Solar energy is renewable, but is it environmentally just?

September 7, 2019

Solar Energy Is Renewable, But Is it Environmentally Just? (1/2)
August 26, 2019

Dustin Mulvaney speaks about his new book which explores the complex environmental and social impacts of the global solar industry.
[The book is Solar Power, Innovation, Sustainability, and Environmental Justice published by the University of California Press. ]

Partial Transcript:  (Full transcript here)
DHARNA NOOR: It’s The Real News. I’m Dharna Noor.

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.

So, I just want people to be cognizant of that this is a production system. And with all production systems, there are environmental impacts. We need to bring attention to this because if we don’t carefully deploy solar power, we could reproduce some of the environmental inequalities we see in other energy systems. Even if it’s less overall inequality or environmental impact, the goal here is really to raise all boats— as we’ve heard with many of the conversations around green jobs and such. We don’t want to have a green job in California, installing rooftop solar on someone’s home linked to a gray dirty job in Malaysia or China or some other part of the world.  ….  (Full transcript here)

The Land Politics of Solar Energy (2/2)
August 26, 2019

In part 2 of his interview on his new book, Dustin Mulvaney examines the complicated environmental impact—and political economy—of U.S. solar projects, and explains his hopes for the industry’s future

Partial transcript:  (Full transcript here)

…. DHARNA NOOR: So a major debate over solar in the US has been the fight over utility-scale solar, particularly on public lands in the southwest. After the 2008 recession, huge swathes of public land were used to construct solar farms. I think something like 10% of all public lands. And your book points out that environmental justice advocates and Indigenous groups actually demanded that other lands were considered instead— abandoned farmland, industrial brownfields. But instead, of course, there was this huge seizing of public lands. Talk about how that happened. You actually say that it turned into what you call a Green Civil War between some of the bigger green organizations and some smaller climate justice groups.

DUSTIN MULVANEY: Yeah. The origin for this conflict really goes back to 2001 with the Bush-Cheney Energy Taskforce. And one of the major recommendations to come from that taskforce was to expedite energy development on public lands. Of course, they probably were not talking about solar, wind and geothermal. They were mainly talking about oil, coal and natural gas.

Yet, that policy was applied to the solar industry when public lands came under pressure for development, as you said, around 2008 through 2012 or so, was really the big push for a lot of this. The origins for that are a bit complicated, but one of the reasons I believe that public lands were targeted in this initial wave of solar development was that these are just big parcels of land. The Bureau of Land Management is the nation’s largest landlord with over 250 million acres of land that they manage. And to some extent the renewables industry had always been jealous of the fossil fuel industries because they get access to public lands and their lobbyists basically said, “Well, you should give us public lands too.”

So the BLM in the 2005 Energy Policy Act was mandated, and I would put that in air quotes— “mandated”— because it actually doesn’t say that in the legislation. But it was interpreted as a mandate, that they would develop 10 gigawatts of solar on public lands, and that was expanded actually to 20 gigawatts under the Obama administration. So the BLM, it became part of their mission to actually dispossess their lands and virtually privatize them for industry essentially. I call it virtual privatization because it wasn’t that these solar companies were buying the land. It’s that they just got to occupy it, fence it in, bulldoze it, and basically treat it as their own, but eventually it’s supposed to be returned to the federal government.

Now, the other reason for public lands is, and this is a similar argument, but the large parcel sizes mean that they only have to deal with one landowner. So if you want to build a really large solar farm, let’s say eight square miles, and there are some that are that big. If you want to build an eight square mile solar farm, imagine trying to do that in a rural community where you’ve got to deal with 15 to 30 different landowners and you’ve got to negotiate prices and such. The BLM became a lot easier to deal with, so a lot of the solar companies would rather have dealt directly with BLM and that was the major impetus.

The other reason that the BLM lands were targeted was because they were able to be fast tracked, as I mentioned earlier. And the reason fast tracking became important here is because there was stimulus money available to these solar companies in the form of loan guarantees and cash grants, which sometimes could be used to pay off the loans. And if those projects didn’t break ground before a certain date, that money would be basically taken back by the next Congress. So that fast tracking really was driven by the need to get shovels in the ground. And if you remember from that conversation around the financial crisis in 2008, shovel-ready projects was the catchphrase that we were looking to invest in. We, meaning the United States, during the economic downturn. And fast-tracked solar projects on public lands were considered shovel-ready, and it’s not clear that they could’ve even built them as quick on private land, but we’ve seen a lot less projects built on public lands more recently.
(Full transcript here)

Dustin Mulvaney

"I teach in the Environmental Studies Department at San Jose State University, one of the first six interdisciplinary environmental studies programs in the USA, founded as a result of the first Earth Day 1970. My research focuses on the social and environmental dimensions of food and energy systems where I research questions about innovation, emerging technologies and environmental change. My research on solar energy commodity chains is synthesized in my new book entitled Solar Power, Innovation, Sustainability, and Environmental Justice with the University of California Press." Website:

Tags: solar, Solar Energy