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Life Cycle Assessment of Energy Systems: Closing the Ethical Loophole of Social Sustainability



Life Cycle Assessment of Energy Systems: Closing the Ethical Loophole of Social Sustainability


Nikolaos Sakellariou

Doctor of Philosophy in Environmental Science, Policy, and Management

University of California, Berkeley

Professor Alastair T. Iles, Chair

This dissertation investigates the historical and normative bases of what contemporary engineers consider to be the embodiment of sustainability: Life Cycle Assessment (LCA). It explores the interplay among technology ethics, energy systems, and how engineering cultures foster sustainability by adopting normative assumptions and problem-solving practices—particularly LCA—as part of their professional identities. Specifically, I provide a broad conceptual analysis of “sustainability engineering” in the US (1989-present) to unpack its history, epistemology and politics. I first show that the 1990’s produced two distinct engineering ideologies of sustainability—one emphasizing engineering creativity and innovation, and the other emphasizing normative ethics and socio-cultural change. I find that the dialectic between sustainability and engineering has been defined largely by an ideology of technological change. I argue that engineering ideologies of sustainability not only affect how professionals imagine LCA as a medium of technological and environmental transformation, but also how they conceptualize sustainability as a vehicle to renegotiate engineering knowledge and identity in addressing some of the most pressing existential dilemmas facing their discipline.

Next, I investigate the politics of engineering identity formation in relation to social, political, regulatory and community pressure to reshape the ethics and boundaries of LCA. I show that starting around 2000, a small group of engineers and, vitally, companies and consulting firms with an eye to addressing technology’s “social impacts” have laid a basis for developing an interesting sustainability tool called Social Life Cycle Assessment (SLCA). SLCA, I argue, is an ideological hybrid where there are many spots of dissent and disagreement but also some surprising fundamental alignments between those who see engineering as technics and those who believe that engineering needs to be socially contextualized. SLCA attests to a messy, ongoing tussle between different viewpoints, where the dominant engineering ideology and culture begins to morph into a more open-ended approach.

Finally, I focus on two case studies of sustainable energy system building—solar and wind project development in California’s West Antelope Valley (WAV)—to understand in more detail the politics and ethics of LCA in energy systems. I describe how LCA became embedded in narratives and decision-making concerning renewable energy in the US—in their design, as well as in their regulatory, economic and environmental planning. California’s inaugural utility scale solar and wind projects were trumpeted as conforming to principles derived from LCA. At one level, I show, the siting of solar PV projects in the WAV was predicated on a mechanism linking legitimacy and life cycle thinking. At another level, along with projects’ contentious permitting and pre-construction phases, the interrelated questions of legitimacy and sustainability emerged from the LCA shadows and became central issues in rural renewable energy project development. I explore the tensions between technical expert and lay expert knowledges that swirl around the deployment of LCAs in solar project development and I argue that LCAs enabled disembodied and context-less decision-making. Seen through my ethnography in the WAV, I present material on the internecine politics of renewable energy project development that took place locally and at the Los Angeles County level—a local-regional scale perspective that is often not seen in the literature. I describe how the fractured relationships between stakeholders and the disparity between rural and urban mechanisms of governance facilitated the diminishing fairness and participatory democracy in renewable energy project dispute resolution.

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