Are clean technologies really that clean?

Clean tech firms such as solar panel manufacturers and wind turbine companies are compromising their sustainability claims by failing to account for the environmental impact of the materials they use.

Rare metals, including lithium, neodymium and gallium, are commonly used to develop clean technologies such as solar photovoltaic panels and batteries, but these materials are increasingly scarce and currently have very low recycling rates.

According to Lynelle Cameron, director of sustainability at design software company Autodesk, the failure to minimise the environmental impact of low-carbon technologies is now so prevalent that many clean technologies and green buildings cannot justifiably claim that they are “sustainable”.

Cameron told BusinessGreen that architects and designers are increasingly keen to use more sustainable materials for buildings and clean technologies, but are unable to access information covering the whole lifecycle, from extraction to disposal, that is required to select the best materials.

In an attempt to create more sustainable clean tech, Autodesk last week signed a deal with Granta, a spin-off from Cambridge University that holds detailed information on almost every material in the world. Through the partnership the company is aiming to supply information on different materials’ impacts through the company’s modelling software.

“We’re trying to bring knowledge into the design process and help to pre-empt it – because clean tech is not inherently sustainable,” she told BusinessGreen. “The scale with which we’re developing PV is potentially disastrous if we don’t start thinking about this. No one’s talking about it – it’s like clean tech’s dirty secret.”

In addition to providing information on materials, Autodesk is working to expand its portfolio of design software suites, which aim to help designers model the efficiency of buildings, roads and cities at the planning stage. The same applications can also be used to calculate almost immediately what alterations can be made to existing buildings to lower energy costs, while a separate program is helping the Carbon Disclosure Project calculate the carbon footprint of cities around the globe.

The company’s latest software toolkit, Rapid Energy Modelling, also allows companies to put a figure to within five per cent accuracy on the energy performance of a building from uploaded photos, as a precursor to a full survey.

Cameron said that the latest software places great emphasis on how the shape, orientation and location of buildings affect energy performance, something she argued designers have tended to underestimate.

“I don’t think the importance or the impact of [shape, orientation and location] on energy performance has been understood previously,” she said. “It’s incredible – you take one building, you rotate it by five degrees on the site and it can reduce your energy performance by 30 per cent.”

The company is also looking to accelerate the roll out of its green software packages through its recently launched Clean Tech Partner Program, which distributes the software at a fraction of the normal price. The program is open to startups that are specifically addressing environmental challenges, but not, as Cameron is keen to stress, larger companies trying to green their existing products.

She says hundreds of companies in the US, UK, Germany and Nordic countries have received assistance through the scheme, building everything from wind turbines to electric bicycles.

“You can model a wind turbine or a car and simulate how that will perform in the real world, tweak it, change the materials, play with the model – make your mistakes digitally so you don’t have to build [expensive] physical prototypes,” Cameron said.

The program will be rolled out further into Europe and Asia next year, which Cameron expects to emerge as a hotbed of sustainability innovation over the next decade.

However, hailing from Silicon Valley, Cameron admits to being underwhelmed at UK businesses’ efforts in the sustainability field, which she feels have been given a positive mandate for action by the government.

“I thought there would be a more alive conversation with some really big forward steps, but it seems the news that comes out is that it’s not transformational, it feels like small steps,” she said. “I feel like the government is putting some bold stakes in the ground – 20 per cent [renewable energy] by 2020 is not insignificant. And yet I don’t feel the pressure or the excitement in the corporate sector leading up to that. It doesn’t feel super-entrepreneurial here.

“We understand the business case, but now it’s [the time for] implementing and executing. Maybe the economy is dampening the pace, but I guess it’s the innovation that seems to be missing.”

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