. The Supreme Court of Canada is expected to hear the case in March 2020.”

On October 31, this press release  proposes to expand fines for environmental regulations, reinvesting that revenue “to support projects that provide local solutions to environmental issues”. Environmentalists were not impressed.

white pines decomissioningThe White Pines wind farm decommissioning began in October, with the government following through on its 2018 decision to cancel the almost-completed  project, despite an estimated cost to taxpayers of $100 million in costs and penalties.  The local press of Prince Edward County reported on October 31 “ Sadness for green energy supporters as dismantling begins on turbine project” . The National Observer published a related article concerning the costs of cuts to clean energy  programs, including White Pines: “Doug Ford ‘throwing away’ millions to kill Ontario clean energy programs” (Nov. 19). The article cites a cost to the taxpayer of $230 million from killing more than 750 renewable-energy projects.

A government press release on November 7 announced a “Multi-Sector Impact Assessment Will Help Communities Identify Climate Change Risks and Strengthen Resilience”.   Apparently there’s no urgency: the private sector contract for this assessment will be tendered in 2020 for 2 years, producing a final report in 2022.

 

U.K. Offshore wind energy investment promises jobs, but the example of Scottish workers leads unions to protest

offshore wind Beothuk Installation Newfoundland.jpgOn March 7,  the government of the United Kingdom announced a new Offshore Wind Sector Deal  which aspires to provide 30% of the U.K.’s electricity by 2030 and, according to the article in The Guardian, also promises that  jobs in offshore wind will triple to 27,000 by 2030.  The detailed  government press release  further states that the deal will increase the number of women in the industry, continue efforts by educational institutions to develop a sector-wide curriculum to facilitate skills transfer, prompt new targets for apprenticeships, and create an “Offshore Energy Passport”, recognised outside of the UK, so that workers will be able “to work seamlessly across different offshore sectors.” Unite the union reacted with this statement , which included a warning that the Energy Passport “should not  be used to attack workers’ terms and conditions of employment, nor compromise health and safety regulations.”

In the same statement, Unite also called for a ‘level playing field’ for Scotland so that it can secure large-scale manufacturing contracts for its own offshore renewables sector. The  concern follows the award of  £2.8 billion in contracts for turbine manufacture to companies in Spain, Belgium and the United Arab Emirates, rather than to the BiFab yards in Fife, Scotland. As reported in “Union fury as £2.8 billion wind turbine contract goes overseas”  in the Greener Jobs Alliance newsletter (March/April), the GMB and Unite unions are calling on the Scotland’s Prime Minister and the Scottish Parliament to intervene, stating: “The Scottish Government and the public have a stake in BiFab and with it our renewables manufacturing future. We owe it to our communities to tackle the spaghetti bowl of vested interest groups that’s dominating our renewables sector and to fight for Scotland’s share’.