Rapid Expansion Of Renewable Energy Is Not Always Sustainable

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A new study has concluded that the rapid expansion of renewable energy technology is not inherently sustainable, if the materials and industries involved are not themselves sustainable.

A recent thesis published by the Swedish Uppsala University Department of Earth Sciences department has raised the question of whether the rapid expansion of renewable energy technologies is inherently sustainable. According to PhD student Simon Davidsson, who wrote the thesis — Natural resources and sustainable energy — the key factor to ensuring renewable energy expansion remains sustainable is to take into account the materials used and the sustainability of industries involved. Specifically, even though solar and wind technologies produce renewable energy, the materials used in the construction of every solar panel and wind turbine are not necessarily sustainable in and of themselves, nor are the industries involved in their construction.

Salar de Uyuni in Bolivia is the world’s largest salt flat. The salt contains large amounts of lithium, which is a key component in modern batteries. Image Credit: psyberartist, via Flickr

The thesis is the first of five papers stemming from the Department’s new Natural Resources and Sustainable Development program, intended to study the industries and natural resource flows necessary for the continued rapid expansion of renewable energy.

“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,” explained Simon Davidsson. “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.”

The real problem stems from the need for rapid expansion of renewable energy technology if we are to quickly mitigate the negative climate change currently in effect. To do so, technologies such as wind and solar will need to be quickly scaled up, requiring more and more resources which in turn will become more and more rare, creating further problems down the track when it comes time to replacing these technologies. Further, the extraction of these resources in a manner which is both timely and environmentally friendly needs to be considered, as well as their future availability.

“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,” Davidsson added. “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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Joshua S Hill

I'm a Christian, a nerd, a geek, and I believe that we're pretty quickly directing planet-Earth into hell in a handbasket! I also write for Fantasy Book Review (.co.uk), and can be found writing articles for a variety of other sites. Check me out at about.me for more.

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