Wind, sun, and water – making the pharma industry greener

The U.S. pharmaceutical industry uses almost $1 billion in energy annually, according to estimates from 2008. Reliable energy is an especially crucial consideration for pharma research and manufacturing. Many compounds and research materials require specific environmental conditions for safe handling, and equipment like freezers and delicate lab equipment require uninterrupted energy flow. Add this to the sheer number of power draining systems and machines in labs and drug manufacturing plants, and the average pharmaceutical plant requires 14 times more energy units per square foot than other commercial buildings.

In response to the growing concerns surrounding climate change, many companies in the pharma industry are looking to offset their impact through commitments to renewable energy – the two most popular being wind and solar. Charles River, in partnership with our energy consultant Schneider Electric, is one of those companies looking into renewable energy to bolster our triple bottom line. So how do wind and solar compare?

How to buy energy

There are four common ways for a company to commit to renewable energy:

  • Physically install solar panels, turbines, etc. on company property and use the energy they generate onsite
  • Unbundled renewable energy credits (RECs)
  • Bundled RECs
  • Offsite commitment to developing renewable plants

The first is obvious, but in reality, for most sites it does not supply enough power to justify its cost. For research labs especially, the power generated from onsite sources will be a drop in the bucket compared with their needs.

The second and third involve buying the right to claim the benefits of renewable energy. Unbundled RECs can be bought by companies that will never see an electron of the actual output. This allows the company to meet sustainability goals by committing to renewable power. These RECs have a real benefit to the suppliers, offering a steady income to keep their renewable sources running. For companies, it is a good alternative when renewable sources are not available in their immediate area.

Bundled RECs are similar and can be purchased as part of a company’s power package. This could mean that their utility supplier promises a certain percentage of their power will come from renewable sources.

Wind vs. Solar: Tangible Costs

“If you’re looking at wind versus solar in terms of how much it generates throughout the given year, wind is typically the more efficient technology,” said Drew Crowder, Cleantech Client Manager at Schneider Electric. “That’s not necessary because wind is better at converting energy, it’s simply related to the fact that the wind blows more hours throughout the day than the sun shines.”

However, as far as cost and efficiency go, there are more factors to consider than just simple arithmetic.

“Solar is definitely more expensive than wind, there’s no question about that,” said Drew. “But it produces it’s energy during the day when electricity prices are higher. So it’s kind of an interesting nuance in the sense that solar is more expensive, however in many states it actually offers better financial value for buyers like Charles River, because it’s being produced during hours when electricity prices otherwise are expensive.”

Considering land cost, solar requires far more acreage to produce the same amount of power. On the east and west coasts of the U.S. for example, where land prices are high, this is an important factor to consider. Tax incentives by state are another factor, though overall in the U.S. wind credits are rolling off, making solar more attractive when land cost is not a factor.

Finally, the technology cost. In recent years, wind technology has plateaued. Turbines are about as efficient and cheap as they are going to get – after all, it will always cost a certain amount in labor and materials to build large turbines. Solar, on the other hand, is still improving and is easier to construct. The lifespan of both wind and solar farms is about 30-40 years, though most developers plan for 12-15 to make room for technological improvements.

Wind vs. Solar: Tangential benefits

There’s more to the land issue than cost. For both wind and solar, there are ecological and economic benefits to the way the land is actually used. For wind, very little ground space is needed compared with air space. This leaves the land beneath the blades open for other uses, from grazing to meadows to crop farming. In fact, Iowa State University researchers found tangible benefits for crops that share land with wind turbines.

Solar uses much more land than wind, meaning that a large solar farm can keep land tied up and out of service for more destructive development. Solar farms can also be designed to attract pollinators when wildflowers are planted around the perimeter. Grass that falls over at a certain height can be planted under raised solar panels for a low maintenance approach, offering ground cover for wildlife and protecting the soil for decades. Once a solar farm is decommissioned, the soil underneath is often richer than before.

As for other wildlife considerations, wind turbines do not cause many bird deaths. Studies have shown that coal and nuclear plants cause up to 2000x more bird deaths than wind farms. Cats, power lines, and building collisions also account for far more deaths than turbines.

Finally, water. As we are becoming increasingly aware, water is becoming as precious a commodity as clean air. Even disregarding the pollution factor, wind and solar uses far less water than fossil fuel energy.

“There is some water use required in the manufacturing of the technologies, as there is with any other technology,” said Drew. “But there really is very little, if any, water use during the actual operation of the project. I’ll say there is slight water use with solar, just to clean the panels, but it’s nothing more than just a bucket and a squeegee, and frankly the wind or the rain usually takes care of the bulk of the cleaning.”