These case studies require a more comprehensive way of thinking. There is no “right” answer—instead there is a thoughtful, well-researched response that recognizes the many conflicting facets of sustainable development. Each follows the approach developed in Section 3: a statement of Objectives (Step 1), an identification of Stakeholder concerns (2), a Fact-Finding search (3), Integration of facts to explore their influence on Human, Natural, and Manufactured capital (4), ending with reflection on possible priority changes (5). The first three steps are objective and deterministic; the last two are subjective, and therefore open to debate.
6.1 Wind farms.
Many nations have undertaken to reduce the carbon emissions arising from electric power generation and to seek at the same time to diversify their sources of electrical power. One strategy is to encourage the building of wind farms that feed electricity into the national grid. At the start of 2012 there were about 200,000 wind turbines worldwide, averaging 2 MW in power. The number, globally, is increasing at 25% per year, meaning that roughly 50,000 new turbines are installed each year. Most of the materials of a wind turbine are conventional: carbon steel, stainless steels, concrete, copper, aluminum, and polymer matrix composites. One is exceptional. The generators of wind turbines use Neodymium-Boron rare-earth permanent magnets— their composition is shown in the adjacent table. Annual construction of 50,000 new turbines per year each requiring 25 kg of Nd creates a demand for 1,250 tonnes of Neodymium per year.
Sustainability database as a source for the Fact-finding step. What are the Prime Objectives and Scale? Who are the stakeholders and what might be their concerns? What materials, design, environmental, regulatory or social issues involved? With this information as background, what opinion can be formed about the effect of wind farms on Human, Natural, and Manufactured Capital? To what extent have the Stakeholders’ concerns have been addressed? Given this information, can a judgment be made of the contribution of wind farms to a more sustainable future?
Step 1: Prime Objectives and Scale.
They are defined in the project-statement. There are two: to reduce national carbon emissions; and to provide a more diverse portfolio of electric power sources. To make any real difference to emissions, power from wind farms must have a lower carbon footprint than that of conventional power, and it must make a significant (20%, say) contribution to the total, setting an approximate target on the desired scale, at present seen as 50,000 new units per year.
Step 2: Stakeholders and their concerns (see Appendix 1 for a check-list).
The national press reports initiatives to promote wind-farms and the reactions these provoke. The reports identify most of the stakeholders and their known concerns. Here are two examples.
“Government and industry slam ‘spurious’ anti-wind farm headlines.” (The Times, 16 April 2012.) The British government defends its policy of encouraging wind farms.
“Strike a blow against wind-farm bullies.” (The Times, 25 February 2013) A columnist calls for protests against the siting of wind farms in Cornwall, the Lake District and other landscapes he loves.
Stakeholders need to be heard, reassured, persuaded, or compensated if large-scale wind power is to be sustainable. Among them are:
National and Local Government. Many Nations have made commitments to reduce carbon emissions over a defined time period and see wind farms as able to contribute. To encourage their construction, some Nations impose taxes on carbon emissions and subsidize renewable energy projects. The erection of wind farms also creates jobs, attractive to government.
Energy providers. Electricity-generation from fossil fuels releases carbon to the atmosphere. Carbon taxes or carbon trading schemes and carbon penalties create financial incentives for energy providers to reduce the use of fossil fuels.
Wind turbine makers. Developing a manufacturing base for wind turbines requires considerable investment. Turbine makers want assurance that government policy on renewable energy is consistent and transparent, that incentives will not suddenly be withdrawn and that the supply chain for essential materials is secure.
Local communities. There is opposition to land-based wind turbines from communities from which the turbines are audible or visible. Even off-shore wind farms are found objectionable by some. Feed-in tariffs for small-scale generation and compensation for acoustic intrusion aim to make turbines more acceptable.
The public at large. To some, wind turbines are both necessary and beautiful, but others object to them and their associated power distribution systems because the power they generated is intermittent and expensive, because they are visually and acoustically intrusive and because they harm wildlife. They point out that the scale of deployment of wind farms has to be very large if they are to generate a significant fraction (say, 20%) of the nation’s electrical power, and that energy-storage systems to deal with intermittent power generation add cost and require space.
The Sustainability database can help with some of these concerns. Its Materials data-table provides information about the countries of origin of elements, Neodymium among them. The Nations data-table provides background on the economy and governance of countries from which materials are sourced or manufacture is based. The Regulation data-table identifies government incentives and restrictions that relate to renewable energy. The Low Carbon Power data- table includes the carbon footprint of electrical power systems, including wind. They yield the following information, summarized.
Materials and Manufacture. Neodymium, Nd, is important in the manufacture of turbines. From which Nations is it sourced? What proportion of global supply will be needed?
Neodymium is co-produced with other rare-earth metals, of which it forms 15% on average. The record for Nd in the Materials data-table lists the main Rare-earth producing countries and the quantities they produce. The global production of Rare earths is 133,600 tonnes per year, giving an annual production of Nd of 20,000 tonnes per year. Over 95% derives from a single Nation, China.
The same record lists the Critical Material status of Neodymium as very high risk, meaning that its uniquely desirable properties (for high field permanent magnets) and its supply-chain concentration give cause for concern. The current rate of building wind turbines, given in the question, carries a requirement of 1,250 tonnes of Neodymium per year. This is 6% of current global production. Following the link from Neodymium to the countries that produce it allow their quality of governance, record of human rights observance and freedom from corruption to be expert.
Regulation. The Regulations data-table in the Sustainability database is indexed by industrial sector (automotive, electrical and electronic, energy, etc.) allowing those relevant to renewable energy generation to be located. Those that have relevance for wind farms are listed in the table—see the adjacent table.
From these we learn that making and installing wind farms is made financially attractive by “green” subsidies and feed-in tariffs but these have changed
(usually down-graded) at short notice, making the market unpredictable.
Society. The manufacture of wind turbines creates jobs. In Europe these jobs are mainly in Denmark, Germany and Spain. The Nations data-table of Sustainability database shows that all three have a relatively high standard of living (GDP/capita), favorable rankings by the Rule of Law index and the Control of Corruption index, and that women make up over 40% of the labor force in all three countries. Per unit of generating power, wind farms require a land- area that is almost 1000 times greater than a gas- fired power station (see adjacent figure) and while this land can still be used for agriculture the scale of the visual intrusion is considerable To put this in perspective, if 10% of the electric power requirement of New York State (average 33 kW.hr per day, equivalent to 1.4 kW continuous per person, population 19.5 million) were to be met by wind power alone, the necessary wind farms would occupy 15% of the area of the entire State (area 131,255 km2).
Economics. Are wind farms economic? Most of the commercial-scale turbines installed today (2013) are 2 MW (nominal) in size and cost roughly $3-$4 million7. With a design life of 20 years, a load factor of 0.25 and allowing a sum equal to the cost of installation for life maintenance, ground rent and management, the cost of wind-farm electricity is $ 0.09 $/kWhr, a little more than that from a gas-fired power station. This, however, neglects the intermittency of wind power, which may create the need for energy storage. Grid-scale energy storage is expensive. Interestingly, electric vehicles can contribute by introducing intelligent battery charging that draws on power when there is surplus generating capacity, turning the grid itself into a virtual storage device.
This is the moment to reflect on and debate the relative importance of the information unearthed in the Fact-finding step, using the effect on the three capitals as a framework. It will, inevitably, require an element of personal judgment and advocacy. The function of the Sustainability database is to help inform the debate. Here is one view to set it off.
Natural Capital. The Prime Objective in building wind farms was to reduce green- house gas emissions. The studies cited above suggested that they can. Their dependence on critical elements, particularly Neodymium, might give concern but the placement of wind turbines is fixed and known, and large groups of them are managed by a single organization, making their recovery, reconditioning or recycling at end of life straightforward.
The beauty of the countryside is a component of natural capital. All power -generating plant occupies space and is visually intrusive. The problem with wind farms is the scale of this intrusion if they are to contribute significantly to national needs for power. The long term impact of acoustic intrusion is not known.
Human Capital. Large-scale deployment of wind farms creates employment. If these jobs and wealth they generate are in nations that are well governed, have fair distribution of wealth and equality of job opportunity, a contribution is made to Human Capital.
Some argue that the visual and acoustic intrusion of wind turbines represents a significant loss of quality of life. Against this must be set the reduction in emissions and in atmospheric pollution that can significantly damage human health. One might compare this with the noise and visual intrusion of cars and on their questionable impact on human health (they kill over 40,000 people per year in the US alone), but we appear to accept them.
There is another aspect: that of independence and national security. A mix of energy sources increases independence and a distributed rather than a centralized power system is more robust, harder to disrupt, and less vulnerable to a single catastrophic event.
Manufactured Capital. The typical design-life of a wind turbine is 25 years. Building 50,000 turbines per year is a significant investment in energy infrastructure. Is it a good investment? Some argue that it is not because, without a subsidy, the electricity they produce is more expensive than that from gas-fired power stations. Governments have been inconsistent in dealing with subsidies, encouraging investment at one moment and then cutting the subsidy with little warning the next. Much will depend on the price and predictability of hydrocarbon fuels over the next 25 years and the cost of carbon-induced climate change.
Have the Stakeholders concerns been addressed? Wind farms contribute to Governments’ target of power from renewable energy. The concerns of Energy Providers and Wind Turbine Makers for long term commitment by Government is not, at the present time, met, probably constraining investment. The concerns of local residents could be addressed by a design-focus on reduced acoustic signature and the dislike of a neighboring wind farm could be alleviated by compensation or reduced energy tariffs. One of the concerns of the public at large—that wind farms really do not contribute to reduced emissions—could be removed by a definitive analysis of their performance to date by a group with sufficient authority to command wide acceptance. The broader aesthetic concerns have no easy solution.
We are grateful to Prof. Karel Mulder of TU, Delft for pulling us up on this point. He reminds us that issues of stakeholder concerns cannot be resolved by statistics. Interaction with the local population is crucial to make them feel that they are taken seriously; better advice is to set up interaction with stakeholders that may have to suffer. Remarking that “It’s not so bad” just creates more negative feelings.
We are again grateful to Prof. Karel Mulder for the reminder that a more sensitive approach to concerns about visual intrusion would be more productive.
The triple bottom line: do wind farms contribute to sustainable development?The Prime Objective of wind farms—to generate electrical power with a low carbon footprint— appears to be met. It is less clear that they are economic (leaving a question mark over impact on manufactured capital) or acceptable on the scale required to make much difference (leaving a question mark over human capital).
This is the point for broader-range thinking.
Energy is one of mankind’s most basic needs and electrical energy is the most versatile and valuable. We are in transition from a carbon-powered economy to one powered in other ways but the detailed shape of the future is not yet clear. A distributed energy-mix in the economy is desirable. Wind farms together with other low-carbon power systems (hydro, geothermal, photo-voltaic and thermal solar, nuclear) can all make some contribution, but for now the dominant source power continues to be fossil fuels. Perhaps we just have to live with wind-farms as one, perhaps transient, contribution while striving for cleaner ways to derive power from gas and coal.
The global production of cars in 2011 was 60 million per year, growing at 3.3% per year. Cars account for 74% of production of motor vehicles and at present are responsible for about 20% of all the carbon released into the atmosphere11. National governments implement policies to reduce this source of emissions through taxation and incentives. One of the incentives is to subsidize electric cars.
From a materials point of view, the major differences between electric and internal combustion (IC) cars are the replacement of the IC engine with electric motors that, at present, use Neodymium-Boron permanent magnets and the replacement of gasoline or diesel fuel by Lithium-ion batteries. Today’s electric cars have 16 kWh batteries, and a claimed range of up to 100 km between charges. A single such car requires about 0.5 kg of Neodymium for the motors12 and 3 kg of technical grade Lithium Carbonate, (equating to 0.57 kg Lithium) per nominal kWh for the rechargeable batteries13. It is estimated that the global
A student of Class ENG 571 at Illinois makes the following point. The Nations of the World database gives numbers for specific indicators such as Freedom of the Press, but to get this one number likely involves a fair amount of “valuation” and ranking of data, which can lead to important aspects of complicated issues to be ignored. Making this fact clear might encourage engineers using the software and designing a sustainable project to seek out the involvement of social scientists, human rights activists, etc., whose knowledge on these subjects is more thorough.
We have examined some 65 articulations of sustainable technology, drawn from journals23 that specialize on the subject, identifying the prime objective of each. We attempted to construct a map showing how the articulations interacted with the three capitals and with each other - Figure A1 is a reduced version showing a subset of the articulations. Some of the interactions are supportive (green links), others are not (red links). The map is not entirely successful. The nature of interactions is not always unambiguous, and the picture quickly gets very complex—Figure A1 is more a schematic than an accurate representation. We include it here to bring home the point that assessing a given articulation of sustainable technology is not simple: it involves both the direct, intended, influence it has on one of the three capitals, it involves the perhaps unintended impact it may have on another of them, and it involves its interaction with other ongoing articulations.
What generalizations—meta-messages—can be distilled from maps like Figure A1? Each articulation has a motivating target that we refer to as its “Prime Objective”. Each involves as set of Stakeholders. In assessing the sustainability of project the first step is to identify these:
World Journal of Science, Technology and Sustainable Development, ISSN: 2042-5945. World
Journal of Science, Technology and Sustainable Development, ISSN: 2042-5945. Journal of technology management & innovation, ISSN 0718-2724. Journal of Clean Technology and Environmental Sciences, ISSN: 1052-1062. Clean Technologies and Environmental Policy, ISSN: 1618-9558. if the Prime Objective is not achievable or major Stakeholders are left dissatisfied, the project is unlikely to contribute to sustainable development.
Examination of the 65 articulations suggests that the central issues might be grouped under the six broad headings shown in the central circle of Figure 4. Each heads a check-list for what might be called “sustainability analysis” of a design, scheme, project, or product.
Materials and Manufacture: supply-chain risk, life-cycle recycle potential.
Design: product function, performance, safety.
Environment: energy efficiency, bio-efficiency, preserving clean air, water, and land.
Regulation: awareness of, and compliance with, National and International Agreements, Legislation, Directives, Restrictions, and Agreements.
Society: health, education, shelter, employment, equity, happiness.
Economics: the cost of the project, the benefits that it might provide.
These form the basis of the method of analysis. We have found the template reproduced below (enlarged to A4 landscape size) serves as a useful prompt-sheet in carrying out an analysis of a given articulation.
Articulations of sustainability have a motive and a scale. The scale, typically, is large. It is widely accepted that our current life-style is not indefinitely sustainable. If it is to become so the technology to achieve it has to be implemented on a large scale, one that may put strain on the materials supply-chain and have political, social, and economic life.
Who are the stakeholders? What are their concerns? The stakeholders establish the context in which debate and decision-making must take place. Table A1 is a check-list, but a better way to identify stakeholders and concerns is through the National Press. A Google search on “News headlines—X” where X is the technology under study (“News headlines—Wind farms” for example) reveals a great deal.
Step 3: Fact-finding
The deterministic step. The essence of this step is that it be non-judgmental and neutral. Assemble factual information under the five headings that appear on Figure 5.
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