Raising the bar on sustainability – it’s not just “the what” you do, it is also “the how” you do it
For the transition towards a low-carbon society we are looking at more renewable energy, electric vehicles, storage etc. This blog explores how the renewables sector can, and should, take a more circular economy approach and that consumer demand is essential in the transition towards a sustainable business.
Sustainable business is on the rise. More and more organisations are realising that they can do well by being good to people and planet. The most recent report on sustainability performance of listed companies, from Carbon Clear, states that the transition towards more sustainable business is happening more because of carrots (demand) rather than sticks (regulation). This is most apparent in the embracing of renewable technologies as the technology of choice not only for businesses, but for people, communities, regions and countries.
In the energy sector, the price of solar and wind is continuing to fall and recently the results from the power auctions in the UK revealed that offshore wind is much cheaper than electricity from new nuclear power (i.e. Hinkley C). It is apparent that renewable energy has not only become more competitive, the various form of renewable energy are also proving to be more reliable. I have been an avid supporter of renewables for many years, having worked in the sector for a long time, and I am excited about this shift.
Wind turbines in summer landscape. Author's own picture.
The Carbon Clear report also reveals that companies who see the most tangible results are also unafraid to set ambitious targets, align their businesses to sustainability goals, engage their value chain and stakeholders and are early adopters of new sustainability practices. Funnily enough, I have discovered that many companies who are at the forefront of new sustainable technology, in the renewable energy sector for example, often do not run their businesses with their own sustainability goals at the forefront. It seems to be enough do renewables, this this would somehow make the companies inherently sustainable. I would argue that it is not just what you do, it is also how you do it. This should be as important for the provider as for the client, and it is essential for our planet.
The renewables project going circular
For a renewable energy project, the most visible impacts on the environment and people happens during the construction phase and at decommissioning. But to raise any concerns when the diggers are starting to prepare the ground for access roads to site, is obviously, way too late. As with most processes, a systemic approach is needed, and the whole supply chain of a renewable energy project will have to be considered - and it should be considered with the principles of a circular economy at heart. Throughout the supply chain, from extraction of raw materials needed to make the product, the manufacturing of the components, the project development through to the operation and maintenance and finally the decommissioning stage, there are many places where intervention can be made, and should be made, for a fully sustainable business.
To start with, why not turn the whole supply chain on its head and start with the question: what about the extraction of raw materials? The circular economy builds on closing the loop, and shouldn’t this be the case even in the renewables industry by using re-used and re-purposed materials? What are the wind turbine blades made from? How do we deal with the recycling of batteries for storage solutions? How can we best recycle solar panels? How can we reduce the energy required to produce solar panels in the first place? How are rare earth metals being sourced? The industry needs to strive towards having a product which can be responsibly and entirely recycled or re-used. Some materials are of course being re-used as they are too valuable to waste. And I ask, shouldn’t all materials be considered too valuable to waste when we live on a planet with finite resources?
The renewables project going circular
The development phase is crucial when considering the technical design of the actual project; how you place roads and substations, define the logistics, assess the impact on the environment and so on. With an environmentally sustainable approach at the centre of all action, waste can be reduced and even avoided. During construction, there is a significant amount of transportation and the use of reverse logistics should be considered, ensuring for example reuse and re-purposing of packaging.
Decommissioning, the end, is where it starts again, where innovative and responsible approaches made many years ago in the sourcing of materials phase and manufacturing, will provide the rewards of a sustainable approach. When all these aspects are considered and met, in each phase, then we will have a fully circular renewables project. We don’t have that yet.
The power of the customer
As I mentioned in the beginning, this should be as important for the provider of a sustainable energy project as it should be for the client. For the provider to keep its reputation as a responsible organisation and to keep its social license to operate in a world where transparency is essential and we are already using more resources than we have planets. The knowledgeable client will start to ask the simple questions of how, what and where? Like the responsible consumer in us wants to know whether the palm oil is sustainably sourced, it is as valuable to ask how a renewable energy company manages the development of its project, its waste and the recycling and re-use of products.
The renewables of the future
Renewables being what renewables are, which in my view is a very big part of the solution to the climate crisis, I think we should also expect the bar to be raised on sustainability in the renewables sector.
Wind turbines in sunset. Author's own picture.