Beyond carbon blinders, deployment fever


pv magazine: In October your second book tackling the nexus between energy, renewables, climate change and social justice will be published. What can you tell me about it?

It is a teaching textbook as I teach classes on energy, as a part of an environmental studies department – actually one of the oldest environmental studies departments [in the United States] that was founded shortly after the first Earth Day in 1970. One of the founders of the department was a physicist, so we have always had a strong focus on energy. Generally, there hasn’t been a huge focus on energy in environmental studies, but at San José State University there is the curriculum space for me to run a bunch of energy classes, including a general class for students right across the campus, so it reaches a wide group of students.

And why was the textbook important to you?

The idea behind the textbook was to bring together the materials with which I teach. Energy textbooks tend to be generally very engineering focused and not particularly orientated towards my focus areas. My students are environmental studies students, and energy transitions are social problems with a technical component. There is generally not much of an emphasis on social science [in energy teaching] and I believe that it is important. The energy transition is about change in movement, in societal behavior, and this is missing in textbooks – which generally treat it as a policy and economic field.

This current moment has been a perfect opportunity for this textbook to come out: the social justice aspect, the role of protest movements, is missing in most of the thinking about energy policy and economics. So, in the introduction I’ve been able to address Covid-19 and to prompt students to think about how energy use has changed. I also can touch on Black Lives Matter and issues regarding equity, labor and these things are all missing from standard energy textbooks.

Alongside addressing these social science issues, what else have you attempted to do with the textbook?

There are a lot of generalizations in this space. And I try to take those apart. I am trying to stimulate students to identify that there are generalizations being made and that interrogating assumptions is very important. Energy transitions involve many different axes, and I address those also: distributed [solar] versus large scale, market based versus state regulation, to try to get an understanding that these are complicated topics, and generalizations work in some cases, but it is healthy to examine them.

You are raising some issues that I am guessing a lot of people within the solar industry wouldn’t be thinking about a great deal. Why should people in PV engage with some of these issues – the social science side of the energy transition and solar story?

The reason why I think it’s important, from the solar professional perspective, is the reputational risk issue. It is a really big deal when, for an energy technology that is supposed to be clean, there are headlines about dirty processes, waste or poor labor relationships. Headlines like this could actually dissuade people to adopt and support solar – and solar depends to some extent on public support. Things like this could erode public support. The reputational risk question arises if suddenly people start associating solar as being exploitative in some way. I think people tend to see solar as a benefit and obviously it has tremendous benefits compared to conventional energy technologies, but that does not give solar free reign to do whatever it wants.

So, what can solar companies do to mitigate these risks?

What is challenging is that solar is a part of a complicated commodity system, there are all these little parts, made all over the world. This means solar professionals may not be able to trace where all of these parts come from. This means that it is worthwhile to start setting sustainability standards. It is hard for a company to go it alone with a sustainable supply chain initiative, meaning that the industry has to have a broader approach. This makes something like the NSF 457 Sustainability Standard for solar important. There is public support for solar through subsidies and standards like NSF 457 creates a closer nexus for the solar industry to be doing the right thing.

Well it was something like 10 years ago you started looking specifically into the solar industry with the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition.

More like 12 years ago…

Wow, I didn’t realize it went back so far. I first came across your work with the Solar Scorecard.

Before that there was the Toward a Just and Sustainable Solar Industry White Paper in 2009, and as an aside, it’s funny now to see ‘just and sustainable’ is the framing of the [Democratic Party] climate platform in the presidential election now. But there was also the Green Jobs Platform for Solar, which was endorsed by 50 environmental justice groups.

And do you think progress has been made toward these broad sustainability goals since then?

I think the answer is yes. With all the caveats of not having the real emissions data and being able to look under the hood of all aspects of solar production. But yes, if nothing else because we don’t see the investigative journalism headlines we saw years ago involving polysilicon dumping and hydrochloric acid spills involving solar companies.

In the chemical industry there are very complicated infrastructures and there is a lot going on. There is so much emphasis on safety in these facilities and as the industry has matured they are have figured out how to avoid things like hazardous gases – arsenic based gases were used in solar production at one point. I don’t know whether sustainability was an independent goal or whether there were external pressures. Maybe it was just cost savings – waste and accidents cost money too, result in lost product, time, and workforce. But whatever the driver, you just don’t see these headlines anymore.

JinkoSolar is an example. It was a relatively new solar manufacturer when it was involved in a waste-water dispute, where hydrochloric acid drums were washed into a river after heavy rains. Now, Jinko has been running for 10-12 years and has learned to become a better chemical steward – it is all a part of the learning curve.

We did see a major polysilicon factory explosion just a few weeks ago. So maybe not all of the bad headlines are gone.

That just goes to show this is very heavy industry and it also proves the industry consolidation point I was making – as you go further up the supply chain there are fewer players. It took just one explosion to wipe out 10% of the polysilicon supply chain.

It did sound like a refrigerant was involved, as there is a lot of cooling needed on those reactors.

It is also another example of the opaqueness of parts of the supply chain: Polysilicon production is really guarded, about their energy balances not a lot is known.

Where else have you seen improvements?

Reporting is another example. When we started our work, it was just SolarWorld and REC Group that published sustainability reports and reported on emissions. Now we have a larger portion of the solar industry disclosing their sustainability metrics on their websites. Back when I started my work, when you went on a company website, they just said here is our sustainability page: ‘we make solar panels,’ and that was it. The spirit of it is correct, but not what we are looking for in terms of differentiated the different solar companies. The reporting and disclosure have gotten a lot better.

But how often do you still encounter that? That the solar industry is a bit blinded to wider sustainability issues because the product itself is part of the solution to climate change?

It’s true that some solar people have carbon blinders on and deployment fever; that they are fighting carbon pollution, providing energy access, and so it is simply important to deploy as much solar as possible. But that doesn’t engage with the substance and the materiality of production. Deploying more solar panels is mitigating climate impacts – but it is abstracting the process from reality. It could be true, but it is not engaging with the people who are making the solar panels and how this production could be impacting them and their environment, and somewhat of a deflection of the criticism. But generally, the industry is making progress.

The theme of pv magazine’s UP Initiative in the third quarter is circular manufacturing. How important do you believe this approach is, and how relevant to solar?

The first step in any circular approach is to collect all the end of life stuff, and solar is still not quite doing that in a comprehensive way. There are systems in place in Europe, but in most places there are none. From a reputational risk point of view, seeing piles of discarded panels and waste is not necessarily good to see.

For some materials that are really important to the industry, a circular approach can help maintain supply – so price volatility doesn’t have a detrimental impact. This is true of silver and tellurium, for example.

Circularity is really important because the mining is important. Promoting the circular economy takes solar out of the extractive economy. Letting the sun fuel us does takes us away from some of the extraction, but circular economy pushes it further away from extractivism.

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