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Solutions for the solutions

In today's issue of "This Week in Climate", we look at the solutions for climate tech drawbacks.
Julian Moore
Aug 7, 2023 11 min read
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As you’ve read many times in this newsletter, as well as everywhere else in climate media, the key to implementing climate solutions is in choosing silver buckshot over the proverbial silver bullet (until LK-99 replication comes through, that is).

Climate advocates keep coming back to the silver bullet metaphor not just because it is synonymous with “panacea”— a quick cure-all to deal with the climate impacts that two-thirds of Americans now say they notice are hitting home in their local communities.

The metaphor also works because silver bullets work against mythical beings, which is exactly how climate solutions can be portrayed both by proponents and detractors.

Depending on who you ask, solar energy is either the climate hero that will “save the world”, or an environmental villain that causes birds to explode and will “bring the nation down”.

What this means in practical terms is that many, if not most, climate solutions need their own solutions to address drawbacks and optimize advantages. That presents another layer of challenges on top of an already-daunting problem, but it can also create a virtuous cycle of innovation and job creation when done right.

This week we take a look at solutions that are coming online for drawbacks to two critical climate technologies.

Birds & Transmission Lines

Installing a modern transmission grid remains the biggest hurdle to unlocking more than 80% of the climate benefits of the Inflation Reduction Act. Lower estimates suggest the U.S. will need 37,000 miles of new or refurbished transmission lines to bring renewable energy to urban areas to meet 2035 climate goals.

Politics have so far proven to be the biggest obstacle to progress on this front, and ongoing negotiations on a permitting reform bill don’t look promising.

But another obstacle could still yet come from environmental activists who are opposed to building out new transmission lines due to their impact on birds.

Ecologists from conservation groups such as the Audubon society argue that since power lines kill up to 57 million birds a year, the climate benefits of modernizing the electric grid could defeat the purpose of protecting ecosystems.

But this week, the Audubon Society published research finding new solutions that are already reducing bird deaths while climate change poses a far greater threat to birds than installing more power lines.

One case study looked at Pattern Energy’s 550-mile long SunZia transmission line currently under construction in New Mexico. The project would link a massive wind farm in New Mexico to the Phoenix region in Arizona, but would cut through Sevilleta National Wildlife Refuge along the way.

In addition to re-routing lines to avoid bird corridors, the SunZia line employ what Audubon calls “reactive solutions” after power line construction is built:

  • Attaching ultraviolet lights to power lines to make them more visible to birds. This has reduced bird collisions by 90% for species such as the Sandhill Crane.
  • Regrowing brush and forage beneath powerline cutouts. Replacing greenery brings back species lower down the food chain that draw birds away from the tops of power lines.

The effort hasn’t won over everyone in the conservation community. Opponents to the SunZia in Arizona point out the threat to birds could be avoided entirely by burying the power lines, although that argument may be an oversimplification.

Digging up ground to bury power lines has been shown for years to disrupt the habitats of insects, beetles and reptiles that large birds of prey eat. The Audubon report referenced a study showing that in the Rio Grande valley, underground lines would cause more harm than overhead.

Evidence has also emerged that bird deaths near power lines come from an entirely different human activity.

A study published this week found that more than two-thirds of the birds found dead next to transmission lines in Idaho died from gunshots. The remaining 34% were equally due to electrocution and collisions.

That suggests that of all the human activities impacting birds, our destructive impulses are the ones causing more harm than the unintended consequences of climate action.

Solar Panel Recycling

Solar energy is the bedrock of the energy transition, but it comes with a well-documented ecological footprint of its own. There’s the mining of materials, the coal-powered manufacturing in China, and then there are the landfills full of PV panels.

Solar panel recycling seems like a common-sense solution to each of these environmental drawbacks.

First, recycling is the most immediate solution to the problem of vulnerable mineral supply chains required to make new solar panels. Each new PV unit means more silver, aluminum and copper needs to be mined in ways that are ecologically harmful and that count as a source of emissions (albeit far below all fossil fuels).

Those supply chains can also present a commercial risk, since disruptions can paralyze the industry and send prices soaring, as they did during the first quarter of this year.

So why not simply recycle the copper, silver and aluminum that has already been dug up and transported to further lower the impact of this climate solution?

Commercial efforts to streamline solar recycling are starting to emerge, with companies such as Solarcycle and First Solar raising eight-figure rounds in recent years.

But a close look at their progress highlights the difficulties. The main obstacle is economic incentive. The current cost of dumping solar panels in a landfill comes out to $1 per panel, while it costs $30 per unit to recycle.

After that, there are the technical challenges. Most elements of a PV panel are recyclable except for some of the most valuable bits, such as aluminum, or even the glass exteriors, which are bound tight to the rest of the panel with adhesives to make them weather-resistant. Fortunately, this is where a few new companies are seeing an opportunity for improvement.

Manual and machine labor can combine to separate the glass from a PV unit without shattering, allowing to sell the glass to sandblasting companies. High-quality aluminum scrapped from PV panels can be sold to aerospace manufacturers like Boeing to build new products.

The opportunity for commercialized PV recycling is still small with only a handful of companies still in the mix. But last year, the market cap for recycling passed $138 million thanks in part to IRA incentives, but should only be expected to grow alongside a boom in solar installations.

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The Author

Julian Moore