While clean energy initiatives are making major headway in the United States, the industry must navigate inevitable environmental challenges that could threaten growth.
In the last few years, there have been some remarkable advances in the growth of the clean energy industry in the United States (US). For example, in November 2023, the US government announced its sixth approval of a commercial-scale offshore wind energy project. In addition, substantial progress was made in 2023 on the construction of the Vineyard Wind 1 Project and the South Fork Wind Project, both of which began sending electricity to the grid as of the first week of January 2024. In the third quarter of 2023, US sales of battery-powered vehicles topped 300,000 for the first time in a quarter, making it likely that the market will exceed annual sales of 1 million for the first-time ever in November (Cox Automotive, 2023). According to US Energy Information Administration (EIA) data (US EIA, 2023), solar power provided the largest share (35%) of new utility-scale electric-generating capacity through the first half of 2023, adding a total of 5.9 gigawatts (GW) of new capacity. Underlying these rosy statistics, however, are a number of significant environmental challenges that threaten the continued expansion of various sectors of the clean energy industry. This article discusses examples of these environmental challenges and some of the actions that the clean energy industry, the federal government, and scientific researchers are taking to help address them.
[S]ubstantial progress was made in 2023 on the construction of the Vineyard Wind 1 Project and the South Fork Wind Project, both of which began sending electricity to the grid as of the first week of January 2024.”
The offshore wind industry is facing notable environmental challenges. These include concerns related to the installation and operation of offshore, fixed-bottom wind turbine generators and whether they cause significant changes to physical oceanographic processes (e.g., tides, waves, currents), with resulting detrimental impacts on marine ecosystems, along with the potential risks to human health and marine life from low-frequency electric and magnetic fields (EMFs) from the onshore and offshore transmission cables of these projects. At the request of the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management (BOEM), the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM) conducted a study to evaluate the state of the knowledge on the marine hydrodynamics of offshore wind energy installations and effects to regional ecosystems, with a particular focus on the Nantucket Shoals region – the nation’s first large-scale offshore wind farm area – and the North Atlantic right whale, a critically endangered species that is spending an increasing amount of time in this region. The NASEM report (2023), which was released in October 2023, concluded that any impacts of offshore wind projects on North Atlantic right whales and their ecosystems would be difficult to disentangle from the effects of climate change and other natural and anthropogenic influences. The report highlighted the need for more model validation studies and data collection during all phases of wind farm construction and operation to help address knowledge gaps, but it did not provide any recommendations regarding modification of wind farm design or construction, which was outside the scope of the study.
Regarding EMF concerns, the power-frequency EMFs generated by the offshore and onshore transmission cables used in these projects to date are no different from the EMFs generated by common household appliances and consumer electronics (e.g., electric ranges, hair dryers, laptop computers), or by the overhead and underground transmission and distribution lines that have been used for more than a century to bring electricity to homes and businesses. In fact, there is a vast amount of health effects knowledge on power-frequency EMFs, as they have been the subject of several decades of scientific research – more than for most chemicals. These health effects data, covering research results on human populations, laboratory animals, and mechanistic analyses, can thus be consulted to address concerns about the potential health risks posed by EMFs at the cable landfall sites and along the onshore transmission routes of offshore wind projects. It is the consensus of numerous governmental agencies and health and safety organizations that have reviewed this expansive body of scientific studies – including the World Health Organization (WHO), US Environmental Protection Agency (US EPA), American Cancer Society (ACS), and the National Cancer Institute (NCI) – that power-frequency EMFs are not a cause of cancer or other chronic diseases. Moreover, it bears mentioning that the onshore transmission cables for offshore wind projects will generally be installed underground rather than overhead, eliminating the presence of aboveground electric fields that are readily shielded by the ground. In addition, buried cables can be installed closer together than overhead lines, resulting in greater self-cancellation of magnetic fields and lower aboveground magnetic fields. However, the scientific research addressing the potential impacts of submarine cable EMFs on marine species is less voluminous. While additional research is ongoing to increase this knowledge base, there is a lack of conclusive evidence demonstrating that EMFs from submarine cables pose significant harm to marine species at either the individual or population level (SEER, 2022).
How “green” electric vehicles (EVs) are continues to be widely debated, despite the emerging evidence that their increasing adoption can be linked with quantifiable improvements in air quality and health (e.g., Garcia et al., 2023). Among other challenges, EVs have recognized environmental impacts related to mineral extraction for batteries and motors, end-of-life disposal of batteries and other components, and increased emissions of tire wear particles, due to the greater weight and torque of EVs. (Notably, while EVs are also a source of EMF exposure, life-cycle assessments for EVs generally have not considered the potential health risks posed by these EMF exposures.) The guest editorial to this issue of Trends discusses ongoing efforts to reclaim rare earth elements (REE), including those used in EV motors from waste streams, and technologies are currently under development to bolster the EV battery recycling business. In addition, there is a flurry of scientific research to understand the fate and transport of microplastics, such as tire wear particles, and whether they pose potential ecological and human health risks.
With respect to solar power, the environmental impacts of the end-of-life management of solar panel waste is receiving increased regulatory scrutiny. It is projected that the amount of this waste will dramatically increase over the next few decades, as more and more commercial and residential installations reach the end of their useful lives. Depending on the technology and construction, metals and metalloids present in solar panels can include silicon, copper, aluminum, tin, antimony, cadmium, tellurium, gallium, indium, silver, and lead. US EPA recently established a new web page to communicate its plans to propose new rules for the management and recycling of end-of-life solar panels (and lithium batteries). On this web page, US EPA states that it “is working on a proposal to add hazardous waste solar panels to the universal waste regulations found at Title 40 of the Code of Federal Regulations Part 273 and to establish a new, distinct category of universal waste specifically tailored to lithium batteries” (US EPA, 2023). US EPA noted its hope that these forthcoming regulations will further stimulate the recycling of solar panels.
Can the clean energy industry successfully navigate these and other challenges and continue its amazing growth? Innovative science, technology development, and regulation will undoubtedly play key roles in the clean energy industry responses.
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Cox Automotive. 2023. “Another quarter, another record: EV sales in the U.S. surpass 300,000 in Q3, as Tesla share of EV segment tumbles to 50%.” October 12. Accessed on December 21, 2023, at https://www.coxautoinc.com/market-insights/q3-2023-ev-sales/.
Garcia, E; Johnston, J; McConnell, R; Palinkas, L; Eckel, SP. 2023. “California’s early transition to electric vehicles: Observed health and air quality co-benefits.” Sci. Total Environ. 867:161761. doi: 10.1016/j.scitotenv.2023.161761.
National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (NASEM). 2023. “Potential Hydrodynamic Impacts of Offshore Wind Energy on Nantucket Shoals Regional Ecology: An Evaluation from Wind to Whales (Consensus Study Report).” National Academies Press (Washington, DC). 105p. Accessed on December 21, 2023, at doi: 10.17226/27154.
US Energy Information Administration (EIA). 2023. “Developers added 16.8 GW of U.S. utility-scale generating capacity in first-half 2023.” August 8. Accessed on December 21, 2023 at, https://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.php?id=57340.
US EPA. 2023. “Improving recycling and management of renewable energy wastes: Universal waste regulations for solar panels and lithium batteries.” December 14. Accessed on December 21, 2023, at https://www.epa.gov/hw/improving-recycling-and-management-renewable-energy-wastes-universal-waste-regulations-solar.
US Offshore Wind Synthesis of Environmental Effects Research (SEER). 2022. “Electromagnetic field effects on marine life.” 13p. Accessed on September 28, 2022, at https://tethys.pnnl.gov/sites/default/files/summaries/SEER-Educational-Research-Brief-Electromagnetic-Field-Effects-on-Marine-Life.pdf.