From a proposed lithium mine near the Oregon-Nevada border to a proposed pumped hydropower facility in Washington, the transition from fossil fuels to renewables is not all clean and green. The extraction, manufacturing, storage and recycling of metals and minerals needed for electric cars, wind and solar has impacts on land, water, wildlife and people — and thanks to a new grant, a Portland State professor will take a closer look at those impacts, both good and bad.
Alida Cantor, associate professor of geography, was awarded a $650,000 grant from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The funding spread over four years comes from the EPA's "Drivers and Environmental Impacts of Energy Transitions in Underserved Communities" program, which earmarked money specifically for early-career researchers like Cantor.
Cantor says that amid efforts to pivot to cleaner energy, the processes associated with the renewable energy storage life cycle can actually be detrimental to the environment. Take, for example, electric cars. Demand for lithium batteries and electric cars is driving lithium mining, which faces concerns about water quality issues and impacts on habitat and endangered species.
"It's easy to say that green energy is good without digging in critically to what it actually means for particular people in specific places. That's what we're trying to do here," Cantor said. "The energy transition needs to happen, but how do we make it better for the people involved along the way?"
Cantor — along with a team of researchers from San Jose State University, University of Nevada Reno and California State Polytechnic University, Pomona — will seek to understand how renewable energy transitions can occur in ways that maximize potential positive impacts and minimize potential negative impacts to underserved communities so as to strengthen environmental justice.
Central to the work will be interviews with impacted community members, policymakers and project proponents and opponents for a variety of case studies in Washington, Oregon, Nevada and California. Projects include a proposed lithium mine; a proposed geothermal lithium brine extraction facility; a proposed electric car battery manufacturing facility and Tesla facilities; a battery energy storage facility; a proposed pumped hydropower facility; and battery recycling plants. Some of the cases are still in planning or permitting stages, representing an important chance to understand in-progress transformations, Cantor said.
"In each of these case studies, we'll be talking to people who have opposed the projects or who have been impacted by the projects as well as the people who've supported them to get a sense of how burdens and benefits are distributed when it comes to energy transitions," she said. "Any project can have benefits to society writ large, but also have burdens that are really specific to certain people in certain places."
At a later stage, focus groups and workshops will bring together community members from across the different sites and cases to share their experiences and develop best practices for governance and implementation with the aim of ensuring that energy transitions are more sustainable and environmentally just.
Cantor's collaborators include Dustin Mulvaney, an environmental studies professor at San Jose State University; Kate Berry, a geography professor at University of Nevada, Reno; and James Blair, an assistant professor in geography and anthropology at Cal Poly, Pomona. The EPA grant builds on the group's National Science Foundation-funded project at the nexus of energy and water systems.