Reducing environmental impact on the renewable energy industry

Picture yourself standing in the bathroom. Have you ever wondered: “Should I use the paper towel or the electric hand dryer?”

How best to weigh different information and make choices that are successful in reducing your environmental impact? The challenges for the renewable energy industry, it turns out, are no different. Just on a much larger scale.

Wind turbines spinning and reducing environmental impact in the renewable energy industry
Life Cycle Assessment helps quantify the true benefit of a project.

Consider a wind farm. The machines generate electricity, so we need to generate less from coal. But we also use energy to make the steel towers, manufacture the blades, and conduct ongoing maintenance. Tearing them down and reprocessing those materials takes energy too.

We know that the net impact of a wind turbine will be positive over its operational life. But it takes a life-cycle assessment (LCA) based on industry best practice to know this for sure (and to know just how positive).

An LCA identifies the impact of a technology or project over its entire lifetime. It’s an analytical method that’s used to consider the environmental impact of a product or process. Increasingly, it’s being used to benchmark everything from nappies and surfboards, to solar panels and biofuels.

It is also a useful tool that can help the energy industry make better, more informed choices. It can help Australia meet its Paris Agreement targets by showing us if we are doing the right thing and delivering the greenhouse gas reductions we need. Unless we can accurately measure these reductions based on a common and robust approach we can never be clear about how successful we are, what progress is actually being made and what remains to be done.

An assessment can also identify what ’embodied energy’ (the energy used to produce a product or material) goes into each new type of energy technology and what we get out of it from the moment we start building the technology, then operating it, right through to the moment we retire it.

ARENA’s creation of LCA guidelines will inform applicants and assist them to identify potential cost savings through the design process. We can also use LCA results to compare new technologies to existing ones, rather than solely as a tool of competition between new ones.

As an organisation, we want to know that we are funding technologies and projects that are heading in the right direction to address climate change and other critical environmental impacts. life-cycle assessments can help offer us that confidence.

How it works

Life-cycle assessment, or LCA, is an analytical tool used to assess the end-to-end environmental impact of a product or process.

It is now a well-established field of expertise that is growing in sophistication, interest and application. It can be used to inform everything from engineering and design choices in major infrastructure projects through to product labels that support more informed consumer choices.

Delivery of a life-cycle assessment has been a fundamental requirement for ARENA applicants in the bioenergy (including biofuels) space for some time.

So what’s new?

We are now providing further guidance on what, how and when we expect these assessments to be done. This will help to create a level playing field, through a consistent approach, and will strengthen the validity of the resulting information.

ARENA has chosen to pilot this expanded approach in the bioenergy sector because it is more complex than any other in the renewable energy realm. Just consider the many different inputs that need to be examined to get the full picture. Feedstocks, land use, water consumption and pesticide use need to be part of the equation. As do fertilisers, multiple conversion platforms, co-products, complex emissions profiles and waste.

But our efforts to understand this area won’t end there. If we look further into the future, how can we quantify the embodied impact of silicon used in PV panel manufacturing? Or the aluminium or steel used to mount them?

For ARENA, the knowledge the LCA process will reveal is intended to be part of an evolutionary journey that will benefit the renewable energy industry at large.

Moving beyond ‘could we?’

ARENA acts to catalyse a renewable energy revolution and help progress society towards a better future. Sounds grand? It’s a fundamental reason why we exist. It’s at the heart of who we are and what we do.

In addition to asking the question of, “could we?” in relation to new, innovative and emerging technologies, it is also important to consider, “should we?”. This is an important cornerstone of ARENA’s leadership role and its task as a ‘knowledge champion’ for the sector.

As a starting point, new technologies or projects must be able to deliver lower greenhouse gas emissions, as well as become commercially competitive with existing forms of (fossil) energy. However, where energy is concerned, ‘renewable’ doesn’t automatically mean ‘sustainable’.

In bioenergy projects, what about the amount of water used in energy crops, the competition with food production or the downstream impact of agricultural fertiliser use? When all aspects of feedstock production, processing, distribution and use are considered, what improvement over (fossil-dominated) business as usual is left?

This measurement is not driven by a desire to pit ARENA applicants against each other. Rather, it is designed to ensure that the technologies we fund can deliver a ‘net benefit’ relative to the incumbent technologies they seek to displace.

Delivering the answer? No – Asking better questions

Being a model based on a detailed inventory of a value chain (think of it as ‘accounting for scientists and engineers’), life-cycle assessment results are best understood when not interpreted in isolation. Rather, they can be used as a ‘sanity check’ to ask more informed questions and support continuous improvement in design and operation.

There are many different choices or value judgements to make in establishing an LCA framework. There are often several ways to cut the data, draw the boundaries and allocate the impacts, so it’s important to be able to compare ‘apples with apples’. The key is to be consistent in application and interpretation according to recognised international standards.

What we’ve learned about reducing environmental impact

When ARENA started out on this path, we had a number of thoughts and expectations. Ultimately the application of a common LCA method can help ARENA to better fulfil its mandate, including:

  • Guiding more effective decision-making by providing a ‘level playing field’ benchmark. This enables us to compare a project or technology against its incumbent in the relevant energy category.
  • Supporting technical ‘due diligence’ by ensuring the projects we support deliver a net benefit, for example GHG footprint, land use changes and energy balance.
  • Managing the potential for risk in funding projects that involve environmental and/or social sensitivities (often geographically specific).
  • Being clearer about the proportion of a bioenergy/biofuel project that directly relates to the output of renewable energy (versus material co-products or non-renewable feedstock components).
  • Understanding where the innovation gaps/opportunities/’hot spots’ are for the development of new pathways and approaches, to make renewable energy projects even better.
  • Providing a platform for more informed techno-economic evaluation of projects.

At its core, though, the benefit is simple. Life-cycle assessments will help ARENA ensure its portfolio is headed in the right direction and will guard against the prospect of inadvertently creating a bigger problem than the one we are trying to solve.

We look forward to working with the renewable energy sector to learn and improve our application of these over time so we can bring about lasting change in the energy industry, with a view to achieve improved environmental as well as commercial outcomes.

This article was originally written by Scott Grierson, former Business Development and Transactions Specialist, ARENA.