Solar energy is renewable, but is it environmentally just?
Updated: Jun 22, 2020
The solar industry has been soaring over the past several years. The US is now home to some two million solar installations. Solar energy now provides about a fifth of California’s power and it makes sense that environmentalists champion the industry. Almost a third of the Earth’s greenhouse gas emissions come from the energy sector, so renewable energy sources like this are crucial.
But in a new book, our next guest shows that while “the net social and environmental benefits of solar are uncontested— more jobs, higher quality of life, and much less air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions— the industry supply chain still poses problems for specific communities, ecosystems and landscapes.”
So that’s what I’m here to unpack today with Dustin Mulvaney. He is an Associate Professor in the Environmental Studies Department at San Jose University and his new book that he’s here to talk about today is called Solar Power: Innovation, Sustainability, and Environmental Justice. Thanks so much for being here, Dustin.
DUSTIN MULVANEY: It’s a pleasure to join you. Thank you.
DHARNA NOOR: So, I want to start by talking to you about the conception of solar power. You maintain obviously in this book that solar power plays a really important role in fighting the climate crisis, but you also take a critical look at the political economy of solar. That’s something that’s often missing from environmental movements, because solar has what you call in the book a green halo. It’s sometimes exempt from critical examination. What do you hope that this book will achieve within that broader climate conversation?
DUSTIN MULVANEY: I certainly wouldn’t even consider myself an advocate for solar power. It’s a free renewable resource that once you build the devices you could collect and displace some more polluting energies. I am interested in making sure that people realize that this is a commodity that is produced, and that it requires extractive industries and chemical industries and landscapes, end of life management plans.
So I just want people to be thinking critically about this industry because it doesn’t inherently come with sustainability. It may be better than our current energy systems, but we want to make sure that it’s just made better in general. So we don’t want to see worker exploitation and solar energy commodity chains. We don’t want to see land use change that might undermine our carbon goals through the development of solar energy. We don’t want to see end of life electronic waste scattered about our landfills and recycling centers with this industry.
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