Dustin Mulvaney is the author of Solar Power: Innovation, Sustainability, and Environmental Justice and an associate professor of environmental studies at San Jose State University. In this episode, Mulvaney talks about the “green halo” that exists around solar energy, the millions of tons of solar panels that will be discarded over the coming decades, the threat solar poses to desert wildlife, and why the industry is largely “flying blind on PV supply chains” because it is so heavily dependent on China.
Robert Bryce 0:04
Hi, everyone, welcome to the power hungry Podcast. I’m Robert Bryce. On this podcast we talk about energy, power, innovation and politics. And I’m pleased to welcome welcome rather my guest, Dustin Mulvaney. He’s the author of solar power, innovation, sustainability and environmental justice. Dustin, welcome to the power hungry podcast.
Dustin Mulvaney 0:22
Thank you for having me, Robert.
Robert Bryce 0:24
Glad we could make this happen. Now, I didn’t warn you. We talked before we started recording about call to action, but I didn’t warn you that you have to introduce yourself. Guests on this podcast. You have a long CV your you are at San Jose State University, but guests introduce themselves. So if you don’t mind, imagine you’ve arrived somewhere and you have 3045 60 seconds to introduce yourself. Go.
Dustin Mulvaney 0:45
Sure thing. My name is Dustin Mulvaney, I teach in the Environmental Studies Department at San Jose State. I’ve been there since 2011. I did a little prior training at the University of California Berkeley and Environmental Science Policy and Management Department and I have a master’s degree in Environmental Policy Studies and an undergraduate degree in chemical engineering. I worked in the chemical industry for a little short time before going back to grad school. And that’s kind of helps me understand how solar industry makes products and and I studied the solar industry from supply chains all the way through manufacturing, citing solar farms and end of life recycling. So I’m trained as a commodity chain analysis person. So I kind of follow the commodity and look at systems of production, borrow some tools from lifecycle assessment, but also some qualitative ethnographic tools and just looking at how the world is changing with this industry.
Robert Bryce 1:45
Sure. And you live in San Jose there in the Bay Area.
Dustin Mulvaney 1:49
I live in Santa Cruz, California. So about a half hour from San Jose over
Robert Bryce 1:53
gotcha. Gotcha. And you’re you have a PhD in material science, economics.
Dustin Mulvaney 1:59
In Environmental Studies. Okay.
Robert Bryce 2:01
Got it. Okay, right. I got my PhD. Yeah, good. So my
Dustin Mulvaney 2:05
little bio, so thank you for helping me fill that in. Yeah, no
Robert Bryce 2:07
problem. So let’s talk about solar because I have solar panels on the roof of my house. I’ve eaten half kilowatts, LG panels made in Korea. Did parts of those things come from China? I don’t know. But, but let me cut to the popularity of solar because everyone likes solar, right. Everyone likes the idea of solar. I was looking at the recent Gallup data. 73% of Americans want more solar 66% Want more wind. But she wrote in your book, solar power, innovation, sustainability and environmental justice, she wrote that solar PV as ethical green products are not subject to enough critical examination. Consumers, the public and even environmentally conscious minds may reproduce a commodity fetish with photovoltaics that mask socio economic relations, while crowning them with a green Halo. Now, first, that’s a great sentence, I admire the way you put that together. So let’s start with the basics. Why is Why is solar. And despite the issues, were talking about supply chains? Why is it so popular? What is it? What is the general public love this idea of solar energy and solar panels in particular so much?
Dustin Mulvaney 3:16
I? That’s a really great question. I’m not certain I can answer it fully. But I think there are a couple of things going on one, I think the imperative of climate change, has really just got everybody looking for solutions that are off the shelf right now. And photovoltaics have that, that appeal because they fit into the utility scale system, and they offer this distributed benefit to probably going back a little further, you know, there’s a lot of the emergence of the solar industry kind of comes out of the utopianism we see with kind of Stuart Brand and the whole earth catalog, you look at these kind of old Northern California hippie journals in the back and you can kind of find this idealism of like living off of the off the sun to power your home. So I think and
Robert Bryce 4:02
be off and be off the grid, right, which was also part of that, you know, the organic gardening, we have our own batteries, we have our own solar panels, we’re all this is the height of goofiness. And if only we get a VW bus, then we’ve got the
Dustin Mulvaney 4:16
I think creates a it makes, you know, a wider appeal than just the people who are interested in environmental issues. Right. You have people who are, you know, against utilities. I think that that was part of it. So there’s kind of a friction between utilities and customers where they think that monopoly is going to be freed from by having these solar panels from right.
Robert Bryce 4:38
Well, let’s talk about that a little bit. Because the thing that pops in my head because you’re a California guy, and you’ve lived there a long time is this issue of rooftop solar and I have rooftop solar and you know, but there is a very serious class issue here with regard to tariffs and the feed in tariffs and the rest of it and there was a push at the state level to reduce these feeding. tariffs if I’m remembering correctly. And yet there was, you know, Arnold Schwarzenegger had a piece in New York Times. I mean, the industry, the solar industry, from what I can tell, went into full blown assault segment in Indian Indian under No, no, we got to preserve this rooftop because rooftop solar and the deployment of it. But what is that? What can you talk about what the the social justice issues are with regard to, you know, I’m relatively prosperous. I’m not a rich guy. But you know, I can afford him I don’t think the barista at Starbucks, can we talk about that class issue around solar, if you don’t mind?
Dustin Mulvaney 5:30
Well, then the number one issue, I think for residential rooftop solar in class that she was renters, versus the rest of us who we want our houses, right. So some of us own houses, and we have the opportunity, we could put solar on them, but most people are renters. And those are usually, you know, they’re not able to put solar on, they don’t own that house. So there’s that. But the cost issue, you know, when you first start putting solar into a grid, it displaces really expensive electricity. So those customers are probably saving the grid, operational money. But as you get incrementally more and more solar on that grid, that grid that solar becomes less valuable. In California, we have this issue where we run into an over generation risk in the middle of the day, we’ve had prices go negative, because we’ve had so much solar on the grid, that, you know, it’s not giving the benefits that once did from a price perspective on the operation. So we now have more expensive electricity in the evening. And now they’ve documented a little bit at the California Public Utilities Commission, what they call a cost shift, which means that, you know, the solar customers might be started, I should say the low income customers might be subsidizing. Right. solar customers. And that’s that’s a little that’s a that’s a big challenge, I think. So there’s kind of two issues. One is like how, how the the rate money, the rate payer money is being distributed in the system, but then also, who is able to access those right and right, they can be addressed with policy. And the idea here is, I mean, net metering the rooftop solar, the issue is you’re crediting at the retail rate, right, when utilities gathering electricity at a wholesale rate. So there’s a bit of a mismatch there. And, you know, I think it’s it’s a question that grids will face as they have more and more solar on the grid. And California is just kind of the first place where this has really become a big challenge that can be now documented.
Robert Bryce 7:30
But yeah, but doesn’t it get worse, too? I mean, you know, that, and I talked with people who are at the CPUC, about this. And they see, I mean, they’re very concerned, because the higher the rates go, the more incentive that homeowners have to add solar panels. And then they they don’t secede completely from the grid, but they don’t pay in the same amount. So that cost of their the lost revenue then gets socialized among all the ratepayers. So California is electric rates are skyrocketing. They’re up 5x over compared to the rest of the continental US since 2008. I mean, it seems like there has to be some policy fix, but there was a policy fix that was was proposed and then immediately shot down.
Dustin Mulvaney 8:10
Yeah. And I, you know, it’ll be interesting to see how that plays out. Because I don’t think they’ve made that final decision about what those rates look like. And that’s basically what’s going to will happen is that you’re they’ll they’ll come out with something in between? Well, I think the CPUC proposed as what they will offer as compensation to rooftop customers will not be what they initially proposed, but it certainly won’t be anywhere near what the what they’re being compensated with before. So there are definitely issues there.
Robert Bryce 8:38
So we’ve talked about class a lot, but I know I follow you on Twitter, and I know you’re at Twitter at Dustin Mulvaney. And you’re out getting the outdoors guy, I see you posting all the time on the beach and you know, you’re a bird watcher, I think you’re a bird can tell you’re a bird watcher as well. But in your book, you talk a lot about the environmental impacts of solar and particularly thermal solar, solar thermal, and I’ve followed the issues that Ivanpah and you wrote about Ivanpah, which of course got significant backing from the Obama administration and was built in San Bernardino County, which now has outlawed large scale renewables, which is another story altogether. And I knew about the desert tortoise, but you said that, that there was something like $93 million spent on preserving the desert tortoise, which was more than the gray wolf grizzly bear or bald eagle. I mean, it’s remarkable and yet this idea about the desert, it’s kind of like the, you know, that there’s a certain idea about oh, well, there’s nothing out there and we can of course, we’ll just pave it, but now, Ivanpah seemed to underscore this reality of no dammit. These desert environments are fragile too and they have desert tortoises we we should be preferred preserving them. It So two questions is Is solar thermal dead is there is that is Ivanpah the last one that’s going to be built and and what’s the status on these other projects that are now being proposed? Whether it’s PV or solar thermal in the in the Mojave what’s what’s up with those? Now?
Dustin Mulvaney 10:05
I’ll speak first to the CSD question, I think at
Robert Bryce 10:09
least concentrated, concentrated solar concentrated solar
Dustin Mulvaney 10:13
comes in a couple different forms, we see the trough ones that have a concave mirror that focuses light on on a pipe, right. But the power towers have all the Helios that’s the mirrors that focus on one little spot at the top of the tower, right. And that turns a turbine that’s actually fired by gas in the morning, guys, they had a build pipeline for that project. And that project raise a lot of questions because when you put that power plant in standby mode, you raise that, so it’s focusing a lot of heat flux onto a receiver that’s eventually turning making that into steam. But when they put in standby mode, it puts a little halo of light above the power plant, so they kind of lit they change the mirrors to focus the light in the sky. And there’s been a new coining a term coined called streamers, which are birds that fly through that and literally, they’re
Robert Bryce 11:04
literally incinerated on the spot. Yeah, because the Caribbean and
Dustin Mulvaney 11:07
feathers melts at a very low temperature. So they either get harmed or, you know, suffered direct mortality there. And we’re talking, you know, over 2000, sometimes 3000 birds a year from from that one facility, according to the the people that walk that site. Now, they don’t walk the whole site, they actually don’t have count to that total amount, but they project based on the area that they walked and, and that’s and that coyotes will take a dead bird by the way. It’s hard to count that birds,
Robert Bryce 11:35
but it’s but those are, those are ongoing mortality numbers from Ivanpah. So they haven’t declined at all. Are they?
Dustin Mulvaney 11:40
I don’t know. I haven’t found that. I don’t I’m not sure that I’ve seen any reports. Okay. Yeah, right here. So yeah, I’m Navy and solar working group, by the way, Argonne National Lab. So if people want to say this is not a legitimate issue, I mean, the national labs are looking at this, and they have experts think about this. We have a lot of issues understanding this interaction between birds and solar facilities in general, because we actually don’t know what birds see. We think we see things so that people are proposing the lake effect, maybe they’re attracted to lake effect or polarized light. But so going back to the the CSP, fish and wildlife, I don’t think they’ll ever permit another one, because of the issues they’ve seen at Ivanpah. So I would be shocked to see another CSP project cited in California, there was a really big one built and then another, even bigger one proposed in Nevada, and that ran into issues with the Department of Defense, and they actually wouldn’t let that one be built in Nevada. So I think that industry is suffering big time maybe it comes back more storage gets that storage part gets valuable if you have molten salts, but that’s was one of the critiques of Ivanpah is that it was already outdated when it came out. Because it’s not, it’s not doesn’t have any storage, like Crescent dunes, Crescent Dunes is built in Nevada at the same time, as Ivanpah. And that project was pretty neat, because it would run for 24 hours. So cool solar power runs my prayers, but it’s not working, they haven’t been able to get that thing. fully functional, I’m not sure that it will ever start up again. So those suggests to me that CSP is in fact, dead. Now the desert tortoise issue. So we have a species in the desert. It’s been there since you know, Saber toothed tigers and things like that were around there. So that species has been through a lot of climate change that desert tortoise from tropical to now being a desert in a desert dwelling species. And that species has lost 90% of its population in the last 100 years from urban sprawl, disease, road construction. And now the biggest threat to it is, well, you could argue climate change is also a threat. And I don’t want to diminish that but solar farms are, are getting cited right in critical habitat. And that point about the bald eagle grizzly bear and the other one I forget, oh,
Robert Bryce 14:03
bald eagle grizzly bear and gray wolf. Right. Yeah. So
Dustin Mulvaney 14:08
we, they the that statistic was basically saying that we spend more on conserving the desert tortoise than that. And one of the reasons is because it’s very land intensive conservation. So you have to actually go out and acquire land. So that’s one of the reasons desert tortoise cost so much, but we’re spent the issue is that we’re spending so much money on conserving the species, and then the same agencies giving up land. It’s critical habitat for really large scale projects. And they have to translocate them and they don’t suffer. They don’t do very well, from translocation, they pick them up moving to a new spot. These are animals that live 5080 years. So you pick them up and move them to a new spot and they got new competition. They don’t know where the food is, they don’t know where the resources are, and they suffer pretty high mortality from that. So, you know, land use is a big, big part of solar. It’s obviously you’re collecting kind of diffuse energy on The surface of the Earth, we’ve seen for years people treat deserts like wasteland. They’re not habitable, they’re rugged, except on a cactus or get bit by a rattlesnake. They’re not hot. So there’s not a lot of appreciation for the deserts. But and you know, eastern California, Southern Nevada, northwestern Arizona, some of the most intact desert habitat in the world, and in the solar industry is consuming quite a bit of that land. So I think that there are quite a few land challenges. I think these are all avoidable. But, you know, right now, if with nobody sticking up for in defending Endangered Species Act on these issues, and this is where the green Halo comes in, I think that that’s a challenge. So we need enforcement, the Endangered Species aqueduct, which I would say is not quite happening, at least on the desert tortoise and that’s that’s the problem is just the just elevated to endangered in California in the last two years.
Robert Bryce 15:58
Right? Well, amen to that. I mean, I’m I’m an outdoorsman, and I’m an avid birdwatcher, and the recent prosecution of NextEra Energy, in my view is long overdue. And the fact that they were just really got a slap on the wrist. I mean, glad to see the prosecution. But but let’s talk there
Dustin Mulvaney 16:12
is actually one of the bad players, I would say in the solar industry, they actually,
Robert Bryce 16:16
in the solar that solar or wind, or both,
Dustin Mulvaney 16:19
so But I only see solar projects out, we’re in my yard, right country, and are mainly solar projects. And, yeah, they’re there. When the Bureau of Land Management opened up 21 million acres first come first serve to solar developers in 2006, Florida Power and Light who became NextEra park themselves on, I don’t have the numbers off top my head, but something like 1/5 to one quarter of all of the right of way permits that were being sought at the time, so that
Robert Bryce 16:56
they still own those projects,
Dustin Mulvaney 16:58
they still own those sites. And they, because they grabbed them earlier, they’re grandfathered outside of the Western solar plan. So the Western solar plan was a coordinated effort across six states in the American West, California, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, Utah and Colorado. And the idea was that instead of the 21 million acres that started with, they would focus to lower conflict areas and have the solar energy zones where they would expedite project. And because NextEra sits on all these older, right away applications, they were grandfathered out of that. So they get special treatment to go through the regulatory approval process for that reason, as opposed to like, if you and I were to propose a project out there today, we’d have a different level of scrutiny on our projects. The western solar plant, for example, allows the, the head of the Bureau of Land Management to actually kick a project out without even going through the Environmental Impact Statement process. But that’s not the case for these grandfathered projects. So we see some bad projects for the tortoise on next era sites today.
Robert Bryce 18:03
Well, it’s interesting, because I mean it when I read it, and I’ve written about this a couple times, but just the Department of Justice’s press release on the on the prosecution of next year. I mean, it reads like an indictment. And they said very clearly that NextEra knowingly and went forward with these projects, despite the fact that they knew that they were building them in near eagle nests. So you know that none of this is surprising to me. I just that company, I think is, you know, it’s ruthless. And they’re there after the tax credits, tax credits, and that’s what they’re going to do. But, but let’s talk about the public lands issue here. Because I know, you know, there’s a lot of public land in California, and you talk about these trade offs. And that you you’re talking about and when I was reading your book, you know, reminded me of this, you know, the great the obviously the Milton Friedman quote about there’s no such thing as a free lunch. And you in your chapter on Ivanpah, you point out that there were no mainstream environmental organizations took legal action to stop or influence the project. And those groups, quote, had a difficult time opposing renewable energy, any renewable energy, according to some wilderness advocates, because many large funders thought climate change at any cost was more important. And I mean, isn’t that the nut that when I look at these issues around, you know, the way I put it, climate change is a concern. It’s not our only concern. And yet that that seems to be the the attitude among a lot of these activist groups. I don’t call them green groups anymore. That’s, oh, well, wind turbines will sure we’ll put them right in the middle of right whale habitat. We’ll put them right in the middle of the desert tours. Oh, well, it’s only a few eagles, that this. So my question is, Is that still true in your view of a lot of these? Because these big groups, they have incredible amounts of money. But is it still true in your view that this idea of fighting climate change at any cost is more important than the terrestrial preservation of landscapes? viewsheds wildlife? Is that still what we’re dealing
Dustin Mulvaney 19:49
with? Unfortunately, I think we are I think we, you know, when I first started thinking about these issues, I thought, climate change was an awesome umbrella for all these issues. He’s like preserving land, you preserve the carbon in the land. And like by dealing with the carbon climate issue, you’re dealing with air pollution and water use, you’re dealing with all these things. But it seems like it’s gotten more fractured. So instead of being like, Oh, this is the unifying topic for your blessing, air pollution and having better land use change, and all these things, it’s kind of been partitioned, like we do everything else. You know, we have a history of passing environmental laws, Clean Water Act, Clean Air Act, but they just kind of push issues into other domains. So I’ll give an example. coal fired power plants, you put on scrubbers, right? Well, what are you doing, you’re taking an air pollution problem and making a solid waste or water pollution problem, because now you got fly ash sitting on site. So we’ve always done this, where we kind of compartmentalized the different environmental domains and then started pushing them around. That’s why I was like, climate change is just kind of his great unifying way of kind of being holistic in our way of thinking and addressing problems. But it’s just kind of been become another silo, in pushing problems from one domain to the other. And I think that that’s what we see with the land use issue in particular. I
Robert Bryce 21:12
wonder so that the mitigation then the a will forget adaptation, forget any of these other wildlife concerns, mitigation is the most important issue. And that’s the only objective that we can keep in our focus. And therefore that’s what we’re going to focus on is that am I am I paraphrasing that or reading that,
Dustin Mulvaney 21:29
I would say even further, cheap, mitigations as cheap as possible mitigations. And I think that that’s part of this too, is people aren’t paying a premium for degraded sites. And the reason the graded sites are more cost are more expensive, it’s because they’re probably farther from transmission. So one of the reasons we see public lands. So under pressure from the solar and wind industries, is because at least out in the western areas where I am, is partly a legacy of California’s quest to import coal in the 1960s, where we draped all of these power lines across from California to the Colorado Plateau to access all those coal fired power plants. And then as we shut those down, those are the cheap transmission access points along public lands. So we kind of have locked ourselves into the situation where the cheapest access to transmission are sites that are located along these transmission lines built in the 60s and 70s. Right, coal fired power to California. So in some ways, there’s kind of an entrenchment legacy from our prior infrastructures that made it more expensive to seek out lands that are less degraded, because it was easy in the 60s and 70s, to just get a right away permit to drape lines across, you know, the Mojave preserve, for example, not even talking about just BLM lands, we’re actually talking about lands that have kind of higher protected status too. So
Robert Bryce 22:58
there’s no way to build those new transmission lines now. So they have to build what they have to build something that’s adjacent, but but I think we
Dustin Mulvaney 23:05
need a policy where the state pays for some of this or something like, or there needs to be acknowledgement that we have to pay premiums to to build transmission to these sites like, right, you could have so some now we see in some electricity markets around the world that you could get a little price premium, if you have environmentally sensitive approaches to your supply chain, or to siting it, maybe we need to add that build that into the procurement process where, you know, the conservation aspect is valued, because right now it’s all being treated the same. And of course, we’re going to build on the cheapest because that’s where things
Robert Bryce 23:46
right and any anything that makes the economics more difficult than will will get will disprove this idea of oh, well, solar and wind are cheaper. Well, it’s it’s an only cheaper if you ignore all this other stuff. But it brings me to the one of the other points you made again, in your book, solar power, innovation, sustainability, environmental justice, you talked about this idea of sacrifice zones, which you point out was was coined by Valerie coulis when she was talking about environment nuclear testing in Nevada. But you also pointed out it goes back to the Hetch Hetchy Valley and John Muir and the sacrifice of the valley to build the reservoir for water for San Francisco. But is that is that same idea? I see it because I write a lot about land use conflicts. In fact, I’m writing a piece for Forbes right now about just recent wind energy rejections in Nebraska in Ohio, but there’s this is how I see it is this very much about an urban rural divide, right, where urban wealthy elites in San Francisco and the Bay Area, they love the idea we’ll put renewables you know, out there, you know, in flyover country, but is the same sacrifices own kind of mentality is that ineffective when it comes to the siting of these other large renewable projects, whether it’s big photovoltaic, big wind energy is at least sacrifice zones two is same, same issue.
Dustin Mulvaney 25:03
I think this to some extent, I mean, when you’re making a sacrifice, right, it’s you’re giving up something of value. That’s the whole idea of of sacrificing your giving is that you’re just giving something away. It’s like you’re giving up something you value. And so I would say that these are sacrifice zones in the sense that I think if you bring people to the sites and have them understand these landscapes, most even the urban people would understand the issues and see the value there. But I think, again, that the heightened focus on climate change, and the concerns about climate change gets people to say, well, you know, what, it’s either that or this. So we have to give up these particular conservation lands otherwise, and they say, you know, even in the desert tortoise context, well, guess what, if you don’t put the solar farms there desert gorgeous is going to go extinct anyway, because of climate change. And it’s, it’s, I think it’s a slippery slope. And I don’t believe that myself. In fact, I I’ve met spent many conversations speaking with desert tortoise experts who don’t think that climate change is a bigger threat than solar farms, although they acknowledge that this is this is an issue. Both of them are our pressures on a species that, you know, is in severe decline. So, sure. So I’ve been in you hear from other people, too. I mean, I think that urban rural part is really important, because when you talk to people out there, particularly in the eastern California, Southern California area, they just say, oh, Los Angeles just wants to send their landfills out here, they want to send out their garbage out here. They want to just import their energy from here, they won’t import the rocks from here. So they, I think, one,
Robert Bryce 26:38
there’s a real resentment and resentment both of the urban urban people and against big business. And that’s the part that to me is just remarkable in some of this is how this alliance of big business and big activist groups and which would normally not be on this, in my view, would not normally be on the same side. But it’s just as like, oh, well, climate mitigation trumps all. So we’re going to go ahead and support this. So let’s talk about the chemistry side of this in the in the in, because you’ve written some really good stuff about solar waste, and so on. So you gave a recent lecture where you talked about embodied energy in justices, which is a phrase I hadn’t heard before, what does that mean embodied energy in justices.
Dustin Mulvaney 27:23
So this is a term coined by Knoll Healey and colleagues. And the idea is in lifecycle assessment, where we try to understand material and energy flows across the system. So let’s just think about a solar panel, how much energy goes into making that solar panel along each of the steps. And we call that embodied energy. So when you get a solar panel at the end of the day, right, they are there’s this much embodied energy was the amount of energy it took to make that and in that kind of quantitative reasoning dominates conversations about lifecycle impacts, the solar is a lot, it’s just a lot of numbers about energy payback time or right, what are the emissions across the lifecycle greenhouse gas emissions? So the idea is to bring a qualitative lens to understand where the lives are in that lifecycle, right? You can so you can say, you know, this product over its lifecycle has this much pollution compared to coal, and it looks a lot better. But it doesn’t say anything about those routes of exposure, who’s being exposed to what along the lifecycle, because that could be really much more important to give the coal analogy. The coal fired generation deposits, cadmium on on landscapes, other Mercury other other things, too. So there have been there was one lifecycle assessment that said, look at all the pollution from the coal fired power plant and cadmium, and it’s much much higher like 10 times more than the pollution from making it cadmium telluride solar panel, which is a thin film technology, but niche technology. So the idea was, let’s compare the cadmium emissions from coal and solar panels. And the coal looks way worse. But it doesn’t talk about exposures to cadmium, because it in the coal fired power plant, there’s not someone exposed to high levels of cadmium, there’s burning a lot of coal and it’s being deposited and then it’s probably entering the food system. Corn or something ends up in our Coca Cola, whatever. But if you’re working in an industrial facility, there’s people are handling cadmium, I’m not worried necessarily about the the solar manufacturers, I’ve spent a lot of time talking with them. They seem to handle it well. But upstream, someone’s handling cadmium, and a smelter, were in a mine site or in its exposed, so people are going to be exposed much, much higher, to much, much higher levels of cadmium working in that commodity chain. And that’s why it’s important, I think, to both bring together kind of these material and energy flows, but also this qualitative perspective about who’s working where and how much are they being Those two because we know the OSHA, you know, levels that you’re allowed to be exposed to for cadmium are probably 1000 times higher if not more than the ambient cadmium, and that might be around the coal fired power plant in the air. So, you know, the idea of embodied and environmental justice is to look through the lifecycle and see if we could find any of these contradictions along the chain that might suggest that there are environmental justice issues to be thinking about. And I think we are are now
Robert Bryce 30:33
Yeah, yeah, well, so let’s talk about that. Because you also sent me a link to a remarkable report, it was called the energy of freedom. It was published in March by the university, some academics at the University of Nottingham. And the first section has this remarkable title, the first chapter called solar energy’s slavery problem. And we just want to read part of this because this is, it’s pretty remarkable. It says as a consequence of range of countries and bodies have now called for commercial disengagement engagement from shinjang and China. This includes industry associations, solar industry, energy industries, association, etc. But that, concerns about modern slavery. So that’s about the production of polysilicon in China, and particularly from the Uighur minority, the Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang. But then it says meanwhile, and this was the part that really caught my eye. Meanwhile, concerns about modern slavery in the production of Congolese cobalt, have also grown in recent years and DRC. Cobalt production, modern slavery is not so much the product of state policy as the result of household poverty, and vulnerability to income shocks. 11% of children, children in DRCs, southeastern copper cobalt belt find themselves working in one sector or another, often alongside their parents. So this issue of cobalt and minerals and metal intensity of solar and wind is really getting a lot more attention now. But is it getting enough attention? Because that’s the part that to me, that seems like there’s since the State Department made that ban on importation of poly silicon from Jin Jiang hasn’t been much too much focus on it. Where is that all? Now? What does that where does that stand?
Dustin Mulvaney 32:09
Yeah, so it’s so up in the supply chain. So think about how a crystalline silicon solar panel is, which is 95% of the market, they take quartz, high purity quartz, and then they refine that to a silicon metal, and then make that into poly silicon. And the silicon metal and the poly silicon are the two parts that are largely produced in Xinjiang. And there are issues with that place, partly because of the geopolitical strategic location of that region up against Russia and India. But also, you know, this is basically where the polysilicon industry has grown over the past, you know, 810 years or so because poly seven was largely made in Germany and the United States and Japan and South Korea, until the last decade or so. So the issue today with obviously, with the the accusations of slave labor, and also call them accusations, because we don’t have any human rights observers on the ground, and that’s, you know, a bit of a problem, but accusations are horrible. Yeah, I mean, having that just accused is horrible. And the State Department, you know, part of the issue is there’s this group called ex PCC, that shinjang production and construction corpse, and they’ve been identified as a paramilitary organization by the not not some right wing or left wing groups or anybody like that, but by the Department of Commerce, right. So there, so the that’s kind of the where the accusations of slave labor come in. Now, the State Department has done some things, Customs and Border, have done some things to kind of block certain companies, but hasn’t really gone very far. They’ve identified a couple of companies. So a couple of companies have had their stuff, you know, stop that port. But the problem is more extensive than that they haven’t identified all the companies that are producing in that region. So why some and not others? I think that’s part of the problem. But they also, you know, I don’t think that they have they’re certainly not taking action on the entire industry, because the problem is to 45% of the polysilicon is produced in Xinjiang and global
Robert Bryce 34:18
45. So I just want to Well, I wanted to ask you that. So it’s 45% comes from poly silicon comes from Jin Jiang. And then there’s a great report, Laura Murphy, and one of her colleagues at Hallam, how am Sheffield University put out a report last year on this? That was very, I mean, they were careful in their language, but they laid it out. And it was shortly shortly a few weeks after that the State Department issued the ban. But how much of total poly silicon for solar comes from China to 45% comes from shinjang What about China as a whole?
Dustin Mulvaney 34:49
I don’t want to I think it’s gonna say anything. 80%
Robert Bryce 34:53
Okay, yeah, I’ve seen 80 or 90%. I’ve seen it it’s more than that. But it’s it’s nearly a near monopoly on the Global Supply. I poly silicon for solar.
Dustin Mulvaney 35:02
It is although they’re they’re still dominant other countries, I have major producers too. So I wouldn’t necessarily say that. But it’s I mean, what am I saying 80% is a huge part. So yes. But the other part of that too is that so 45% is coming from Xinjiang. So that doesn’t mean 45% of the solar panels have Xinjiang poly silicon, because what happens is some of that stuff is sold on the spot market. And then it’s blended with other manufacturers, many of which are probably in China, but but could even be others. So the idea is that maybe 6070, or 80%, of all PV modules actually have material from Xinjiang. And even if it’s only a small percent, because they blended it with other poly silicon. So that’s why this problem is very extensive. And if the if, you know, Department of Commerce, Customs and Border want to do something about this, they’re up against the, you know, they’re up against the wall here, because they, they’re in a tough position, because they either have to isolate a couple of companies pick and choose, or they got to take action against all of it. And
Robert Bryce 36:08
that shuts down the very populous on the politically powerful lobby group in Washington. So but just a backup. So I told you, I’ve eight and a half have a good sub 40 some odd panels on the roof of my house. So there may be slavery there. They could have slave labor polysilicon in them, even though they were produced in Korea, South Korea,
Dustin Mulvaney 36:30
not clear on that one. So South Korea, I think it depends on we’d have to see what the we could probably trace that, we’d have to see who the suppliers to LG were right, and that I’m not completely sure of that protect that full supply chain. But but the question is, are there the questions are there and even if they could trace it, again, the blending thing? They might not have full information about your?
Robert Bryce 36:55
Well, and that’s one of the key issues here, isn’t it? I mean, just this opacity is the opacity of the supply chain here that we don’t know, where’s the the rare earth element, the rare earth elements supply chain, we have fairly good visibility there, but it not so much for poly silicon is that am I am I understanding you, right?
Dustin Mulvaney 37:17
We don’t know the labor aspects, I would say, in poly silicon, we’d have very little information about that. I mean, it’s very highly mechanized and requires a lot of engineering skill. So I don’t think if you were to look at a polysilicon facility in Xinjiang, it’s all slave labor. But there are manual steps in that process, like when you make when you grow a prop poly silicon crystal, for you break in, you have to break those crystals into a what they call poly silicon chunk that they melt down. That’s manual labor. So that could definitely be potentially slave labor. I think that’s one of the things that Laura Murphy pointed out in her report. Right. So I think that that that’s definitely, definitely an issue to be thinking about is how I don’t know how to solve this problem. We, you know, this is one of my frustrations is that, you know, I was working with the Silicon Valley toxics Coalition on a solar scorecard and a white paper in 2009. It was a lot long time ago. And in that solar scorecard, we were talking with solar manufacturers, about transparency in their supply chain, and they’re all telling us Oh, we know exactly what’s going on in the supply chain and all that stuff. And we knew that they were not developing a traceability scheme. And we’re telling them this is when you do it, you do it when your industry is small, like it isn’t 2009 you because you don’t have that much. And it’s easy to track it all. So set up your traceability now, and then you’ll be able to figure out, if you ever have a supply chain issue, you will be able to untangle it a little bit. And now we’re in a situation where no one kind of flying blind about all of this, and we’re not really clear on what’s coming from where and what panels have it and, and who’s participating unknowingly in a commodity chain that has slave labor accusations, and that’s highly problematic. And again, that’s the green Halo, I think because Right? You know, we’re a tiny little organization and I’m a professor at San Jose State making these you know, suggestions to them. What really need is like big group saying like, hey, you know, we’re on your side, and we’re trying to grow your industry, but we want you to do a couple little things to make sure that you’re not undermining the sustainability and environmental justice elements of your product. So
Robert Bryce 39:31
but that’s not happening. But that’s not that mean, the the big activist groups are just ignoring this problem. But let me let me turn to this piece you co authored in 2019 and Scientific American. With Morgan bazillion you talk about you write that while supplying only about 1% of global electricity photovoltaics already relies on 40% of the global tellurium supply 15% of the silver supply a large portion of semi can inductor quality quartz supply and smaller but important segments of the indium, zinc, tin and gallium supplies, closing the loop on these metals. And embracing Circular Economy concepts will be critical to the industry’s future. So that’s three years ago has any progress been made since then?
Dustin Mulvaney 40:16
A little bit, we’re starting, because I think the volumes are starting to build up. So
Robert Bryce 40:21
the volume, the quantity of commodities needed to for the inputs, or you’re talking about the waste, the waste stream from the PV,
Dustin Mulvaney 40:29
from the PV modules are starting to tick up to the point. So, and one of the complicated things about waste industries, it’s the one industry, it doesn’t get to pick what they have to handle. Right? Like you’re you’re a waste transfer station, you don’t know it’s showing up in the next dump truck of stuff, right. And so often, waste industries are caught off guard. And in fact, those are the biggest advocates for having some kind of recycling or end of life. Product responsibility in the solar industry are the local folks who have to deal with waste, waste that waste transfer stations, because they don’t own
Robert Bryce 41:04
the land, the local landfills, the waste management, and well, I’m assuming the big the big handlers, waste management, some of the others, they want to make sure they’re not stuck with this or face some liability as well. And I’m just speaking, just just occurring to me, as I’m saying this, but yeah, I mean, any landfill owner, they don’t want to have some liability from something that goes into the oh, by the way, they buried your you had this what you got to get rid of that or put it some hazardous. So there’s a liability for them to I
Dustin Mulvaney 41:28
guess. Yeah. So I mean, the complicated thing is that some solar panels are not considered hazardous waste under either California
Robert Bryce 41:38
or recommended, or what are the right?
Dustin Mulvaney 41:42
Some solar panels in California are hazardous waste under the California law, but not federal law. Because California grinds their stuff up a little more in this, they leach out, they have a different testing, or they call it a hazardous waste determination test, they have a different test for that. So so that’s one difference. And then you have stuff that’s both, you know, hazardous waste at the federal and state level. So the question is, when the waste transfer station receives a solar panel, they don’t know which one which one it is, so they have to treat it as hazardous. So in California, they changed the rules a little bit, not what I would advocate for, I think, in that paper, we advocate for the article, extended producer responsibility, which is basically the polluter pays for, for products, and there’s a recovery program in place, probably industry wide is the most helpful way to do that.
Robert Bryce 42:29
And so that would be just interrupts that that would be similar to like, one of the computer makers that there, they’ll take it back, once you get finished with it, they’ll take it back, so that
Dustin Mulvaney 42:37
California has mattress, extended producer responsibility and got paint extended resources. So if we got paint, I can go back to paint store, they gotta take it back. So so these are, you know, closing the loop on some of these lesions. Again, it’s really important, why was paint picked out because paint was caught was like 1/3, to the cost of operating some of these facilities. So they’re like, get the paint people out of here, get this paint out of here. And it makes the outrage of the
Robert Bryce 43:01
land for the landfill, guys, they don’t want the pain, because that’s gonna tell you in aromatics, and they don’t want to deal with that.
Dustin Mulvaney 43:08
Exactly. So they don’t want to there. So so that’s kind of how that’s how we get extended periods, responsibility loss, typically as the waste people speak up, and they say we need, we can’t we can’t be handling all this anymore. Right. So
Robert Bryce 43:21
let’s talk about a bit if I can interrupt again. So we’ve talked about what those particular elements are problematic. Commodities are problematic waste streams are. But the bigger issue, it seems to me and her more weighty if I’m gonna use a pun here, it’s just the massive volume, the mass of these waste streams that are headed toward the landfills in the next few decades. In your, in your Scientific American piece. You said PV waste will likely total 90 million tons per year by 2050. But then there was a study I’m sure you saw last year in the Harvard Business Review. It said it will, I’m gonna quote it. I’m gonna read from it because it just it’s a remarkable conclusion. It said, the totality of these unforeseen costs could crush industry competitiveness. If we plot future installations of PV according to a logistic growth curve capped at 700 gigawatts by two by 2050. Alongside early replacement curve, we see the volume of waste surpassing that of new installations by the year 2031. By 2035, discarded panels could outweigh new units sold by 2.56 times in this listen, here’s the money line. In turn, this would catapult the levelized cost of electricity, which is a silly metric anyway to four times the current projection, which means that the economics they all go on the economics of solar so bright, seeming from the vantage point of 2021 would darken quickly as the industry sinks under the weight of its own trash. I mean, well, it’s a remarkable report.
Dustin Mulvaney 44:55
I don’t think I’ve seen that report.
Robert Bryce 44:57
I’ll send it allows him to put it out there link in the in the YouTube or on the YouTube posting when we post this but yeah, I mean, it’s just a remarkable study that saying the industry would drown in its own trash. I mean that that’s this hate green Halo. Wow. I mean, I’ll tell
Dustin Mulvaney 45:12
you what what they’re doing in California and said there make the taxpayers pay for it. So so instead of extended producer responsibility, which is what we’re advocating, and we talked about Washington passed the law. So that law, they they sent me a text of legislation, I crossed it out so much, they had actually pull it from the floor and put it back up. I think they pause that so that the idea was to sell a watt solar panel in Washington, you’d have to have extended producer responsibility, it would be a condition for sale in New York was considering it, they actually pulled that legislation. So that has not been reconsidered. But in California, they decided to call end of life solar panels, universal waste, which is like compact fluorescent light bulbs or universal waste and thermostats, so that so the industry doesn’t have to pay for the cleanup. So basically, they got the taxpayers of California we’re gonna pay for the cleanup of solar panels. So
Robert Bryce 46:00
where have I heard this before? privatize the privatize the profits and socialize the costs? This is? This is the time honored tradition. Right?
Dustin Mulvaney 46:10
So and that’s so that’s, that’s how they dealt with the problem in California was that the, you know, no extended producer responsibility, even though we have all these other industries that have extended producer responsibility, you think solar panels would be a perfect fit under, you know, Cal recycles other EPR programs. And that turned out not to be the case that they decided universal waste was the way to go. And that’s that so they will not in that in California, they will not drown in their own waste, because the taxpayers will pay for it. Well, so
Robert Bryce 46:39
is that is that reflective of the power of the solar lobby?
Dustin Mulvaney 46:43
Yes, absolutely. Because I, because there was moved to actually have extended producer responsibility. The Department of Toxic Substances Control has been thinking about this since 2009. In fact, they wiped their whole website of the proceedings I participated in from 2009 to 2013. If you’d go to the website, it looks like they started in 2013, which is what they eventually passed these universal waste regs for end of life solar panels, and what was going
Robert Bryce 47:12
on. So it’s just been it’s all just the whole issue, it just seems like it’s being completely ignored. Let me finish this other part of this one paragraph from this Harvard Business Review piece from from last year. It said the same problem is looming for other renewable energy technologies. For example, barring a major increase in processing capability, experts expect more than 720,000 tons worth of gargantuan wind turbine blades will end up in US landfills over the next 20 years. And according to prevailing estimates, this is the other part that I think is really intriguing, and it goes to the battery issue. According to prevailing estimates, only 5% of electric vehicle batteries are currently recycled a lag that automakers are racing to rectify, as sales figures for electric cars continue to rise as much as 40% per year on year. I mean, so this green haloed, where we started now, you know, 40 minutes ago or so, it’s extending not just to the idea of PV and where and solar and solar deployment in terms of land use, it’s also the end of life, which, again, doesn’t square with these repeated claims. In fact, John Kerry made one just the other day Oh, well, solar and wind are cheaper, Well, only if you don’t count all these other things, including the issues we’re talking about now, which is, how do you deal with it when it’s not useful anymore? So why is this being glossed over so easily? Why is it being ignored so much? Why is there just no payoff in talking about it?
Dustin Mulvaney 48:32
I think people just look at, you know, the, again, I think it’s the climate change just dominates the narrative, and it’s just seen as a small little issue. It’s seen as a tiny, solid waste issue with the wind turbine blades or solar panels. And, you know, it’s, that’s frustrating, because, because we could, so Siemens announced recently that they’re making recyclable wind turbine blades now, and that’s good, because it’s really complicated. I mean, fiberglass and plastic and all stuff, depending on which which make and we’re landfilling. So we definitely are landfilling them then, but it goes to show that Siemens, maybe they could have been pressured to do this earlier, or other manufacturers could also be pressured to do this. Maybe this should be written into some of the procurement contracts that, you know, we’re going to only use recycled wind turbine in our projects that we’re going to actually will
Robert Bryce 49:21
only build them or will only allow tax credits for the solar projects or wind projects that have a proven we end of life plan, I guess, would be the would that be a way to get to it?
Dustin Mulvaney 49:34
I mean, I think part of it is also that there’s a fear because of the climate denial element of all of the, you know, the politics of renewable energy that if you say something about solar that’s negative, or when that’s negative, it’ll feed right into that echo chamber. Oh, right. And I think that that echo chamber can be ignored. Like, I feel like they’re taking it too serious. There’s a little too much. Focus on the Climate denialism stuff because they’re gonna say whatever they want anyway. And I think there’s a fear of stepping on the industry and kind of feeding a narrative that, that might under undermine deployment. But I don’t think it undermines deployment. And I think that that’s where the problem is, I think that it, you know, you could actually even see opportunities to hasten deployment if you start solving some of these problems earlier. And, and boy
Robert Bryce 50:23
has, because he can say, because you can say, you can make that argument, look, we’ve done we’ve done the full lifecycle analysis, we’re going to be responsible about this, and instead part of it. Yeah, I like that idea that it’d be, you know, we’ll because I don’t know whether the any of the Evie makers have said, Oh, yeah, we’ll take it back. Right, because I think the car battery issues
Dustin Mulvaney 50:41
a little different in some ways, which is, I think, you know, we think about lead acid batteries in cars today, which are also electric vehicles often, or at least in plug in hybrid vehicles, as a starter battery. You know, those batteries have a very high recycling rate. And why is that it’s because the mechanics handled, most likely, or, you know, some people do their own batteries, but rather, the city might have a pickup or drop off for them at the local waste transfer station. So the reverse logistics are in place for the batteries. And I think that number is a little low, that 5% number is probably a bit higher, but we don’t know, I think you’ll see a lot of reuse, reuse of those batteries and recycling, because there’s more valuable stuff in them. An issue with wind turbines and solar panels is you don’t have much valuable stuff, right? Silver’s in aluminum is about 50% of the value of a solar panel, and they put less and less silver in every solar panel or they get the bifacial solar panels. So silver on both sides of each solar panels gonna have a little more silver, but so the silver use for per watt has dropped like tenfold in the last decade. So there, that makes sense, as a manufacturer, you don’t want to be using silver, you want to be using less and less of it as a recycling problem, that means the value of end of life, solar gets less and less over time. So that also becomes a problem. And wind turbines are probably useless in terms of their value in terms of the blades.
Robert Bryce 52:00
And the same for the lithium ion batteries from everything that I understand that those that the layers and
Dustin Mulvaney 52:06
metals, even even, you know, they’re not recovering the lithium part of the batteries as much, but they do the nickel and cobalt and aluminum and copper. I mean, there’s a lot of metal in the battery in general. So I think I’m less concerned about the Recycling and Recovery of batteries than I am with the turbines and and solar panels for the reasons of one, let’s reverse logistics. So who’s taking a battery out of a electric vehicle, but definitely mechanic, so it’s not going to end up in the landfill? Whereas, you know, we might have McCall construction company take down your solar panels, and they might throw them in a dumpster and right,
Robert Bryce 52:43
so well. And you’re gonna have to find a big fleet of people that are going to take that wind turbine back to somewhere and well, you’ve seen the trucks that handle these wind turbine blades. They’re they’re gargantuan. I mean to going back to like that idea that reverse logistics I maybe I’ve heard that term before. But I but yeah, I’m thinking well, yeah, now you have to have the truck go back from that wind turbine to wherever it’s going to go somewhere else. But that’s an expensive, so an expensive
Dustin Mulvaney 53:08
student model this for the Bay Area and solar panels. She did a whole like, GIS reverse logistics model for every solar panel installed in the Bay Area, to like, try to optimize where the location of citing a recovery facility should be. So
Robert Bryce 53:22
what did what did they find? What did she find,
Dustin Mulvaney 53:26
um, that it’s difficult a lot of trucking. And but by but by having a recovery facility, you know, local in the Bay Area where her research was done was much less trucking than trucking it to the apex landfill outside of Las Vegas, which is the largest landfill in the United States, or to the button willows hazardous waste facility, which is in the Central Valley, and it’s already environmental justice issue. So you know, by having recovery facilities, more more local, you could pretty significantly reduce the trucking distances that things are going so Gotcha. That’s good. She actually works in the solar recycling industry now, which is interesting. I was saying earlier that they’re so I think now that we’re getting volumes, and that’s always an issue with with waste and recovery of waste, or recovery of valuable stuff of waste is you got to have the volumes to do it. And the industry is starting to get the volumes but having an extended producer responsibility get you volumes faster. We’re having excellent reverse logistics get you volumes faster. So like you imagine, auto mechanics got, you know, 30 batteries now in the back of his yard. And that means a truck can come and pick 30 batteries and just improves the efficiency as opposed to like going to everybody’s house. Right? So waste, you know, piling waste in volume makes the economics of recovering the material valuable materials much, much better. So putting that onus on the producer, who’s taken profit off of all this, I think, to help pay for the recovery is really the model and if we think about it As you know, the PV cycle in Europe has been doing this now for 10 years, where they have required that all solar panels be unsold that are sold are under a kickback and collection scheme. And that means that that what they’re doing is they’re putting a little bit of money aside, right at the beginning when that solar panels sold and they put it in, in the case of first solar using to Lorien that you mentioned before, this is one manufacturers isn’t actually keeping cycle, but they put money in a restricted investment account. And then it’s allowed to grow over time. So you put money up now and then 25 years from now, or 20 or 30 years from now, when the solar panels come off, you should have a lot more money to work with the recovery of that, as opposed to paying for it 30 years from now full frame and where’s that money actually going to come from? Right? Especially if as you said, it’s the waste is outpacing the installations and we have a real issue,
Robert Bryce 55:52
right? Or the company goes out of business or there’s no you know, no corporate entity left. But you still have
Dustin Mulvaney 55:57
reason to do industry wide and not have it company by company because of
Robert Bryce 56:02
its extended extended producer recovery is Responsibility Responsibility. Okay, I know you’ve used that term before but I’m
Dustin Mulvaney 56:10
days basically, it’s the same principle as any other polluter pays principle, which is whoever makes the product and this time should have some responsibility over it. Right?
Robert Bryce 56:18
But if you have that, but then you know, just Dustin and again, right the station break my guest is Dustin Mulvaney. He’s the author of solar power, innovation, sustainability and environmental justice. That’s your second book. And there it is.
Dustin Mulvaney 56:31
First, my second book is called Sustainable Energy strategies, the textbook, okay, the sustainable energy strategies socio ecological dimensions of decarbonisation off the malleable,
Robert Bryce 56:41
good, thanks. You can find him at Dustin mulvaney.com on the interweb and then on Twitter at Dustin Mulvaney. So I’m guessing you’re well I see a lot of photos on your Twitter feed at the beach. You have you have kids, you you’re you spend a lot of time looking at beaches I guess is there’s your avocation would tell me about that if you don’t mind.
Dustin Mulvaney 57:00
I am well I live in Santa Cruz, California, not not too far from from beautiful Monterey Bay, who unceded territory of the Wasp was speaking up tribe. So that’s where I’m zooming in from occupied territory. And, you know, having an eight month old and a two and a half year old, I’m trying to entertain them off time. So that’s why there’s so many wildlife pictures and beach pictures as as opposed to me rattling off all my concerns about solar lifecycle. And
Robert Bryce 57:32
well, no, that’s good. Well, balanced. Yeah, no. Understood. There’s nothing. There’s nothing more fun than taking kids. I got a dog who loves the beach. Yeah, didn’t get to the beach. So let’s talk about Chinese poly silicon in that supply chain. Again, I just want to go back to that because Michael Shellenberger I’m sure you’re familiar with him running for governor in California. He’s made the point that well, one of the reasons the poly silicon and the poly in the in the solar panels coming out of China have been so cheap is that they’re using coal fired power to produce them. What’s your view? Do you know much about that in terms of that production cycle? And what that what that what’s fueling, it will lead the way I put it is you don’t use solar panels to build solar panels. Right. But is it true that the one of the reasons that cost advantage is in China is because of they’re using a lot of coal to produce these components? Is that Is that true?
Dustin Mulvaney 58:24
You know, I don’t have a ton of insight into the cost structure, like what’s making these things but that’s definitely part of the appeal. So you know, part of the attraction to that region of of the world of the world is because there is a lot of coal fired electricity there. And in some cases, these poly silicon in silicon, silicon metal, and often they’re cited with a another product called silicone. So silicone, silicone, metal and silicone are often made in the same facilities. And, you know, they’re often built around or rebuilt in an industrial facility. So industrial facilities are usually industrial, you know, fence fence, then, you know, doing all sorts of manufacturing of different kinds, and then they have their own power plant, right? A power plant could be cogent it might be just electricity, might be making steam doing other things in that particular facility. So we know that several of the major poly silicon manufacturers set up operations around coal fired power plants, and that is, to me it erodes a lot of the greenhouse gas savings with making a solar panel because instead of using natural gas, probably a better alternative. But instead of using lower carbon energy, hydropower would be another alternative back 10 years ago, but before most most of the European and North American poly silicon declined as a percentage and overall in some cases, there mothballed facilities that couldn’t compete anymore with the cheap polysilicon from China. A lot of that was hydropower before. So that was actually really low carb. In poly silicon, in fact, there’s a group of manufacturers who have now formed something called the ultra low carbon Solar Alliance. And these are folks who are trying to reassure some of the poly silicon production into the United States. There’s actually a couple of poly silicon facilities that have been mothballed one in Moses, Lake Washington, there’s a big one in Tennessee that stopped selling the solar industry and sells it to other electronics products. So I think there is a lot of room to bring, bring back online some of this domestic polysilicon production. And I think that would go a long way. But the coal fired electricity is definitely an issue. Some of these companies have announced that they’re going to build new facilities that will be more renewable powered. And the funny thing is, if you go back to the rich, so we go back to a lifecycle assessment, the first lifecycle assessment on PV that I could find is from 73, or 76, I forget what year, but they made they propose PV breeders was the idea was that you’d make solar panel, one solar panel, just in concept. And that solar panel used to make another solar panel, and then those two solar panels would make another solar panel. And the idea then was that poly silicon at that time was very energy intensive. So there they did one of those energy payback times, like how much energy does it take to make that product? Right? How long did it take to generate electricity to pay it off, and they had, they found like 30 or 40 years, I forget. So it was a huge, so basically, the solar panels didn’t pay back those first initial ones, different industry, different roles. And now we see that it’s like one year, one and a half year. So that’s much, much better today.
Robert Bryce 1:01:35
So let me let me ask you that because I had a friend of mine asked me about this, Jim, look from Houston. In fact, he texted me the other day saying, well, what’s the payback? So yeah, but if I understood you to say this correctly, then so for any given solar panel produce now like the ones that I have on my roof, that the payback on the energy invested on energy return on energy invested in that thing? Yep. That it’ll take a year or a year and a half before it’s actually it’s positive. Is that is that my my, I’ve heard I’ve heard Yeah,
Dustin Mulvaney 1:02:00
I want to say two is probably on the high side. And there’s some thin film modules, which don’t take as much energy make her like six months. Frown offers a big Institute in Germany, who has two reports on this, the number that they report now, that’s energy payback time. I’ve proposed in another article, there’s an article in IEEE Spectrum, which apparently, the editor told me, it’s their most downloaded article over the last 10 years, which like, is solar, green, and you didn’t like the title, something about it as green as you think, or whatever. And but anyway, the point was, in that article, I said, Well, we actually have to be thinking about greenhouse gas payback time, not just energy. And that gets trickier because sometimes you’re building a product in a high carbon grid, and then installing it in a very low carbon grid. Which means so let’s say you build it with like, two pounds per kilowatt hour carbon dioxide, but it’s being installed in a grid, that’s got a half a pound, right? I mean, your energy payback time is actually four times higher than then I’m sorry, your greenhouse gas payback time is actually four times higher than your energy payback time, right. So we want to be, that’s why the coal fired electricity I see as a roading, a lot of greenhouse gas savings that could potentially be there. And if we’re concerned about climate change, we should be, you know, mobilizing to get coal out of that supply chain, not just on the electricity side, you know, China actually has a public policy, to the extent you call their policies, because they have a policy that is supposed to decarbonize their industrial parks, right, because they see this as a problem. Also, you know, they’re using a lot of coal in their industrial parks. But, you know, as long as we’re just using this unwittingly, we’re not contributing to that public policy to encourage more lower carbon industrial parks in China, too. So I think, again, it’s a case where a little scrutiny on industrial parks could go a long way to shutting down more coal fired electricity and improving the greenhouse gas payback times on these solar panels.
Robert Bryce 1:04:00
Well, so I liked that with that word, did you just the scrutinies. Because if we’ve been talking for about an hour, and I want to conclude here in just a few minutes, but that if I was going to boil down what your your book, a solar power, innovation, sustainability and environmental justice, and also, you know, the work that you’ve done since the book came out, and what we’re talking about, you just the bottom line is what I hear you saying is that the solar industry deserves a lot more scrutiny than it’s getting. Is that Is that a fair? Is that a fair assessment?
Dustin Mulvaney 1:04:27
I think so it could, it could us, those of us who were working on this little niche issue could use somewhat more support to get some action. And if they did have more scrutiny, we wouldn’t be in the situation. I think we’re in today, where we have slave labor accusations and we have all this coal fired electricity. And so I think that more scrutiny could help. And I think it could help in a positive way. And I’ll add to that there are people in the industry who want this scrutiny because they are trying to do the right thing. They’re trying to make products the right way. And they see their own efforts being undermined by, you know, an area we don’t have very much visibility into. And I think that that, that also makes it worth listening to, you know, the the folks that are within the industry, and just to say this is a legitimate issue.
Robert Bryce 1:05:21
Well, and so just to ask some follow up on that one thing, that that that lack of visibility, how much of that is just a function of the fact that we’re the industry is so heavily reliant on China, which is just opaque when it comes to these issues that if we’re would how much better with that? Responsibility, visibility, clarity be if we if our supply chains in our production were more domestic rather than dependent on the People’s Republic of China? How much would that be the improvement is that what’s needed to really see make this happen?
Dustin Mulvaney 1:05:53
That might be part of it. I think industrial parks all over the world are hard to have visibility into in general, Malaysia makes a lot of solar panels.
Robert Bryce 1:06:02
But reassuring. But reshoring could be part of that. That would
Dustin Mulvaney 1:06:05
be part of I mean, in fact, there is a, you know, we think about the poly silicon is actually, you know, it’s a very, it can be a dangerous product to make, you know, there’s hydrogen, there’s flammable refrigerants. There’s all sorts of stuff in those facilities. And we’ve seen quite
Robert Bryce 1:06:18
a few accidents, in fact, OSHA explosions, deadly ones,
Dustin Mulvaney 1:06:21
big explosions, we’ve seen in that it’s a very concentrated issues of six major poly silicon manufacturers. So when there’s a major explosion at one of these facilities, I think there were two of them back to back GCL and dayco, a couple 2020 That basically knocked off 20% of the polysilicon supply. So that I think that that domestic reshoring of production gives you more geographic variability in where, where products are being made, which means you’re not dependent, I think just being dependent. It’s not just that it’s China, it’s just being dependent on one part of the world to choose a supply chain, or it’s, you know, some, some, depending on what companies are going to have hurricane can take out a whole bunch of things, you know, we have a whole, you know, a history of concentrating production, sometimes in areas and then suddenly, things get disrupted, and then we’re in the situation. So I think, you know, having domestic reshoring, there helps. The other thing that’s really important on that safety point is that for many, many years, we made poly silicon United States, and we didn’t have these accidents. And part of what happened was there was a network of environmental health and safety professionals in North America and in Europe. And in Japan, and South Korea, also, I’m not positive, they were part of this, but they shared information about accidents. So when accidents happen, they shared information, and they tried, they learned from it so that but that doesn’t happen. There’s no sharing. So we have those explosions, we still know what causes explosions in in 2020, at those poly silicon facility, so I think there is a breakdown of communication. Amongst them are my health and safety professionals in that space that has happened with the offshoring, and maybe reshoring that bring some of that knowledge back home. But
Robert Bryce 1:08:09
it’s interesting, because when you’re saying that I’m thinking, you know, the oil and gas industry or the coal sector, you know, here in the US, they’re very heavily regulated, OSHA is looking at them all the time, but because maybe it’s just this green Halo has been extended. And so it’s just hasn’t been subjected this solar industry in particular, just hasn’t been subjected to that same level of scrutiny. And because so much of it is offshored, then it can’t be applied. But yeah,
Dustin Mulvaney 1:08:32
and there, I think you there it is a artifact of it being China. Yeah. Or that that, you know,
Robert Bryce 1:08:39
a result of your that. Yeah, sure. So just a couple other questions, Dustin. So we’ve talked about a lot of things. And, you know, I admire the work that you’ve been doing. I think it’s important and has not gotten the kind of, you know, the level of visibility that I think it deserves. But that’s my observation. So what are you reading? I mean, obviously, you know, you’re busy with young kids and teaching and the rest of it what, what books are on your nightstand or on the top of your, your bookshelf, or your top of your book pile there. What are you reading these days?
Dustin Mulvaney 1:09:10
Oh, let’s see. You know, I’ve been doing a little bit of a historical project on a on the largest coal deposit in the United States, which was the oh and the Powell River Basin and compare it with flat toe in southern Utah so that I’ve been reading a little bit about Southern Utah lately. I’ve been
Robert Bryce 1:09:27
waiting. You’re waiting. Just curious about that. Because I’ve been in coal mines. I’ve been in underground mines men and opencast mines have been in the Powder River Basin. The Powder River Basin is not the largest coal reserve it says it that is it.
Dustin Mulvaney 1:09:38
Sorry, in the southwest. But well, Saudi River Basin is much bigger than this one and much more high quality coal. In fact, that’s the reason it was never developed. But just trying to go through this history of notes was going to be a 3.5 gigawatt coal fired power plant on top of the largest coal coal mine in the southwest. And the kind of history of that and that eventually becomes grand staircase National Monument. That’s
Robert Bryce 1:10:04
what I was about to get to because I was in St. George, Utah. I spoke at the Utah municipal power agency or Power Authority a couple of weeks ago, and I wanted to go to Grand Staircase Escalante and I knew there was a big coal deposit. That was the one you’re talking about.
Dustin Mulvaney 1:10:16
That’s exactly, yeah. It’s a fascinating history. So I’ve been working on a little project on that.
Robert Bryce 1:10:22
And what’s the book is you were gonna refer to a book where you were working on a historical I, the question before we was about what you’re reading. Yes, that’s
Dustin Mulvaney 1:10:30
true. What am I read? So I’m reading the book I’m reading I was reading a scene, where did it go? I thought I had on my shelf. Anyway, it’s just a history. It’s a book, I found that the Electric Power Research Institute, which has a whole history of that, that that coal deposit. I don’t think anybody’s ever read it. Here, just compare what’s
Robert Bryce 1:10:55
compare with coal project in the environment? Hmm. Oh, well, that’s news to me. I haven’t heard of that.
Dustin Mulvaney 1:11:01
So just kind of niche reading for me lately. Yeah. And lots of children’s books. Yeah.
Robert Bryce 1:11:06
Doctor familiar with Dr. Seuss. Right. Well, so good. Last question. Then, Dustin, as we’ve been talking now, for more than an hour. We’ve talked about a lot of things that, frankly, are not that are a little depressing. And a little unfortunate. Some of these that, you know, these these, the screen Halo has been given to an industry that is not getting the kind of scrutiny it deserves. But what gives you hope, what makes you optimistic?
Dustin Mulvaney 1:11:31
I think there’s a lot of great people in the industry, I think there are people who are making stuff and that some of these production systems can be made better. And there are people working towards that. I think this group, the ultra low carbon Solar Alliance is one of them. I work with a bunch of folks through a sustainability leadership standard, where we will basically look at the production processes at a manufacturer and award those kind of like a LEED certification for buildings and solar panels. So whoever is got the ENERGY STAR manufacturing equipment is reporting their wastewater is is doing better on seawater like
Robert Bryce 1:12:14
underwriters laboratory stamp or something like
Dustin Mulvaney 1:12:17
basically like it’s actually an anzi standard. So it’s an NSF International Standard. And that’s run by the green electronics Council. We haven’t seen a ton of companies apply for it yet, because we’ve made it pretty strict. But my hope is that we will continue to see some, because the idea there is that we would go on a what’s called an EP registry, these products. And often when the federal government in the state of California, for example, University of California or Cal State University has to buy computers, they have to buy them off the EP registry. So the idea is it’s
Robert Bryce 1:12:49
kind of a key. I’m sorry, what does that mean? Ep?
Dustin Mulvaney 1:12:51
Eight, what it stands for EPEAT
Robert Bryce 1:12:54
EP. Oh, okay. All right, got it.
Dustin Mulvaney 1:12:57
And EPEAT standard for solar panels would be if so, if a state was directed, or the federal government was directed to purchase sustainable solar panels, they would buy them off of this EP, icing. Okay, so So it’s a kind of a procurement tool. So I think that there are some avenues that help hopeful for recycling I’m hopeful for because I’m seeing entrepreneurial activity now that we have made the rules a little easier on handling in the volumes are there the land use issues very depressing. I’m not seeing much progress on that. I’m seeing ideas out there floating solar Agra voltaic where you integrate agriculture and solar together. You know, I think the built environment is really not getting its share of solar panels. And we’re using too much open space and green fields and public lands for that. And hopefully, we see more synergies there. Because there are natural synergies I would imagine, between these environmental organizations and protecting public lands, but there there seems to be more people patting themselves on the back every time a project is put on public lands and people saying maybe we shouldn’t be doing it this way. So but for the rest of it, I’m very hopeful and I’m hopeful that we’ll we’ll start to see better play solar put in better places too, but we got to work on it. A lot of work to do.
Robert Bryce 1:14:29
Well, we can agree on that. been a great conversation. My guest Dustin Mulvaney you can find out more about him Dustin mulvaney.com. He’s on Twitter at Dustin Mulvaney he by his book solar power, innovation, sustainability and environmental justice. I recommend it. It’s just a very level and level headed and sober analysis of solar which has been in some ways given too much of the green Halo. So but Dustin, it’s been great to talk to you glad we were
Dustin Mulvaney 1:14:58
able to make this happen. I really enjoyed this. Thanks so much, Robert. We’ll see you around.
Robert Bryce 1:15:03
And thanks to all of you in podcast land for tuning in to this episode of the power hungry podcast tune in we’ve got more coming. This is I don’t know, 100 100 and some odd episodes, but there were hundreds, hundreds, hundreds more coming, I’m certain. Thanks again, Dustin. And thanks to all of you. Bye