This article is sponsored by Enel Green Power — North America
Sustainability practices in clean energy may sound redundant at first. Aren't renewable energy technologies such as wind and solar inherently sustainable? If it's green, then it's green, right? But renewable energy project ESG profiles and asset-level performance vary widely. While sustainability performance in clean energy is primarily coupled with net zero and associated decarbonization targets, it's important to recognize the full range of ESG practices that support attaining not solely a clean energy future, but a sustainable energy future.
Like any other mature industry that measures its impact on the climate, environment and society, those who are part of the clean energy industry must not only be aware of its environmental footprint but also strive to make the entire value chain of renewables as circular as possible — raw materials, design, site operations and second-life applications.
As the clean energy industry’s upward trajectory continues, promoting sustainability (and reliability, resilience and affordability) in operations must be our shared priority. In 2021, the U.S. installed a record 37.3GW of renewable capacity — that’s more than total power capacity in the entire state of Michigan. And in March, Southwest Power Pool, a grid and wholesale market manager for 14 states, reported a renewable energy penetration record of 90.2 percent, marking the first time a regional transmission organization served more than 90 percent of its load with renewables.
Given these clear trend lines, ESG shouldn’t only be promoted for transition risk mitigation, impact reduction and "seeking Alpha." So, what does a sustainable renewables sector look like? Let me show you around.
Shifting toward circularity and away from a waste management hierarchy
Enter the circular economy, a model that seeks to address reliance on raw materials, build service platforms and design for second-life — all concepts that continue to deepen within the GreenBiz community. At Enel, circularity is based on five principles:
- Sustainable inputs
- Shared platforms among multiple users of products or assets
- Extending the useful life of products or assets
- New lifecycles of a product or raw material
Circularity offers key business advantages in addition to environmental and social benefits. By rethinking our current and traditional linear approach, where materials and components are disposed of after use, companies can create more inclusive business models that reduce costs, use energy more efficiently, decrease carbon pollution and optimize supply chains.
Sustainable energy in practice: Circular solutions across construction, operations and decommissioning
Let's consider a few circular solutions applied at renewable energy power plants that help move towards a sustainable energy future. While these examples are just the start of a longer conversation, they illustrate how thinking sustainably from the start is fundamental to achieving the United Nations Global Goals (SDGs). By applying a circular approach across the various phases of a wind or solar project, a new paradigm begins to take shape that combines market competitiveness, social inclusion and environmental sustainability.
To start with construction, we look for opportunities to repurpose materials used for transport and storage of major components and hardware as renewable projects are built — and it often requires some creativity. In West Texas, the team at Enel Green Power's Roadrunner solar plus storage project converted 275 tons of unused wood pallets into stabilization mulch to spread across the site. That was in addition to eight tons of construction waste recycled during project development.
Then at the Rockhaven wind farm, we gave 90 weather protection tarps, each 20 feet in diameter, a second life by upcycling the heavy-duty material into backpacks for all Enel team members across the U.S. and Canada. The "sustainable swag" was a hit with employees and a tangible reminder of the embodied value of materials.
In the operations phase of a renewable energy power plant, our people determine our success. Enel's internally developed Sustainable Plant model contains about 150 best practices — spanning emissions, energy, water, materials, waste, biodiversity and people categories — that support our operations teams to drive continual improvement and greater circularity across our energy generation fleet.
A prime example is agrivoltaic solar projects, such as the Aurora solar plant, combining energy production with regenerative agriculture practices and ecosystem services to support pollinators, wildlife and water-quality improvements. From using sheep to graze at the site instead of mechanical mowers, providing bee habitats and apiaries to promote local crop pollination, the dual-use model brings together sustainability, innovation and community value.
Native vegetation at an Enel Green Power solar plant. Image courtesy of Enel Green Power
And finally, one of the most impactful aspects of a sustainable energy plant comes when major equipment reaches its end-of-life. With significant renewable energy growth in the U.S., the clean energy industry must collaborate with partners to remain diligent about sustainable decommissioning and second-life applications.
For example, in a partnership with Energy Vault, a company that specializes in creating gravity and kinetic energy-based, long-duration energy storage solutions, Enel Green Power has a shared vision to integrate decommissioned wind turbine blades into the blocks used by Energy Vault for gravitational storage. Those blocks then use the force of gravity to store and release energy on demand, which supports the grid's need for sustainable storage solutions in a circular way.
Enel has also partnered with global wind turbine manufacturer Vestas to successfully recycle wind turbine blades from its first sustainable decommissioning project, the 63MW Snyder wind plant in Texas. Partnerships such as these open opportunities to scale sustainability efforts across many projects and geographies, a necessity to enable future growth and sustainability of the clean energy industry.
The energy transition for all
By 2030, the clean energy industry could account for as much as 50 percent of the electricity produced in the U.S. — creating 500,000 jobs, attracting $700 billion in new investment and completely reimagining how we generate and deliver power across the U.S. But to realize this vision sustainably and inclusively, there’s more work to do in the industry — not only toward applying a circular approach across the value chain but ensuring that no one is left behind in the process. Inclusive models must be promoted and adopted to ensure workers, communities and historically disadvantaged stakeholders will benefit from the rapid growth of the clean power sector in North America.
And as more businesses invest in renewable energy, I'm confident we'll all witness and enjoy the benefits that sustainable energy brings to society, our climate and the environment.
Enel Green Power is a founding member of the Global Alliance for Sustainable Energy. Learn more at www.sustainable-energy.eco.