The majority of systems for renewable energy generation is made of non-renewable materials

Renewable energy only as sustainable as the manufacturing process

Image credit: Wikimedia Commons

Renewable energy generation is only as sustainable as the practices of companies producing wind turbines and solar panels, a Swedish researcher has said, pointing to the lack of knowledge about the foundations on which the green revolution is being built.

According to Simon Davidsson from Sweden’s Uppsala University, the increasing uptake of renewable energy generation requires the industry to be put under scrutiny. There is no doubt that the world needs to abandon polluting fossil fuels in order to arrest the climate change. However, the total ecological footprint of renewable energy generation has never been properly explored.

“Renewable energy technology can lead to reduced emission of greenhouse gases, but for a complete analysis we need to make sure the whole production chain is sustainable,” Davidsson said. “For instance, it is not obvious that the production of wind turbines and solar cells is sustainable, that the materials have been sourced in a sustainable way, or that the industries are capable of recycling the technology in the future.”

Solar panels as well as wind turbines are mostly made of non-renewable resources, the researcher said. Raw materials need to be mined before the technology can be manufactured, frequently on the other side of the world, causing environmental damage.

Most solar panels are designed to work for about 30 years, after which they gradually lose their efficiency. The estimated lifespan of modern wind turbines is approximately 20 years. After that the technology would have to be replaced. And if the devices can’t be recycled to make new ones, more material would have to be mined.

“To assess the feasibility and consequences of a global energy transition, we need to consider material flows and how sustainable emerging industries are with regard to aspects other than climate,” said Davidsson.

“Truly sustainable energy systems require the creation of sustainable industries, which not only can produce large amounts of renewable energy technology, but also maintain a working system on a longer time scale, and do so in a resource efficient way.”

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