Clean Tech: Not So Clean?

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As momentum builds for clean energy, and production ramps up on solar panels, electric car batteries and wind turbines, clean technology is beginning to face scrutiny regarding its social and environmental impacts.

Sales of plug-in electric vehicles are expected to surpass 2.6 million in 2019, and are predicted to climb to 125 million globally by 2030. By 2025, waste batteries removed from electric vehicles will amount to 600,000 metric tons, according to an estimate by Bloomberg New Energy Finance. By 2050, the International Renewable Energy Agency estimates solar panel waste could reach 78 million metric tons. The European Union may also see up to 300,000 metric tons per year of decommissioned wind turbine blades in the next two decades, according to the trade association WindEurope.

Recovering materials from discarded renewable energy and battery devices is often technically challenging and prohibitively expensive.

Recovering materials from discarded renewable energy and battery devices is often technically challenging and prohibitively expensive. For example, wind turbines are engineered to withstand extreme force from severe storms and their massive blades are not designed for deconstruction or recycling. Electric vehicle batteries usually contain as much lithium as a thousand smartphones. And both the European Union and China have now introduced legislation making carmakers responsible for recycling batteries.

Electric vehicle batteries usually contain as much lithium as a thousand smartphones

Scientists, manufacturers, and waste handlers are beginning to collaborate on ways to efficiently reclaim renewable energy materials. But due to only recent large-scale investment in solar and wind, not enough of these renewable energy devices have yet reached their end of life. And this means that a large number of companies and governments are kicking the problem down the line, rather than investing in circular economy approaches that will keep clean energy from adding to the planet’s massive waste issue.

Due to rising demand for renewable energy, manufacturers are also facing rising costs and supply constraints for raw materials such as cobalt and lithium. A key ingredient for battery production is cobalt. The vast majority of the world’s cobalt is found in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). Unfortunately, the DRC is rife with conflict, poverty and political corruption. Working conditions in cobalt mines are often dangerous and Amnesty International has reported that child labour is widespread.

A growing number of tech companies including Apple, Fairphone and Samsung have taken action to ensure ethical sourcing of cobalt, but battery and car companies are moving more slowly.

Efforts are underway to address these challenges. The Global Battery Alliance is a public-private partnership and collaboration platform which seeks to accelerate action towards a socially responsible and environmentally sustainable battery value chain. A growing number of tech companies including Apple, Fairphone and Samsung have taken action to ensure ethical sourcing of cobalt, but battery and car companies are moving more slowly.

Global companies need to work with governments and NGOs to find socially ethical and circular solutions to the growing challenges presented by the clean energy transition. There is an opportunity for companies to save billions of dollars by designing for deconstruction and reuse. And while the public eye regarding human rights abuses in supply chains is currently on big established brands in tech and apparel, it won’t be long until the spotlight is on EV, wind and solar manufacturers.

About the author

Bron York
Bron York

Bron is one of the co-authors of this year’s Globescan-SustainAbility Leaders Survey. She is also part of SustainAbility’s Research and Trends Team, providing clients with insight into emerging sustainability developments across sectors and geographies.

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