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Dustin Mulvaney speaks about his new book which explores the complex environmental and social impacts of the global solar industry

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DHARNA NOOR: It’s The Real News. I’m Dharna Noor.

The solar industry has been soaring over the past several years. The US is now home to some two million solar installations. Solar energy now provides about a fifth of California’s power and it makes sense that environmentalists champion the industry. Almost a third of the Earth’s greenhouse gas emissions come from the energy sector, so renewable energy sources like this are crucial.

But in a new book, our next guest shows that while “the net social and environmental benefits of solar are uncontested— more jobs, higher quality of life, and much less air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions— the industry supply chain still poses problems for specific communities, ecosystems and landscapes.”

So that’s what I’m here to unpack today with Dustin Mulvaney. He is an Associate Professor in the Environmental Studies Department at San Jose University and his new book that he’s here to talk about today is called Solar Power: Innovation, Sustainability, and Environmental Justice. Thanks so much for being here, Dustin.

DUSTIN MULVANEY: It’s a pleasure to join you. Thank you.

DHARNA NOOR: So, I want to start by talking to you about the conception of solar power. You maintain obviously in this book that solar power plays a really important role in fighting the climate crisis, but you also take a critical look at the political economy of solar. That’s something that’s often missing from environmental movements, because solar has what you call in the book a green halo. It’s sometimes exempt from critical examination. What do you hope that this book will achieve within that broader climate conversation?

DUSTIN MULVANEY: I certainly wouldn’t even consider myself an advocate for solar power. It’s a free renewable resource that once you build the devices you could collect and displace some more polluting energies. I am interested in making sure that people realize that this is a commodity that is produced, and that it requires extractive industries and chemical industries and landscapes, end of life management plans.

So I just want people to be thinking critically about this industry because it doesn’t inherently come with sustainability. It may be better than our current energy systems, but we want to make sure that it’s just made better in general. So we don’t want to see worker exploitation and solar energy commodity chains. We don’t want to see land use change that might undermine our carbon goals through the development of solar energy. We don’t want to see end of life electronic waste scattered about our landfills and recycling centers with this industry.

So, I just want people to be cognizant of that this is a production system. And with all production systems, there are environmental impacts. We need to bring attention to this because if we don’t carefully deploy solar power, we could reproduce some of the environmental inequalities we see in other energy systems. Even if it’s less overall inequality or environmental impact, the goal here is really to raise all boats— as we’ve heard with many of the conversations around green jobs and such. We don’t want to have a green job in California, installing rooftop solar on someone’s home linked to a gray dirty job in Malaysia or China or some other part of the world.

DHARNA NOOR: Certainly. So you just mentioned a number of environmental justice issues that solar energy raises, and I think we’ll talk about all of them. Let’s start with that instructive industry component. Again, a major reason that solar power can be so fraught is that it takes many commodities to produce it. It requires mining for things like polycystic silicon and cadmium in tellurium and indium and gallium. Could you talk a little bit about the supply chains that are necessary to obtain those kinds of compounds? Where do they come from, and then how do workers obtain them?

DUSTIN MULVANEY: Well, the biggest input of course to the solar industry is quartz, which is sand basically, and that is important for two things. One, the main technology, Crystalline silicon, requires a very, very pure form of silicon, a semiconductor grade silicon, to collect those incident photons and convert that to electricity. So, that’s one piece.

But actually all solar technologies require quartz because most of the weight of a solar panel is glass. So we want to be ensuring that when we are thinking through this commodity chain, that we’ve made sure that we don’t see silicosis, for example, in that supply chain. Silicosis is often recognized as the oldest occupational hazard, thousands of years of people working and being exposed to dust from silicon, which hardens the lungs. And that’s something that we want to make sure is not reproduced again through solar energy commodity chain development.

And this is a pretty global commodity, so the parts of the world silicon is coming from include Brazil, the United States, Russia. It’s actually all over the place. It’s a pretty heavy commodity, and actually most silicon mined is for sand. And the natural gas industry uses way more sand and their fracking and things like that. Again, we don’t want to be necessarily comparing solar to other technologies. Just saying, we should be making this product better.

DHARNA NOOR: Certainly. And you also talk about that the industry trends can sometimes obscure some of the darker parts of this industry. Of course, as you mentioned, mining for these kinds of compounds has huge health and ecological impacts. But you document an industry trend of what you call contract manufacturing, and you show how that can obscure those impacts and make the whole situation a more profitable for master manufacturers. Could you talk a little bit about how that works?

DUSTIN MULVANEY: Well, contract manufacturing is something that the electronics and semiconductor industry has been very good at for 20 or 30 years. You may be familiar with Foxconn, stories about Foxconn. They’re a contract manufacturer that made iPhones or iPads, one of the two. And there was a rash of suicides at some of these factories in China. And Foxconn is actually in the solar industry too. So, the idea is that you may design a solar panel, a company may design a solar panel, and then hire or outsource a manufacturing facility that might just specialize in making that solar panel for a couple of years, and then they move on to some other electronic product.

So really, the main issue for me with contract manufacturing isn’t necessarily that it’s inherently bad or maybe inherently unjust for workers. It’s that there is a level of unaccountability, as that supply chain becomes more invisible. So there’s more distance between a consumer and the brand name I think. It’s a thesis from name and climb and years ago, no [logo 00:06:56]. The idea is that, if Nike isn’t on the sneaker factory, then they can’t be called out for any worker exploitation even if they’re making Nike shoes.

So, we see similar trends in the solar industry and I think that that again just means being very careful. And I’m not necessarily saying Foxconn’s a bad company, they’ve had some bad things happen to them in the past for sure, and they’ve definitely reproduced some inequality that we’ve seen in electronic industries in general.

DHARNA NOOR: Certainly.

DUSTIN MULVANEY: So maybe I will say they’re—Actually, I’m not going to comment on that, but that model is very, very challenging for that reason. Because it’s really about, especially in this era where there is a little more interest in corporate social accountability and things like that, or corporate social responsibility, making companies more accountable. If we don’t know where these things go, then how do you actually hold them accountable. So it’s actually unveiling who the contract manufacturers are and what kinds of socio-ecological damage they might be doing. That’s really the key thing here – is unveiling that.

DHARNA NOOR: Totally. And you do that. You take that unveiling process at every part of the chain of creating solar panels, and also of discarding them. You’re worried about the complications that come with discarding this technology. What are some of those and what environmental challenges can that pose looking forward?

DUSTIN MULVANEY: Well there are a few of them. Let’s start with—One of the challenges is that there is a lot of rare metals that are used in solar manufacturing. And these aren’t rare earths per se, but tellurium is actually a thousand times more rare than a rare earth metal, and we have one company that uses about 40% of the global supply of this one element.

So, from that sense, it’s not really about making sure that environmental damage at the end of life is avoided, but it’s making sure that you actually have enough metals to make the next generation of solar panels in the future. So there’s an argument for closing the loop from that perspective. But the reality is that electronic waste is a global problem right now, with all sorts of electronic waste and the reason it’s a global problem is because there’s rare or precious metals often embedded in a matrix of toxic metals or plastics. And it’s that extraction of those metals from that waste product in the potential exposure, that is the challenge here. And we see that with photovoltaics.

So with Crystalline silicone, you have silver. In fact, the industry uses about 15% of the global silver supply every year. And if you can imagine a situation where maybe 10,000 solar panels end up in some place where maybe somebody wants to extract that silver, they’re going to be exposing themselves to lead because that’s another metal that’s often found in Crystalline silicone photovoltaics. Likewise, with tellurium I mentioned before, if someone were to smash up this glass solar panel and try to extract that tellurium, they would be exposed to cadmium, and cadmium is again one of these really heavy metals that are very, very toxic for people to be exposed to.

So there are a couple of reasons and actually the number one reason, or the number one concern I hear from people these days about end of life solar panels is where do we put them? So, public agencies that have to deal with waste all over the United States, their landfills are filling up and they’re starting to get solar panels at these waste transfer centers and they’re not actually sure what to do with them. Are they toxic? Some of them are. Are they nontoxic? Some of them are not toxic.

So trying to differentiate and think about how to actually make sure you put these panels in a safe and responsible place at the end of life is really a critical goal that the industry should be pursuing. And they are pursuing in some places. In Europe they’ve been recycling solar panels through a take back and collection scheme for almost 10 years. And that led to a couple other environmental benefits. For example, speaking with the organizer of that take back and collection scheme, he mentioned to me that just the very act of collecting and compiling used solar panels created a secondary market and reused solar panels. And that’s great, right? If we think about a recycling hierarchy, it’s reuse first, then recycle, and then finally dispose. But at the end of the day, we can’t be disposing solar panels in landfills or incinerators or smelters because the metals in them are actually too valuable.

DHARNA NOOR: Right. There’s another extractive industry that solar is wrapped up in and you talk a little bit about it in the book too. It’s the relationship between solar and natural gas, often from fracking. So sometimes when more solar energy is produced or there’s more reliance on solar energy, sometimes more natural gas is needed— they say “needed”— to use as a backup. Meaning that, sometimes there’s an uptake of solar production or solar energy production while there’s an uptake of natural gas production.

DUSTIN MULVANEY: Yeah, so the real challenge obviously with solar is that sun goes down. And when the sun goes down or a cloud comes over, you need something there to back fill that. So, we certainly have seen some places that have adopted solar, experience an increase in natural gas use in those peak hours when the sun is down. Meaning, from sunset or close to sunset into the evening a little bit when people are coming home, turning their lights on and things like that. But overall, it should displace natural gas in the big picture. A lot of places used to have that peak, or that need for natural gas in the middle of the day, and that would extend all the way until the evening times that we see. So I would reckon that much of the increase in natural gas in the evening might be offset by decreased demand for that during the middle of the day, but that’s not always clear.

The other thing that’s happening there is solar is actually displacing a lot of oil-fired electricity generation, and that’s really bad for communities. There are communities who are living near really high levels of particulate matter exposure because of that and that’s really critical. And you don’t need natural gas for these things. These things can be met with energy storage, which are going to have a lot of the same issues that I’m talking about with photovoltaics, about metals and recycling because it’s an electronic product. But net, it should have fewer impacts then natural gas extraction, from carbon pollution to nitrogen pollution to all the different pollutants that come from combustion. Combustion in general is just not the way to go with energy generation. It causes too much local pollution and that’s something that I think solar has the opportunity to displace, and in fact I think it is displacing it. The question is now let’s make that solar a bit better.

DHARNA NOOR: Sure. There’s much more to unpack. So we’re going to pick this up in a part two. Dustin Mulvaney, the book is Solar Power: Innovation, Sustainability, and Environmental Justice. Stick around for part two. Thanks for being here, Dustin.


DHARNA NOOR: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

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Dharna Noor is a staff writer at Earther, Gizmodo's climate vertical.

Steve Horn is a San Diego-based climate reporter and producer. He was also a reporter on a part-time basis for The Coast News—covering Escondido, San Marcos, and the San Diego North County region—from mid-2018 until early 2020.

Also a freelance investigative reporter, his work has appeared in The Guardian, Al Jazeera America, The Intercept, Vice News, Wisconsin Watch, and other publications. He worked from 2011-2018 for the climate news website, a publication which investigates climate change disinformation and the fossil fuel industry influence campaigns.

His stories and research have received citation in a U.S. Senate report and mention in outlets such as The New York Times, The New Yorker, Bloomberg Businessweek, Mexico’s La Jornada, and The Colbert Report.

In his free time, Steve is a competitive distance runner, with a personal best time in the marathon of 2:43:04 and a 4:43 mile. He also has served on the film screening committee for the Heartland Film Festival in Indianapolis and serves on the screening committee for the San Diego International Film Festival.