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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.”

Fight the Fire: Green New Deals and Global Climate Jobs

By Jonathan Neale - The Ecologist, January 2021

As I write, we are in the midst of a global pandemic which reveals every kind of cruelty and inequality. Worse is to come. We are entering into a global recession and mass unemployment. Looming beyond that is the threat of runaway climate change. But this is also a moment in history. It may be possible, now, to halt the onward rush of climate breakdown.
A door is opening. In every country in the world, a great debate is beginning. The question is, what can be done about the economy? In every country, one answer will be that the government must give vast sums of money to banks, hedge funds, oil companies, airlines, corporations and the rich. And that the government must pay for all this by cutting hospitals, education, welfare and pensions.

The other answer will be that we must spend vast sums of money to create new jobs, build a proper healthcare system, meet human needs and stop climate change.

Who do we rescue? Their banks and their corporations, or our people and our planet?

The answer in favour of helping people, not the rich, is called a “Green New Deal”. The idea of a Green New Deal has been around for a decade in many countries. But the decisive moment came in 2017, when Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders in the United States decided to back a Green New Deal. That resonated widely. As we entered the pandemic, that idea was already there.

But those three little words, Green New Deal, can mean everything, anything and nothing. We want one particular kind of deal. The words need to mean something real and particular if the deal is to make a difference.

Read the text (link).

The Just Transition Strategy: Strategic Energy and Climate Framework

By Staff - Instituto para la Transición Justa,, January 2021

In February 2019, the Spanish Government approved the Strategic Framework for Energy and Climate, through which measures will be implemented to facilitate the change towards an economic, sustainable and competitive model that will help to curb climate change. This Strategic Framework is structured on three pillars: the draft bill on Climate Change, the draft of the National Integrated Energy and Climate Plan (PNIEC), and the Just Transition Strategy (ETJ).

These three elements will enable Spain to have a solid and stable strategic framework for the decarbonisation of its economy: the draft bill offers an efficient roadmap for the coming decades; the PNIEC lays the foundations for decarbonisation during the 2021-2030 period, in accordance with the goal of achieving net zero emissions in 2050; and the Just Transition Strategy is a solidarity-based support strategy to ensure that people and territories make the most of the opportunities of this ecological transition without leaving anyone behind.

Two of the elements of the framework significantly increase Spain's climate ambition.

On the one hand, the draft bill on Climate Change and Energy Transition (LCCTE) proposes that the electricity system be 100% renewable and neutral in terms of greenhouse gas emissions for the whole economy by 2050.

On the other hand, the draft of the PNIEC that has been sent to Brussels proposes a reduction of 23% in greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 in comparison to 1990. Proportionally, this is a mitigation effort that is much higher than the current EU target of 40%, and is in line with the 50-55% range that the EU is heading towards. In addition, the draft PNIEC envisages reaching 42% of renewable energy consumption out of the total energy consumption by 2030, which means doubling the figure expected to be reached this year, 2020. In the case of electricity generation, the percentage of renewables would be 74%. The country's energy efficiency would improve by 39.5% during the 2021-2030 decade.

The opportunities that will be generated by this ambitious increase of goals are numerous:

  • Mobilization of 241 billion Euros over the next decade from private, public and mixed investment.
  • Savings of approximately 67 billion Euros by 2030 due to the reduction of fossil fuel imports, which will also improve energy security.
  • Growth of between 16.5 and 25.7 billion Euros in annual GDP between 2021 and 2030, which will be an additional 1.8% of GDP growth in 2030 compared to a scenario without a plan.
  • Positive effect on employment, since between 253,000 and 348,000 jobs will be generated in the next decade, mainly in manufacturing and construction.
  • Economic revitalization of depopulated areas, as a result of the creation of green jobs in these territories, thus contributing to meet the demographic challenge. Reduction of about 27% in the number of premature deaths caused by air pollution.

The third element of the Framework seeks to maximize the social gains of the ecological transformation and to mitigate the negative impacts of this ecological transition. It is detailed in this Just Transition Strategy.

Read the text (PDF).

The Road Towards a Carbon Free Society: A Nordic-German Trade Union Cooperation on Just Transition

By Dr Philipp Fink - Friedrich Ebrt Stiftung, December 2020

This project, “The Road Towards a Carbon Free Society A Nordic-German Trade Union Cooperation on Just Transition”, is a collaboration between the Council of Nordic Trade Unions (NFS), the Friedrich-Ebert Stiftung (FES) and the German Trade Union Confederation (DGB).

Represented by the Council of Nordic Trade Unions (NFS) in the project are 13 national Trade Union Confederations within NFS, from five Nordic Countries: Denmark (FH, Akademikerne), Finland (SAK, STTK), Iceland (ASÍ, BSRB, BHM), Norway (LO-N, Unio, YS) and Sweden (LO-S, TCO, Saco).

About the reports

A total of six country reports on the Just Transition path of the participating countries (Denmark, Finland, Germany, Iceland, Norway, and Sweden) have been formulated.

Each contains an analysis of the climate policies, economic and societal consequences, an evaluation of the respective national instruments and offers European perspectives.

The main findings of the country reports are brought together in a synthesis. It features policy recommendations that aim to help guide the transition to a decarbonised society and an economy that is just and sustainable. The reports and their results are presented and discussed in a series of events nationally as well as in terms of Nordic and European cooperation and at the international level.

Synthesis

A Just Transition towards a carbon neutral future is the most urgent environmental, social and economic issue of our times. This project aims to develop strategies and requirements from a trade union perspective on how to manage the process to a carbon free society.

The participating labour organisations are united in their vision that this goal can only be reached if the social costs of this transition process are socially mitigated.

This means harmonising efforts to combat climate change with the aim of ensuring decent working and living conditions.

To this end, the participating labour organisations have not only analysed their respective countries’ transition path towards a fossil free future but have also formulated joint policy recommendations for the national and European arenas, jointly adopted by the NFS and the DGB in November and December 2020.

The ensuing discussions and debate have strengthened the cooperation and dialogue between the Nordic and the German trade union movements on common challenges and solutions.

Read the text (Link).

Sharing the Benefits With Workers: A Decent Jobs Agenda for the Renewable Energy Industry

By staff - Australian Council of Trade Unions, November 2020

Driven by the imperative of climate change, rapid technological development and ageing fossil fuel generation, global energy markets are changing rapidly.

Australia is not immune to these changes. Our electricity and gas markets and networks are undergoing a dramatic and at times chaotic transformation with no enduring overarching national planning, policy or coordination. Despite this the renewable energy industry has experienced rapid growth over the past decade, to the point where the ABS estimates it employed nearly 27,000 Australians in 2018/19. This growth in renewable energy jobs is being replicated globally and is predicted to accelerate over coming years due to declining renewable energy technology costs, converging global efforts to slow global warming and the retirement of ageing fossil fuel plant. The future competitiveness of energy-intensive industries such as mining, metals smelting, recycling and manufacturing is also increasingly dependent upon having access to low emissions, low cost electricity.

Section 2 of this ACTU report briefly summarises the extent and types of employment in Australia’s renewable energy sector, and the characteristics of those jobs. It explores the industry’s growth prospects and the current status of deployment of large- and small-scale renewable energy technologies. The changing drivers for new investment in renewable energy projects are discussed including the growing influence of voluntary purchasers of, and investors in, renewable energy who will be looking to ensure renewable energy projects deliver maximum community benefits and good quality jobs.

Section 3 outlines why unions have had concerns about the quality of renewable energy jobs and why the industry needs to pay more attention to this aspect of its social licence. In large part the union movement’s experience has been that many new renewable energy jobs have been short-term, insecure and poorly paid, compared with the permanent, secure, well-paid and unionised jobs in coal, oil and gas that often underpin regional economies. It explores some of the structural and operational challenges that need to be overcome to make the renewable energy industry an industry of choice for workers. Particular attention is paid to the current practice of outsourcing construction of renewable energy projects to labour hire contractors, which is where many of the poor employment practices occur, and to ensuring project developers are maximising local job creation through procurement, hiring and local content planning.

Section 4 provides some examples of both best and worst cases of labour standards in the industry and highlights some issues particular to the small scale solar industry.

The report concludes in section 5 with an agenda developed by Australian unions to improve the quality and security of jobs in the renewable energy sector so that a low carbon future delivers secure and sought-after jobs for the current and future generations of Australian workers. This best practice agenda, if adopted, will establish Australia’s renewable energy industry on solid foundations to support the growth and competitiveness of the industry and will ensure the benefits of renewable energy projects are more fully shared with workers, their families and communities through guaranteed local jobs and stronger employment conditions.

Australian unions are ready and willing to work in partnership with Australia’s renewable energy industry, governments and the energy sector to ensure a successful energy transition that creates good quality jobs across the country and a bright future for the industry. We look forward to working with the renewables industry, renewable energy purchasers and investors and governments to achieve this vision.

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.

Climate Jobs and Just Transition Summit: Maine, Texas, Illinois and Connecticut

Climate Jobs and Just Transition Summit: Climate Change Racial Justice and Economic Justice

Energy Self-Reliant States 2020: Third Edition

By Maria McCoy and John Farrell - Institute for Local Self-Reliance, September 2020

If each U.S. state took full advantage of its renewable resources, how much electricity would it produce? How much of its own electricity consumption could renewable energy fulfill? Would in-state renewable generation be enough to charge electric vehicles and power electric heating, too? In 2010, ILSR published the first national overview of state renewable electricity potential with the second edition of Energy Self-Reliant States (ESRS). At the time, most states were setting ambitious goals to attain 25 percent renewable electricity.

Now, several states and over 100 U.S. cities have made truly ambitious commitments to 100 percent renewable power. Fortunately, this third edition finds a better technical outlook and a brighter economic picture than a decade ago. States have much better renewable energy resources than they thought. Also, the costs of renewable electricity sources, like wind and solar, have declined precipitously. The 20-year average cost (often called the “levelized cost”) of solar electricity has declined from around $0.200 per kilowatt-hour for small scale projects to $0.091 per kilowatt-hour. The decline is even more dramatic for utility-scale solar, with the levelized cost falling from $0.120 to about $0.037 per kilowatt-hour. Wind energy costs have declined by significant margins, as well, from around $0.13 to $0.04 per kilowatt-hour.

Clean energy is not only affordable, it is a big contributor to the U.S. economy. At the start of 2020, the clean energy industry employed 3.3 million people – that’s 40 percent of America’s energy workforce. The clean energy sector is strong and growing stronger; the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts that solar installers and wind technicians will be the fastest growing occupations in the next decade.

Read the text (PDF).

The justice and equity implications of the clean energy transition

By Sanya Carley and David Konisky - Nature Energy, August 2020

The transition to lower-carbon sources of energy will inevitably produce and, in many cases, perpetuate pre-existing sets of winners and losers. The winners are those that will benefit from cleaner sources of energy, reduced emissions from the removal of fossil fuels, and the employment and innovation opportunities that accompany this transition. The losers are those that will bear the burdens, or lack access to the opportunities. Here we review the current state of understanding—based on a rapidly growing body of academic and policy literature—about the potential adverse consequences of the energy transition for specific communities and socio-economic groups on the frontlines of the transition. We review evidence about just transition policies and programmes, primarily from cases in the Global North, and draw conclusions about what insights are still needed to understand the justice and equity dimensions of the transition, and to ensure that no one is left behind.

Read the text (PDF).

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