Column: The ironic side effects of the rapid global energy transition
LITTLETON, Colorado, March 9 (Reuters) - There's a consensus among some climate advocates that catastrophic global environmental damage can only be avoided by a rapid and comprehensive retooling of the world's energy system and tough caps on emissions for industry.
That view is shared by growing numbers of civilians, businesses and governments as worsening droughts, floods, wildfires and heat waves shore up backing for urgent action to slash pollution and reduce reliance on fossil fuels.
This chorus of support for the energy transition has ignited an almost frantic renewable energy development spree across the world, with green energy generation capacity growing at a record pace in every major economy.
For all the good intentions, though, the great green energy revolution has had its share of growing pains, including some rather surprising unintended consequences that in some cases may have caused more environmental harm than good.
CLEANER AIR, BUT WARMER SEAS
One example of a surprising side effect of emissions-cutting policy has been the surge in northern hemisphere water temperatures since strict new pollution regulations came into effect three years ago.
On January 1st, 2020, the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) implemented ship emissions standards that slashed the maximum level of sulfur allowed in shipping fuels.
Known as IMO2020, the new rules were aimed at reducing air pollution spewing from the global shipping fleet, with an IMO study claiming that 570,000 premature deaths would be prevented globally between 2020 and 2025 by the cleaner-burning fuel.
The resulting sharp drop in sulphate particles in the atmosphere, however, caused a surge in solar radiation absorbed by the oceans along the world's busiest shipping routes, according to a study by climate researcher Leon Simons.
According to Simons, a board member of the Club of Rome - a nonprofit group of intellectuals and business leaders that discusses major global issues - the previously higher levels of sulfur particles had helped reflect some solar radiation. As sulfur levels dropped more radiation was absorbed.
That helped to raise ocean temperatures, with sea surfaces in the northern hemisphere in 2022 averaging 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) higher than the average from 1979-2000.
"If this trend continues that could mean that the Northern Hemisphere mid latitudes (where many of us live) will warm much more rapidly," Simons said in a recent Twitter post.
GREEN POWER WASTE
Another ironic side effect of the rush into renewable energy has been the build up in components that have reached the end of their useful life but are hard to recycle.
An obvious example is wind turbine blades, which have a design life of roughly 20 years before they need to be replaced due to worn parts or because they are far less efficient than newer blades.
As each blade can stretch more than 100 feet (30.5 m) and weigh over 2 tonnes, the upgrading of entire wind farms can cause headaches for developers, who sometimes resort to burying old blades in landfills.
Some firms are developing blade recycling capabilities, such as Carbon Rivers, LM Wind Power and Veolia (.VIA.PA), but tend to steer clear of the earliest generation of wind blades, which were made from hard-to-process composite materials.
Old solar panels face a similar predicament, especially ones that lack the efficiency of newer models and in the eyes of resellers are not worth collecting from old sites and homes.
Again, there are a growing number of firms that do recycle old panels, but, like wind blade recyclers, they can struggle to economically procure enough stock of discarded components to make operations profitable. They can also face volatile market prices for the recycled and reclaimed materials they do manage to gather.
In contrast, old electric vehicle (EV) batteries are in high demand by firms that produce new batteries, as many of the key ingredients contained in them can be processed and used again.
The problem here is that the lack of conformity in battery shapes, sizes and configurations has made it hard to automate the reclamation process, which can be laborious and expensive to do manually.
That means the cost of materials collected from recycled EV batteries can be far higher than freshly mined or processed alternatives, which can lead battery producers to favor the continued use of new ingredients even though the supply of recycled battery materials is steadily mounting.
Regulations that force battery makers to use a minimal amount of recycled material are being considered, especially in countries keen to accelerate their energy transition and develop exportable expertise in the decarbonization space.
However, as manufacturers need to be competitive against international peers, policymakers that want to intervene must be wary of creating any further unintended and potentially damaging consequences.
The opinions expressed here are those of the author, a columnist for Reuters.
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