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How “clean” are clean energy and electric vehicles?

By Elizabeth Perry - Work and Climate Change Report, January 19, 2021

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 Turbine Blades Don’t Have To End Up In Landfills

By James Gignac - Union of Concerned Scientists, October 30, 2020

This is one of four blogs in a series examining current challenges and opportunities for recycling of clean energy technologies. Please see the introductory post, as well as other entries on solar panels and energy storage batteries. Special thanks to Jessica Garcia, UCS’s Summer 2020 Midwest Clean Energy Policy Fellow, for research support and co-authoring these posts.

Wind turbines have increased in size and quantity to meet clean energy capacity demands

Modern wind power converts the kinetic (movement) energy from wind into mechanical energy. This happens through the turning of large fiberglass blades, which then spin a generator to produce electricity. Wind turbines, as they are known, can be located onshore or offshore.

Wind power is projected to continue growing across the US by 2050. The latest Wind Technologies Market Report prepared by Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory found that wind energy prices are at all-time lows, and for 2019, 7.3 percent of utility-scale electricity generation in the US came from wind. In this blog post, we will examine land-based wind turbines and the recycling opportunities that exist but are not yet widely implemented for the turbine blades.

Source: Berkeley Lab Electric Markets & Policy (https://emp.lbl.gov/wind-energy-growth)

Steel Arising

By Julian M Allwood, Cyrille F Dunant, Richard C Lupton, and André C H Serrenho - University of Cambridge, April 2019

The global steel industry is transforming from using iron ore to recycling scrap. Global arisings of steel scrap are likely to treble in the next thirty years and we will never need more blast furnaces than we have today. The extent and speed of this global transformation depends on two competing forces: on the one hand, today’s recycling technology cannot currently produce the highest qualities of high-volume steel econonically; on the other, recycling has the critical advantage that it reduces the greenhouse gas emissions released in producing steel to around a third of those from primary production. As the steel industry turns from ore to scrap and action on climate change accelerates, what opportunities does this create for steel in the UK?

UK consumers currently demand around 15 million tonnes per year of steel in final goods. Although the UK’s steel production has fallen to well below this figure, it manufactures goods containing around the same annual total. However, the UK largely exports its steel products and manufactured steel goods at low value, while importing most high-value final goods containing steel. Only one sixth of UK final consumption of steel goods is currently made with steel produced in the UK, and that is mainly lower value components for construction.

Despite this weak current position, the UK has four comparative advantages by which it could profit in the ongoing global transformation of steel production.

Read the report (Link).

We Need to Talk About Technology

By Simon Pirani  - The Ecologist, October 5, 2018

Housing for working people is becoming as central an issue for labour and social movements in the twenty first century as it was in the nineteenth and twentieth. And not just decent housing, but housing that is comfortable, aesthetically pleasing – and, crucially, low energy, zero energy or even energy positive. 

Here is a wonderful opportunity for our movement to get a grip on technology. We can and should find ways to bring the experience of architects and energy conservation engineers into discussions about housing among community activists and building workers.

A good example of how not to do this is the call for mass installation of air conditioners, made by Leigh Phillips in his article, In Defense of Air Conditioning published by Jacobin

Improved design

The problem that Phillips purports to address – the cruel effect of heat on millions of urban residents, during summers such as 2018’s – is real enough.

The need to provide ourselves with homes that shelter us from extreme heat as well as colder weather – something ruling classes down the ages have never done for working people – is indisputable. 

But Phillips’s techno-fix – mass AC installation, supported by a grand expansion of nuclear and hydro power – is not the answer. He sounds like someone proposing the state-funded distribution of armour-plated BMWs to parents demanding safe cycle routes to school for their children.

Better temperature control can and should be achieved not in the first place by AC, but mainly by better building design, better insulation and better urban planning, in the context of better ways of living generally.

This ABC of AC is widely understood by three groups of people, ignored in Phillips’s article, who spend time thinking about our homes: community groups organising on housing issues; building workers and architects; and energy conservation researchers. 

Building post-capitalist futures

By various - Transnational Institute - June 2018

Over several sunny days in June 2018, a diverse group of 60 activists and researchers from 30 countries convened for a multi-day meeting to discuss the collective building of post-capitalist futures. The meeting provided the opportunity for a rich exchange of perspectives and experiences, as well as deep discussion and debate. The goal of the meeting was not to achieve consensus both an impossible and unnecessary endeavour but rather to stimulate mutual learning, challenge one another and advance analyses.

One session of the meeting – Transformative Cities – was held not as a closed discussion but as a public event attended by 300 people at which prominent activists and academics engaged with municipal leaders and politicians on the role cities can play in building post-capitalist futures.

In line with the meeting, this report does not intend to advance one line of analysis, but rather summarise some of the key ideas and issues discussed and debated (not necessarily in the order they were articulated). To summarise necessarily means to leave things out. It would be impossible to fully capture the incredible richness of the discussion that took place, but hopefully this report provides a valuable sketch.

Read the report (PDF).

Capitalism Is Killing the Earth: An Anarchist Guide to Ecology

By JohnWarwick, et. al. - Anarchist Federation, 2018

We are in a period of crisis that we in MEDCs cannot yet see. The signs are there if you look hard enough but at the moment the water is still flowing, the crops are still reliable the ski lifts are still running. The first wave of climate refugees are trying to make their way into Europe but they are being dismissed as "economic migrants" or those displaced by war. In all likelihood, MEDCs will not feel the effects of climate change for some time; our relative wealth will push the impacts onto those who haven't the means to adapt or whose local climates were less temperate to begin with. The longer we wait to act, however, the bigger the coming crunch will be.

Collectively, MEDCs are responsible for the overwhelming majority of cumulative carbon emissions and will have to radically change their energy and transport systems if an ecological disaster is to be avoided. Who will bear the brunt of the costs and who will get rich from this process is sadly predictable. The working class in MEDCs and most people in LEDCs will pay for the fossil fuel addiction and growth-at-all-costs model of the capitalist system. We have already begun to see this happen in the black, working-class communities devastated by natural disasters in the USA and flooding killing thousands in Bangladesh.

Capitalism relies on constantly increasing accumulation of profits. This has been achieved historically by appropriations (a polite term for thefts) both internal and external to the nation state. Internally, in Europe from the fifteenth century onwards, this has followed the model of stealing common land from the people to create a proletarian class dependent on wage labour to support itself. Externally, this expansion was tied to a move outside Europe's borders to exploit natural resources and labour in other locations. Thus colonialism and capitalism were, from the beginning, linked to processes of resource extraction and accumulation.

Capitalism is now in crisis; with so few areas beyond its reach, there are no easy sources of growth to appropriate, and the ability of the earth's ecosystems to accommodate further growth is being seriously questioned. How then to continue growth and profit? In MEDCs, we are seeing a fresh attack on workers? rights, with more precarious jobs, lower pay and poorer social care. In LEDCs, the neoliberal development model is pushed with privatisation and financial deregulation extracting the most profit for the capitalists.

We write this pamphlet to discuss the environmental problems that capitalism has created, with a focus on climate change and the false solutions offered up to us. There has been wider understanding of environmental issues since mainstream publications such as Silent Spring, Gaia and An Inconvenient Truth; however, an anti-capitalist critique has been lacking.

Read the report (PDF).

Bringing Back The Lucas Plan

By Felix Holtwell - Notes from Below, March 30, 2018

“We got to do something now, the company are not going to do anything and we got to protect ourselves”, proclaimed a shop steward at Lucas Aerospace when filmed by a 1978 documentary by the Open University.

He was explaining the rationale behind the so-called Alternative Corporate Plan, better known as the Lucas Plan. It was proposed by shop stewards in seventies England at the factories of Lucas Aerospace. To stave off pending layoffs, a shop steward committee established a plan that outlined a range of new, socially useful technologies for Lucas to build. With it, they fundamentally challenged the capitalist conception of technology design.

Essentially, they proposed that workers establish control over the design of technology. This bottom-up attempt at design, where not management and capitalists but workers themselves decided what to build, eventually failed. It was stopped by management, sidelined by struggling trade unions and the Labour Party, and eventually washed over by neoliberalism.

The seventies were a heady time, the preceding social-democratic, fordist consensus ran into its own contradictions and died in the face of a triumphant neoliberalism. With it, experiments such as the Lucas Plan died as well. Today, however, neoliberalism is in crisis and to bury it we should look back to precisely those experiments that failed decades ago.

How to change the course of human history

By David Graeber and David Wengrow - Eurozine, March 2, 2018

The story we have been telling ourselves about our origins is wrong, and perpetuates the idea of inevitable social inequality. David Graeber and David Wengrow ask why the myth of 'agricultural revolution' remains so persistent, and argue that there is a whole lot more we can learn from our ancestors.

1. In the beginning was the word

For centuries, we have been telling ourselves a simple story about the origins of social inequality. For most of their history, humans lived in tiny egalitarian bands of hunter-gatherers. Then came farming, which brought with it private property, and then the rise of cities which meant the emergence of civilization properly speaking. Civilization meant many bad things (wars, taxes, bureaucracy, patriarchy, slavery…) but also made possible written literature, science, philosophy, and most other great human achievements.

Almost everyone knows this story in its broadest outlines. Since at least the days of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, it has framed what we think the overall shape and direction of human history to be. This is important because the narrative also defines our sense of political possibility. Most see civilization, hence inequality, as a tragic necessity. Some dream of returning to a past utopia, of finding an industrial equivalent to ‘primitive communism’, or even, in extreme cases, of destroying everything, and going back to being foragers again. But no one challenges the basic structure of the story.

There is a fundamental problem with this narrative.

It isn’t true.

In the Shadow of Honest Journalism: GateHouse Media Publishes Atrocious Anti-Wind Article Devoid of Scientific Evidence

By Brendan DeMelle - DeSmog Blog, December 13, 2017

This week, Gatehouse Media published a long-form investigative report called “In the Shadow of Wind Farms” claiming that wind energy has caused negative health effects for residents living near wind turbines — a claim that flies in the face of actual science.

GateHouse Media’s anti-wind article leans almost entirely on anecdotal evidence compiled during its six-month long project that included interviews with dozens of people who claim negative outcomes from living near wind farms.

Meanwhile, in the realm of scientific facts, the American Wind Energy Association, the main trade group representing the wind power industry, points to 25 scientific reviews that document the safety of wind farms for human health and the environment. One health researcher has told DeSmog the GateHouse article was “simply irresponsible journalism” and actually had “potential to exacerbate the experience of anxiety and related health effects.” 

Although GateHouse, a syndication outfit that publishes 130 daily newspapers in 36 states, briefly mentions the fact that scientific evidence for these claims is nearly non-existent, it plows ahead with a lengthy article full of anecdotes and unsubstantiated claims that aren’t supported by real science.

How this piece got published in its horribly one-sided (anti-wind) approach is a question worthy of many letters to the editor. Whether GateHouse — which is notoriously quiet when asked questions by other media outlets about its operations — will answer or attempt to defend this attack piece, time will tell.

But there is no hiding that the anti-wind movement is clearly coordinated, which even GateHouse admits its reporters were told repeatedly by sources contacted for their piece.

Many of the people who do complain, several representatives said, are well-known among industry insiders and comprise a small but vocal group of anti-wind activists,” the article said.

There are a good number of people who seem to pop up in different states and fight any wind project they can find,” Dave Anderson of the Energy and Policy Institute, a pro-renewable energy watchdog group, told GateHouse.

But the GateHouse reporters failed to disclose important information about several of their sources, including some with extensive ties to highly coordinated anti-wind activism.

Technologies that multiply inequalities

By Gabriel Levy - People and Nature, December 18, 2017

Review: The Bleeding Edge: why technology turns toxic in an unequal world by Bob Hughes (Oxford: New Internationalist, 2016)

How is it that the internet – a technology with such powerful, democratic potential – hovers over us like a monster that intrudes and spies, interferes in our collective interactions and thought processes, force-feeds us corporate garbage and imposes new work disciplines? What happened?

Bob Hughes, by thinking both about how computers work and how society works, offers compelling insights about these and other questions.

One of Hughes’s riffs on technological themes starts with the Forbes web page about Marc Andreessen, one of the world’s richest men, who in 1994 released the first version of the Netscape Navigator browser. Microsoft distributed Netscape with the Windows operating system, making Andreessen an instant multi-millionaire.

When Hughes visited the page, he found 196 words of information about Andreessen (last week, when I looked, there were only 81). Hughes found (and so did I) about another 1000 words of promotional and advertising material.

Behind those words lay a HTML page with 8506 words, or 88,928 characters. The promotional material multiplied the capacity required by the page 88 times – and that was not including the graphics. Including these, the page took about three-quarters of a megabyte of memory.

In the mid 1990s, Netscape Navigator made such advertising displays easy. It allowed web pages to create “cookies” on users’ machines to monitor the information that they enter, and enabled them to record and monitor information used in commerce. It effectively buried the principle, with which Tim Berners-Lee and other founders of the internet began, that the system would base itself on a huge mountain of identifiable text-only documents.

Hughes describes how Netscape Navigator and other developments opened the way for the dotcom bubble on the world’s stock exchanges, in 1997-2000, and a new technological leap, Web 2.0. This made possible live search functions, interactive social media, and the proliferation of online auction, booking, commercial and banking sites.

“Web 2.0 was created under pressure from increasingly powerful e-business interests, against principled resistance from the World Wide Web Consortium, whose founding principles included a commitment to making the Web accessible to all, including the visually handicapped and the blind, and in as many different ways as possible”, Hughes writes (p. 226).

The interactivity of the modern web is linked with an obsession among those who control it with speed – the computer-crunching power that allows pages to be updated and re-rendered instantaneously.

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