Solar Power: Innovation, Sustainability, and Environmental Justice

Solar Power: Innovation, Sustainability, and Environmental Justice

by Dustin Mulvaney

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In this important new primer, Dustin Mulvaney makes a passionate case for the significance of solar power energy and offers a vision for a more sustainable and just solar industry for the future. The solar energy industry has grown immensely over the past several years and now provides up to a fifth of California’s power. But despite its deservedly green reputation, solar development and deployment may have social and environmental consequences, from poor factory labor standards to landscape impacts on wildlife.
Using a wide variety of case studies and examples that trace the life cycle of photovoltaics, Mulvaney expertly outlines the state of the solar industry, exploring the ongoing conflicts between ecological concerns and climate mitigation strategies, current trade disputes, and the fate of toxics in solar waste products. This exceptional overview will outline the industry’s current challenges and possible futures for students in environmental studies, energy policy, environmental sociology, and other aligned fields.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780520963191
Publisher: University of California Press
Publication date: 04/02/2019
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 344
Sales rank: 1,033,818
File size: 8 MB

About the Author

Dustin Mulvaney is Associate Professor of Environmental Studies at San José State University.

Read an Excerpt


Solar Power

When you think about the emerging green economy, don't think of George Jetson with a jet pack. Think of Joe Sixpack with a hard-hat and lunch bucket, sleeves rolled up, going off to fix America. Think of Rosie the Riveter, manufacturing parts for hybrid buses or wind turbines. Those images will represent the true face of a green-collar America.

— Van Jones, Founder of Green For All


In October 2004, a white paper, later widely discussed, was presented at the annual meeting of the Environmental Grantmakers Association. The authors, Ted Nordhaus and Michael Shellenberger, who had recently co-founded the Breakthrough Institute, argued that the "death of environmentalism" was near. The environmental movement had changed things for the better, but its effectiveness was waning. They based this assessment on marketing data about American consumer advertising and voting trends, which showed that the traditional tools of environmental protection, such as legal intervention and state regulation, were viewed less favorably among the public. They directed this message at the prominent environmental NGOs — the Sierra Club, Natural Resource Defense Council, and Environmental Defense Fund — and underscored the importance of shifting strategies. Their data suggested that environmental messaging carried less resonance with the public and failed to enroll broad support for the kinds of coalitions needed to respond to urgent environmental problems, particularly issues related to climate change. Polling and market data showed American public opinion moving away from the messages long held by the environmental community, such as the need for the state to protect communities through regulation. Other solutions promoted by environmental organizations, such as reducing consumption in a "limits to growth" framing, also failed to appeal to the same public. Messaging for environmental change needed to be organized around opportunity, they argued. People were more concerned about job security than any threat posed by climate change. Nordhaus and Shellenberger were arguing to reframe environmentalism around innovation and job creation, appealing to working-class people.

Green jobs — manual jobs in enterprises whose products and services improve environmental quality — became currency for political claims about the mutually reinforcing benefits of pursuing economy, health, and environment simultaneously. The authors later extended this thesis to critique the strategies of environmental justice movements. They argued that environmental justice movements needed to focus on alternative economic paradigms and advocate for green jobs, not only against the actions of polluting industries. Claims about environmentalism, or more specifically environmental justice, were failing to enroll public support for climate and clean energy policy. Coalitions between labor unions and environmentalists would be needed for this to be effective. John Kerry's 2004 presidential campaign was the first to emphasize the climate policies that his colleagues were crafting in the House and Senate. The Center on Race, Poverty, & the Environment released a report speculating on the potential for green jobs in urban communities. Environmental justice and human rights leaders such as Green For All founder Van Jones echoed the sentiments calling for green jobs explicitly in a justice frame — to ensure that the incoming "green tide lifts all boats."

Before long, the "green jobs" moniker entered the lexicon of American politics, and by 2008 it was a mainstream storyline of U.S. presidential hopefuls Barack Obama, John McCain, and Hillary Clinton. McCain, the Republican nominee, argued that "green jobs and green technology will be vital to our economic future. There is no reason that the U.S. should not be a leader in developing and deploying these new technologies." The call for green jobs had bipartisan support.

Numerous journalists, political analysts, activists, economists, and politicians argued in commentaries and op-eds that public investments in green jobs could stimulate job growth in the same Rust Belt and urban areas most severely impacted by the simultaneous global financial crisis and automobile industry collapse of the late 2000s. Green jobs entered national debates about how to foster economic recovery and job creation. Around the same time, forecasts of jobs in thin-film photovoltaic manufacturing were hinting at an employment boom across U.S. urban and Rust Belt communities, in Silicon Valley, and even in the high-tech corridors of East Asia. The California-based nonprofit Solar Richmond invoked the specific symbolism of Rosie the Riveter, a cultural icon of the female workforce that was critical to the U.S. effort in World War II.

The push for a green jobs economy manifested as public investments in clean energy infrastructure and innovations instigated by metaphors of the 1930s New Deal and the 1960s Apollo program to get a human to the moon. Clean energy investments were viewed not just as public works programs but also as investments in innovations and technologies. With clear messaging around green investments from major political institutions, environmental and social justice organizations — including the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights, Tradeswomen, Inc., Green Communities Online, Solar Richmond, the Solar Living Institute, and Groundwork USA — began advocating for and offering green jobs training. Green jobs training focused on good, well-paying jobs in solar sales and installation, weatherization, and energy retrofitting. These initiatives forged new coalitions, such as the partnership between the U.S. Steelworkers, the Sierra Club, and numerous other environmental and employment-focused NGOs known as the Blue–Green Alliance. This particular coalition capitalized on aims to link "blue-collar" sensibilities with an emphasis on green workforce development, understanding that appeals to the working class would be critical to broaden support for climate and renewable energy policy. The discursive groundwork was done to garner public support for investments in clean energy projects.


Job creation figures centrally in many justifications for public policies that use taxpayer dollars or lead to forgone taxes, and solar policies are no exception. The investment tax credit is a critical tool in the U.S. that shapes the retail economics of homeowner photovoltaic adoption and the cost of electricity from utility-scale projects. It is a tax equity financial incentive that allows the photovoltaic system owner to deduct some portion of the cost of the system from their taxes. Through 2018, the policy allows 30% of the total system cost to be deducted, meaning that the owner of a $10,000 system could deduct $3,000 from their tax liability over a five-year period. The credit will step down and phase out from 2019 through 2022. Public investments in the solar industry through policies like the investment tax credit are paying dividends. According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, "the solar industry ... pumps $15 billion a year into [the] economy" and created "one out of every 78 new jobs" in the U.S. in 2015. So the first thing to know about public expenditures for renewable energy is that many, like the investment tax credit, pay for themselves through other economic activities that generate tax revenues.

On the presidential campaign trail in 2008, candidate Barack Obama asserted that his policies would generate five million "green-collar jobs" in a decade through an investment of $150 billion. The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA) offered the opportunity to fund this ambition. After taking office, President Obama created a leadership post focused on green workforce development — the "green jobs czar," formally known as the Special Advisor for Green Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation. Van Jones would have a fleeting appointment in this role. Soon after, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics codified green jobs as an official statistical measure. These actions formally linked the presidential campaign discourse to scores of billions of dollars the federal government would invest in "innovative" clean energy companies.

From 2009 through 2016, the U.S. invested over $90 billion in green jobs and clean energy through ARRA, the oft-maligned $780 million economic "stimulus" passed by the U.S. Congress and signed into law by President Obama. A significant portion (65%) of the $90 billion went toward solar technologies, innovations, and utility-scale power plant deployment. ARRA investments aimed to create green jobs and at the same time kindle climate efforts. The emphasis on green jobs and clean technology led some observers to call the ARRA stimulus investments a "Green New Deal." As the global financial crisis of the late 2000s rippled through national economies, government investments in solar energy infrastructure and research were seen as good investments for job growth and breakthrough innovations.

Two programs would dispense the majority of these investments, the Department of the Treasury's Section 1603 program and the Department of Energy's loan guarantee program. Some 13.5 GW of renewable energy projects were aided by Treasury 1603 wind and solar energy support, which comprised about 94% of the portfolio. By 2017 the 1603 program had been granted nearly $25 billion from ARRA. The second program allowed startup renewable energy companies to obtain loans that were cosigned by the U.S. federal government. About $12 billion was spent on investments in solar power.

From 2012 to 2014, the Bureau of Labor Statistics tracked official data on the number and types of green jobs and workers' wages. The bureau defined green jobs as "jobs in businesses that produce goods or provide services that benefit the environment or conserve natural resources" and "jobs in which workers' duties involve making their establishment's production processes more environmentally friendly or use fewer natural resources." The U.S. solar industry employed over 200,000 workers in "green jobs" by 2016, rising four times since ARRA. Investments in renewable energy industries generate three times as many jobs as a similar investment in the fossil fuels industries. According to the International Renewable Energy Agency, 3.7 million people were employed in the photovoltaics sector worldwide in 2017. The Renewable and Appropriate Energy Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley, reports that a 1 MW solar farm produces more jobs per unit energy than a wind, biomass, coal, or natural gas plant of the same power. A 2017 Department of Energy report found there are 79 times more jobs per million MWh of solar energy than the same amount of energy from coal.

Of course the investments in solar were about more than just jobs. From 1970s back-page appearances in the Whole Earth Catalog, to the front cover of Alternative Energy Magazine or Green Biz in the 2000s, solar power has long been at the vanguard of ethical consumption. Solar went from a fringe alternative energy to a mainstream solution to household electricity greenhouse gas emissions and decarbonizing the electricity grid. While there are many motivations for consumers to invest in photovoltaics, most studies suggest that cost is still the primary consideration. Cultural and political beliefs such as utility or grid independence and concern about the power of monopolies, and psychological reasons such as personal expectations and "neighborhood" or "peer" effects, also factor in. Some photovoltaic consumers are motivated by environmental considerations and specifically climate action, but some researchers have found that environmental values and concern are not enough. Utilities also make solar investments because of state laws requiring renewables purchases, which are supported by ratepayers and voters. The evidence is quite clear that solar power delivers both jobs and other benefits (environmental, public health, and climate) overall. The challenge to making solar more sustainable is ensuring that worker health and safety and environmental benefits are maximized, by minimizing the negative impacts of solar power production.


Even as overall public health benefits increase from solar power use, there may be green jobs that are actually dangerous or hazardous for workers and fenceline communities in and near high-tech manufacturing or deep in the supply chain. Particular places, communities, and people could bear more burdens than others under the green economy, just as energy justice is disproportionately allocated today. Explorations of energy justice are an emerging research theme in energy transition studies. Calls for green jobs grew louder as initiatives began to frame the benefits of green jobs for disadvantaged communities. Most major economic and technological transitions leave behind the most vulnerable and economically disadvantaged. These calls highlighted this issue of environmental equity. Slogans like "jobs not jails" offered an optimistic and hopeful narrative of economic opportunity, much as Nordhaus and Shellenberger suggested. Environmental justice organizations embraced green energy and green jobs. But a small number of organizations wanted more assurance that solar industries would not burden communities and workers with air or water pollution, or other public health or occupational hazards.

Preparing for the environmental risks of scaling up photovoltaics deserves consideration because the crystalline silicon technologies rely on materials and manufacturing processes similar to those used to make silicon transistors and other electronic devices. The most advanced commercial solar energy innovations, such as thin-film photovoltaics, borrow techniques first used in flat-panel display and hard drive manufacturing. These processes use materials that may pose occupational and public health risks, such as heavy metal compounds of cadmium, gallium, and indium, some of which can be toxic both in compounds and in elemental form. While semiconductor manufacturing poses a number of environmental, health, and safety risks to workers, most can be managed with best practices. However, this notion of best practices comes with a serious caveat owing to the uneven geography of labor laws and environmental regulation, in addition to the occasional unscrupulous actor. Working conditions and the environmental impacts of industrial production can be notably worse in some developing economies, where regulation can be weak, lacking enforcement, or absent altogether; although the notion that some countries have become industrial pollution havens is somewhat controversial.

Several waste disposal incidents in the solar industry, described in the following paragraphs, reinforce the point that poor waste management practices are the primary environmental issue in photovoltaics manufacturing. Energy and water use also have major impacts, according to research discussed in later chapters, but the direct impacts on workers and nearby communities that manufacturers control are from accidents, exposure to hazards, fugitive and permitted emissions, or sloppy chemical stewardship. Anticipating where similar accidents or poor practices might be repeated in photovoltaic commodity chains is important as they develop and are scaled up. Since creating green jobs in clean energy industries is often proposed as an antidote to urban poverty, underdevelopment, and persistent unemployment, there are arguably moral obligations to ensure that occupational, environmental, and energy injustices are not reproduced in low-carbon futures. Importantly, it is not the intrinsic issue of scale itself, as in the size and magnitude of the industry, but the speed of the scaling that makes mistakes more likely, invites policy design that fosters unintended outcomes, or increases the likelihood of mishaps a mature industry would not allow.

While the photovoltaics sector is like the electronics and semiconductor industries in some ways, even overlapping in many instances, in other ways they are very different. Photovoltaics are made to outlast 20-to-30-year warranties. This is very different from telecom and computing devices, which have shorter life spans and are already contributing to electronic waste (e-waste) flows. Electronics manufacturing generally uses a wider variety of hazardous materials than photovoltaic manufacturing. The pervasive use of plastics in electronics, particularly circuit board materials where metals are embedded in plastics, also makes them more toxic than photovoltaics. Yet, there are enough overlaps in production, techniques and modes of organization, and ideas about environmental management to warrant drawing lessons from the more established electronics industry to understand the risks to workers employed in a rapidly scaling solar industry.


Excerpted from "Solar Power"
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Copyright © 2019 The Regents of the University of California.
Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF CALIFORNIA PRESS.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

1. Solar Power
2. Green New Deal
3. Innovations in Photovoltaics
4. Recycling and Product Stewardship
5. Green Civil War
6. The Western Solar Plan
7. Breakthrough Technologies and Solar Trade Wars
8. Solar Power and a Just Transition


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