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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.”

Negative Emission Technologies: Can They Deliver?

By staff - Biofuel Watch, December 2020

A negative emission technology (NET) is a technological approach to removing greenhouse gases that have already been emitted into the atmosphere. That differs from “mitigation” which focuses on preventing emissions in the first place. Aside from concerns about how future availability of NETs might undermine current and near term mitigation efforts, there are further serious concerns: the technologies that are currently proposed are unproven at commercial scale and may never prove scaleable. They are extremely expensive and could worsen rather than improve our climate woes.

Biofuelwatch has produced a new briefing about Negative Emissions Technologies, with a focus on Bioenergy with Carbon Capture and Storage (BECCS) and Direct Air Capture (DAC).

Aside from being unproven, if adopted BECCS could result in yet more forest destruction for bioenergy production. While Drax has a pilot BECCS project at its Yorkshire power station, it has so far failed to store any carbon. DAC is another expensive and unproven technology that aims to bind CO2 with a medium so it can then be separated, compressed and stored underground.

Read the text (PDF).

Solar Panel Recycling: Let’s Make It Happen

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 wind turbines 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.

Growth of solar panels and their lifespans

Solar energy is converted into electricity primarily with photovoltaic (PV) panels (there is another technology, called concentrating solar power, or CSP, but it is less commonly used and not addressed here). PV panels are comprised of individuals cells linked together, forming various shapes and sizes based on the needs of the system. The panels themselves are made with semiconductor materials—generally silicon, but sometimes various rare metals—and generally covered in glass.

The cost of PV panels has declined dramatically in recent years while their efficiency has gone up. These trends are continuing, leading to rapid growth of the solar industry globally. Solar panels on average last 25-30 years (and maybe even longer); thus, solar installations occurring today can be expected to remain productive until the middle of this century.

The reliability and longevity of new panels means that the volume requiring recycling or disposal is currently low, except for very early generations of PV panels and small numbers that may get broken during the installation process or damaged in storms.

However, options for recycling and disposal need to be addressed as PV production continues to ramp up. And while the larger recycling need may not come for another decade, infrastructure and policy should be put in place now to accommodate future needs.

Cracking the Code on Recycling Energy Storage Batteries

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 wind turbines. Special thanks to Jessica Garcia, UCS’s Summer 2020 Midwest Clean Energy Policy Fellow, for research support and co-authoring these posts.

Lithium-ion batteries dominate the energy storage scene

Lithium-ion (Li-ion) batteries might be known to everyday consumers as the rechargeable batteries which power our cellphones, cameras, and even toothbrushes. Apart from storing energy for small devices, Li-ion batteries are now being used at a much larger scale to store energy for electric vehicles (EVs) and as storage for renewable energy systems like wind and especially solar.

Bloomberg New Energy Finance reports that prices for battery packs used in electric vehicles and energy storage systems have fallen 87% from 2010-2019, much faster than expected. As the prices have fallen, battery usage has risen.

So have the conversations on what can and should be done with Li-ion batteries when they reach the end-of-use stage. Here we will focus on recycling of lithium-ion batteries from energy storage systems, but for more information on increasing possibilities for second-life uses of EV batteries, see our former colleague Hanjiro Ambrose’s blog and podcast episode.

As a key energy storage technology, batteries are important for incorporating higher amounts of wind and solar power on the grid.

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).

MACG Statement of Shared Positions

By collective - Melbourne Anarchist Communist Group, August 13, 2018

This document is to be read as a supplement to the Aims & Principles of the Melbourne Anarchist Communist Group. Agreement with the positions in this document is a condition of membership.

1. The social revolution will be the act of the working class, organised in the workplace. Other classes (e.g. the peasantry) and social strata (e.g. students) in society may support the workers in this struggle, but cannot substitute for them. The workers have a unique role because of their numbers, their role in production which means that they are able to remove the economic power of the capitalists by organising under their own initiative, and the fact that the experience of social co-operation in production tends to produce the values that promote solidarity in the struggle against the employer. One corollary of the fact that the struggle will be decided in the workplace is that it will not be decided by street brawls with the cops. While it is certainly necessary to defend ourselves against police attack, capitalism’s achilles’ heel is in the workplace and our strategic orientation must be there.

2. We stand for the complete equality of the sexes and oppose all forms of oppression of women. The liberation of women from patriarchy will not be achieved without the overthrow of capitalism and the destruction of class society. The overthrow of capitalism will not be achieved without the full participation of working class women in the struggle. It is therefore in the interests of male workers to support all struggles for equality and freedom for women, even if these are at the expense of male privileges. The solidarity of the male and female halves of the working class can only be built on the principle that an injury to one is an injury to all. We support the right of women to organise autonomously within the wider working class movement and also within Anarchist organisations.

3. We oppose the oppression and dispossession of indigenous people in Australia. This means that indigenous people have the right to equal treatment within Australia (i.e. no racial discrimination, whether from the State or in society) and have the right to remain indigenous (i.e. retain their lands and culture, without pressure for assimilation into the dominant culture). Indigenous people in Australia have never ceded sovereignty and have never sold their land. We acknowledge the desire of indigenous people in Australia for a treaty to recognise their prior occupation and continued rights, but believe that no such treaty can be negotiated on just terms for indigenous people while capitalism and its State endure in Australia. We believe a just settlement for indigenous people can only be achieved after a revolutionary transformation of society, including crucially the abolition of capitalist real estate.

4. We are internationalists, opposing the division of humanity into conflicting nation States and supporting working class solidarity as the one force which is capable of being an axis of effective counter-mobilisation against nationalism and racism. We therefore support open borders as a principle that will be implemented under Libertarian Communism and in the meantime will support struggles which provide opportunities to move in that direction. In particular, we support the struggle of refugees for asylum in Australia and oppose both immigration detention and deportation.

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).

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