Updated: Nov 17, 2020
THE COMMON PERCEPTION IS RENEWABLES PLAY A KEY ROLE IN REDUCING C02 EMISSIONS BUT CAN COME AT A COST TO THE ENVIRONMENT AND VIOLATIONS OF HUMAN RIGHTS IN THEIR OPERATIONS AND SUPPLY CHAINS
Renewables sector falling short on human rights, social impacts, and environmental contamination.
The ongoing and global transition to renewable energies is not exempt from human rights abuses, which are creating risks vital to countering the climate crisis, UN-SDGs, and other significant environmental impacts.
The transition to renewable energy is highly anticipated by many to play a pivotal role in the post-covid-19 recovery, making it even more crucial that the renewable energy sector avoid the mistakes of other energy providers and urgently build respect for human rights and mitigate social and environmental impacts of its products and infrastructure across their operations and supply chains, throughout their useful life and more importantly at the end of its useful life
The renewable energy sectors including Solar and EVs are almost on par with other high-risk industries, such as apparel, agricultural products, mining, oil and gas, shale, and ICT manufacturing with regard to social and environmental impacts. Pressing issues around land use related to Solar, Wind, and Battery waste, as some projects are threatening the conversion from forestry, impeding natural habitat right of ways, converting agricultural land, and are threatening environmentally sensitive areas and land utilized by indigenous people for food and energy production.
At the same time, there are examples of good practices in the sector, where companies have engaged and consulted with local communities, authorities, and indigenous leaders about jobs and part-ownership of renewable energy projects.
Why we should be concerned?
We should continuously ask the questions around any emerging technology or projects, are they potentially toxic or harmful to the environment?
As an example, asking this question about solar, Are solar panels toxic to the environment?
For many, one of the primary motives for going solar is to have a positive impact on the environment. When you use solar energy in your home, the perception is you lower your overall greenhouse gas emissions like carbon dioxide, and you reduce your carbon footprint.
While solar panels are considered a form of clean, renewable energy, the manufacturing process does produce greenhouse gas emissions. To produce solar panels, manufacturers required extremely high temperatures and energy use, need to handle toxic chemicals, and are employing laborers at very low wages in unsafe working conditions.
Although, solar panels are not emitting toxins into the atmosphere as they’re generating electricity. At their end of life, they are broken up and end up in landfills where potentially harmful chemicals used in panel production leach into the soil and natural ecosystem.
It is the belief that solar panels are harmless and possess no real means to cause physical damage. But this could not be further from the truth. There are numerous risks to safety that are present in solar power plants that are not present in any other facility. The majority of the risks available are derived from the material that the solar panels are comprised of, the high voltage traveling through the system, the gaseous vapors flowing off equipment, and the poor quality that solar panels are now manufactured with.
The primary material used for solar cells today is silicon, which is derived from quartz. In order to become usable forms of silicon, the quartz has to be mined and heated in a furnace (which, in turn, emits sulfur dioxide and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere).
There are some chemicals used in the manufacturing process to prepare silicon and make the wafers for monocrystalline and polycrystalline panels. One of the most toxic chemicals created as a by-product of this process is silicon tetrachloride. This chemical, if not handled and disposed of properly, can lead to burns on your skin, harmful air pollutants that increase lung disease, and if exposed to water can release hydrochloric acid, which is a corrosive substance bad for human and environmental health. Other chemicals include cadmium telluride a most dangerous characteristic posed by is that when the substance is exposed to high temperatures it transitions from a solid into a highly carcinogenic vaporous gas that will cause permanent lung damage when exposed to life forms.
The large majority of panels used in installations are safe, silicon-based panels; however, if you’re installing thin-film technology, there are additional toxic materials contained in the thin-film panels itself, such as cadmium telluride and copper indium selenide. These materials are used in the manufacturing process for many other electronics, like your cell phone or laptop. Thin-film panels are not common for residential solar installations and are most often used in large commercial or utility scaled applications. Cadmium telluride has specific chemical properties that make it especially hazardous to all life forms residing near solar power plants. One of the most dangerous characteristics posed by cadmium telluride is that when the substance is exposed to high temperatures it transitions from a solid into a highly carcinogenic vaporous gas that will cause permanent lung damage when exposed to life forms. Considering that gas vapors can travel several hundred feet, this means that when a fire does break out at a solar power facility all residents within that particular area will need to be evacuated to prevent them from exposure to the toxic substance.
There is some concern that exposure to cadmium can cause cancer in human beings, and what is only recently being discovered by scientists is the link between cancer and solar arrays, and we may soon have viable evidence to draw a correlation between and explain why many critics of solar energy have historically always claimed that the panels cause cancer. Regardless of chemicals are employed in the manufacturing of solar panels, all solar panels contain lead solder, and research has shown that lead from solder will seep out of the solar panels along with whatever toxins are also incorporated. This lead then will contaminate the groundwater supply of the surrounding area and pose great risks to all individuals living in the surrounding area. The effects of lead poisoning are heavily documented and are much more familiar to us than poisoning from cadmium.
Fortunately, there is a process that most manufacturers employ to safely recycle silicon tetrachloride back into the manufacturing process for new silicon wafers, helping to eliminate health and environmental risks.
There are human rights and environmental risks associated with all the minerals used in solar panels and lithium-ion batteries. Human rights risks include poor worker health and safety, fair and living wage, conflict over land rights with local and Indigenous peoples, and labor rights issues including child labor and forced labor. Environmental impacts, such as pollution of air, soil, and water, as well as damage to the biodiversity of surrounding ecosystems through poor mineral extractions, water contamination, and waste management. Reducing the carbon emissions produced in mineral extraction is also particularly important, as the uptake in solar and wind energy is motivated by advocates to reduce global carbon emissions. To mitigate the social and environmental impacts of solar panel production, Governments must be proactive in setting and implementing the right policy, regulatory and oversight environment to ensure these minerals are mined and processed responsibly.
Solar panel manufacturing uses toxic chemicals, why is it considered green energy?
The majority of greenhouse gas emissions occurs during the manufacturing process, waste is created, humans are exposed to toxic chemicals, and laborer are exploited in various regions. After all, the current market-driven procurement processes are based on cutting costs and driving profits. While these chemicals can be considered hazardous, they aren’t so while the panels are on your roof. The concern for their toxicity comes into play during the manufacturing process, as well as the disposal process from by-products during the manufacturing process, and at the end of the panel’s lifetime.
China is the largest solar panel manufacturer on the planet (they alone account for 70% of the global market). Many solar manufacturing plants outside of China rely on Chinese imports for raw materials like aluminum framing and PV glass.
The combination of mandatory work stoppages, travel restrictions, and the extended holiday of COVID-19 is hitting China hard, and are predicted to cause a big disruption in the solar industry supply chain. We can expect to see greater pressure on workers to be more productive with no change in compensation as companies try to maintain market share.
Most of the world’s lithium-ion battery manufacturers also call China home. This means that coronavirus is predicted to have a similar impact on the lithium-ion battery storage industry.
Electric Vehicles Batteries
There is a range of materials being used in batteries for electric vehicles. Lithium-ion batteries are utilized in the majority of all-electric and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles; nickel-metal-hydride is common for hybrid cars; and newer materials are being introduced, such as lithium polymer and lithium iron phosphate, with more on the horizon to challenge those commonly used.
The electric vehicle (EV) revolution is picking up the pace, with countries and some US states now mandating deadlines to phase out petrol and diesel engine cars. Electric vehicles are one of the replacement options, however, EV batteries are expensive and relatively inefficient. Until recently, electric vehicles have struggled to travel further than 200 miles on a single charge, and the recharge time makes cross country trips a long and arduous ordeal.
There is a revolution in the materials used in rechargeable EV batteries that will increase their efficiency, making long distances achievable and creating shorter charging times. EV batteries contain the following materials: Cobalt, Nickel, Manganese, Graphite, Silicon
A crucial part of any battery is the electrolyte, a catalyst used to increase the conductivity by helping to transfer ions from the cathode to the anode when charging, and vice versa when discharging. Electrolytes can be either liquid-state, i.e. acids such as sulphuric acid (H₂SO₄) or soluble salts, or solid-state using polymers such as polycarbonate. At the moment, all EV batteries are liquid-state, but solid-state batteries offer many benefits such as being smaller and lighter, providing higher capacity and being cheaper to produce. Most EV battery electrolytes are Li-ion based, meaning they use lithium to carry the charge between electrodes.
Cobalt was the first material used for cathodes in Li-ion batteries and has been used in vast amounts in recent years. However, cobalt is in increasingly short supply due to overuse in the Li-ion battery industry, taking a 55% share of the global cobalt supply. It is a by-product of copper and nickel mining and is expensive to extract. Another problem is that cobalt is not easily recycled, needing much refinement before becoming useable again which makes them cost-prohibitive.
High purity nickel is needed to produce EV battery cathodes due to its extra durability. It is used in the cathode in nickel sulfate form. Nickel sulfate can be made from either class 1 or class 2 nickel. Although less expensive as raw material, class 2 nickel needs dissolving and purifying before use in the cathode, which is a costly process.
Battery manufacturers are keen to use more nickel as it is so much cheaper than cobalt. It is often blended with small amounts of cobalt to produce more cost-effective cathodes.
High purity and high-grade manganese are often used to create the cathodes of NMC batteries. It is also sometimes used in Electrolytic Manganese Dioxide (EMD) form, produced by dissolving manganese dioxide (MnO2) in sulphuric acid and sending a current through two electrodes. The manganese dioxide dissolves into sulphate in the liquid, which is then deposited on the surface of the anode. The substance is removed and can be blended with a small quantity of cobalt to create the cathode in Li-ion batteries.
Graphite is the most commonly used material for EV battery anodes. 25kg of high purity graphite is needed for an average-sized battery, and up to 54kg for large batteries such as those used in the Tesla Model S. The process for manufacturing graphite anodes is a time-consuming and costly one. It involves creating synthetic graphite made from calcined or cleaned petroleum coke (an oil refinery by-product), a fine, gravelly material, which is bound together with coal tar pitch. For maximum absorption of lithium ions, the graphite used for the anode has to be high-quality, with a highly crystalline structure.
The mixture is then baked into pure carbon, which has virtually no conductive properties. Next, a process of ‘graphitization’ or magnetic induction occurs, in which a low-voltage, high-current DC charge is applied through the furnace.
Silicon has a number of advantages over graphite as an anode material, including the lower cost of the material and manufacturing. Also, it can absorb and contain a much higher number of lithium ions upon charging than graphite. This increases the efficiency of the battery, meaning EVs can reach higher distances on a single charge.
Many of the main materials used in EV batteries are in short supply. Combined with the increasing numbers of electric vehicles being developed, there is rapid innovation in the batteries used to power them. Finding materials that can be cheaply produced as well as improving battery efficiency, durability, and lowering weight are priorities for the industry.
Currently, we have access to 5 main EV battery types for electric vehicles that are all lithium-ion (Li-ion) based:
A) Lithium cobalt oxide (LCO) LCO batteries. The main drawback is that they contain significant amounts of cobalt, which is an expensive material that comes with sourcing challenges.
B) Lithium nickel manganese cobalt oxide (NMC), relatively low-cost materials containing only a small quantity of cobalt. They perform well, providing a high energy density and charge rapidly compared to other batteries.
C) Lithium Nickel Cobalt Aluminium (NCA) They provide a good energy yield and are inexpensive to produce.
D) Lithium Iron Phosphate (LFP). It has a very high energy density, making it ideal for larger electric vehicles such as vans, buses or trucks.
E) Lithium Manganese Oxide (LMO) - decent energy performance and low cost of materials. However, the drawback is that the cells aren’t as durable as other battery types, giving them a relatively short life cycle.
With the emergence of industrial technology and integration with digital technologies, we now have access to relevant data to track resources across it wholistic life cycle.
The other aspects of consideration are how the mining of these elements factor into the carbon footprint? These factors are not typically captured in the manufacturing side of the equation, as most of these elements come from a big open pit or underground mines that are HC intensive in use and with large environmental footprints.
Natural gas is required to regulate solar power and Solar power is weak compared to other forms of energy, same for wind power. Today coal is used in many parts of the world in the process of heating quartz to make solar panels, is this green?
Increased development of “renewable energy” sources such as solar PV also brings demand for the minerals in the technology, including aluminum, cadmium, copper, gallium, indium, iron, lead, nickel, silica, silver, tellurium, tin, and zinc. Solar PV technology increases the need for energy storage units, both in the form of individual batteries for private use and on a large scale in electrical grids. This leads to the development and demand for the minerals to manufacture lithium-ion batteries such as aluminum, cobalt, iron, lead, lithium, manganese, nickel, and graphite.
Unfortunately, not all solar manufacturers, installers, or organizations responsible for decommissioning and deconstruction are handling these products responsibly. There are instances of dumping hazardous material into landfills and into nature in various parts of the world. We must collaborate with all parties and regulators to ensure the products are designed, transported, installed, and managed responsibly during its useful life cycle and at end of life to protect against unnecessary impact. A model for accounting for emissions from all phases of a project (feedstock, design, manufacturing, construction, operation, and decommissioning) referred to as a wholistic lifecycle approach is desirable to achieve the outcomes we want.
While solar panels, like other electronics, contain and are manufactured using toxic materials, measures can be taken to minimize negative effects. Silicon tetrachloride, mentioned above as one of the most toxic chemicals involved in the manufacturing of panels, can be repurposed at the manufacturing source and can use manufacturing by-products to create more polysilicon. Other toxic chemicals and products in solar panels may also be recycled.
Recently, I had the experience where I went to recycle a residential size solar panel and half a dozen small solar yard lights at a local recycling facility, they would not accept it and said they are trying to figure out how to safely recycle solar panels of all sizes. This was early 2019. If the waste management and recycling experts don’t know how to safely recycle them, I can only assume all panels are still quite hazardous to the environment. How ironic it is that we refer to solar and EVs etc. as green and renewable energy sources.
I am not against “renewable energy”, and I also understand that we are “building the plane while flying it” while presenting both sides of the whole picture and argument.
It is important to note, regardless of what technology we develop, there will be negative impacts and as we transition and innovate, we must be aware of the impacts, interdependencies and work to mitigate any and all known negative impacts or footprint across the design, development, supply chain, product useful life, and end of life.
The next article will look into Wind, Waste to Energy and Pyrolysis
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Dave Gajadhar is an Advisor, Speaker, Educator, and an Advocate for Human prosperity and resource optimization at Resultant Group (Edmonton, AB), business modernization, resource optimization, and transition advisors.
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