The global shift from greenhouse gas-intense, carbon-based fuels toward alternative energy sources and technologies sometimes produces unintended negative impacts.
Experts at the Bureau of Economic Geology at the University of Texas at Austin are mounting a major study of these effects – the Comparing Electricity Options research consortium – with the intention of helping to identify and mitigate such unintended outcomes.
“The audience for the research is relatively broad, and includes energy, mining and electrical equipment manufacturing industries as well as those involved in energy and environmental policy and regulation,” said Michael Young, a senior research scientist with BEG who is among the project leaders. “We want to highlight to industry where links in the supply chain are weak and need strengthening, inform O&G companies who are considering expanding their energy portfolios to the current landscape regarding life-cycle analysis and how the outcomes might play into environmental, social and governance issues, and the risks to current operations.”
Impacts Beyond Just GHG
Young elaborated, “We want to inform policymakers of the difficulties in conceptualizing energy transition as a greenhouse gas mitigation issue alone, because local and regional impacts on air, land and water resources from material extraction to meet the equipment manufacturing and construction needs of alternative technologies can be substantial.”
When the study was announced, experts at BEG said, “Ideally, results from this project will include a flexible model that allows anyone to simulate a desired energy mix of gas, solar, wind, batteries and other technologies not initially covered in this research, such as nuclear. Results will provide a clearer picture of total environmental impacts over time, local and global, including differences in upstream impacts when sourcing materials from various locations (such as cobalt sourced from Canada, versus the Democratic Republic of the Congo, versus a new mine in the United States).”
The societal shift in electricity-generating technologies is extremely complex on a global scale, Young explained, hence the need for a research project like this.
Demand for minerals such as lithium, graphite, cobalt, copper, rare earths, and nickel, which are necessary for manufacturing wind, solar and battery equipment, is expected to grow seven to 40 times between 2020 and 2040, according to the International Energy Agency.
The literature on this transition includes life-cycle analyses conducted on various electricity-generation technologies, such as natural gas combined-cycle gas turbines, wind turbines and solar panels, as well as electricity storage technologies (batteries). These LCAs track potential environmental impacts along the supply chain of these technologies.
However, the literature primarily focuses on GHG emissions during operations, often ignoring other environmental impacts that occur during operations and especially within the international upstream supply chains and end-of-life when technologies are retired. These incomplete LCA analyses, lacking cradle-to-grave impacts, can distort the full picture of these potential impacts as the choices for electricity generation increase.
The CEO consortium will increase the scope and flexibility of LCA modeling related to electricity generation in specific geographical areas of interest by including local and global supply chains and their potential impacts.
Consequently, Young said, the study will help avoid some unintended negative consequences.
“First, the rapid conversion to decarbonizing electricity generating systems could front-load GHG emissions and increase local environmental impacts and socioeconomic impacts (the S in “ESG”),” he said.
“This could have consequences regarding the commitments made by countries and companies,” Young added.
“Second, the lack of ready availability of critical materials will create supply constraints that could alter the economics and viability of widening energy sources,” he continued.
“Third, because most impacts from energy systems are often viewed through a very narrow (GHG) lens, we do not consistently consider other impacts to water and land, other types of air emissions (particulate matter, other gases) and ecosystems. These unbalance the assessments of broader impacts, and increase the challenge of consistently including ESG,” Young explained.
No ‘One Size Fits All’ Solutions
The economics and efficiency of various energy sources, such as wind, sunlight and gas, often depend on local environmental factors and the various energy systems themselves will affect local environments differently. So, the transition of energy grids from carbon-based fuel sources to alternative technologies requires an optimization exercise unique to each location
For example, solar farms in a desert environment in west Texas imparts a different impact than if that same solar facility were constructed in a forest environment in northeast Texas. Another example: combined-cycle gas turbines can be placed in many locations but require fuel that is extracted in specific oil and gas fields. So, the environmental implications of the transport of fuel, or of critical materials from extraction to use, are factors to consider.
In some cases, the wider set of environmental impacts might be significant for communities hosting mining, manufacturing or electricity-generation facilities. Moreover, the delivered cost of electricity might be higher than expected for renewable energy systems, given the need for upfront large capital expenditure on new generation facilities, transmission grid expansion and dispatchable storage or backup generation.
With these and other related factors in view, the BEG study will “take a holistic approach” to the LCA method to include the entire supply chain for each energy technology and plausible future generation portfolios.
The study’s goals are to:
u Provide the public, businesses, and policymakers with quantifiable information on potential impacts
u Support analyses that determine the most affordable and environmentally-optimal energy mix for specific locations
u Identify where innovation, efficiency, and technology can lead to a better balance of consistent availability of electricity and sustainable environmental resources
Long term, this project aims to include economic projections of mineral and material supplies to help predict future costs related to increasing commodity demands, reduce supply-chain disruptions and bolster innovation to strengthen the supply chain where possible.
A Focus on Ecosystem Services
The study will be more data inclusive than earlier efforts, and part of its “more holistic view and understanding of fossil and renewable energy systems” will include ecosystem services in the LCA, which is rarely included.
“Ecosystem services is an environmental economics framework that assess the value that land and natural ecosystems provide to humans,” Young said.
“They are broken into provision services – what the land provides us, like crops, wood, habitats; regulating services – how the land regulates processes, like improving water quality and air quality, mitigating floods; and cultural services – heritage and recreation,” he added.
“There are various ways to monetize these services so that, for example, land alteration for energy development (which adds value on the one hand) can be viewed against the cost of land alteration – for example, if the land used for agricultural production is now used for solar fields,” Young continued.
The project will use meta-analyses to compile and sort through large data sets and voluminous publications to find the most relevant and up-to-date data. It will also use comprehensive global LCA databases via publicly available software platforms and data providers. Data availability and data quality for mining, manufacturing and energy operations around the world have been recognized in the literature as a significant challenge.
“We expect to estimate original impact factors based on bottom-up engineering analysis or industry communication,” said Young.
He noted one of the major challenges to the research: “Finding location-specific data from mines and processing facilities is diffuse and difficult to find. Often, they’re spread across 10-K reports, internal presentations … and are not always standardized or verified.”
“We have a number of supply-chain analyses that are ongoing right now, and hope to have those completed this spring or summer. We are also rolling those supply chains into life-cycle analyses of the energy sources themselves – CCGT, wind, solar and batteries,” Young said.
He said there are currently 10 researchers working on the project: five students, each studying a critical material or aspect of the life cycle analysis, a mining engineer, an energy economist, an economic geologist, an environmental geologist and a project manager.
Young said the results will be disseminated through “typical communication venues,” from papers and presentations, but, added, “We will also use short thought pieces, social media (LinkedIn) and other venues to help frame the discussions appropriately. We are very careful at the Bureau to not over- or under-hype the findings. We want the data and analyses to speak for themselves, but we’re not naïve to the reality that different groups will use findings from universities to serve their own goals. We hope that those stakeholder groups that are interested in data- and science-driven discussions will find the results useful in their thought processes and decisions.”
Funding sources for the study include Tellurian, Range Resources, Continental Resources, Marathon Petroleum and the Oklahoma Energy Resources Board. Additional partners and collaborators are being sought.
For more information, visit the consortium website at BEG.UTexas.edu/CEO.