Miquel, with Dr. Cristina Madrid and Nikki Harasta

We had the privilege of sitting down with Miquel Sierra i Montoya, a researcher whose journey has taken him from the intricate world of lab work and nanotechnology to the forefront of sustainability research, where he’s currently working on his PhD. Miquel is part of the Institute of Environmental Science and Technology (ICTA-UAB) and is a key member of the JustWind4All project, where he works on the development of the life cycle assessment model. Today, we’ll explore Miquel’s transition, from navigating the intricacies of the nanoworld to exploring environmental sustainability, the work he does on JustWind4All and his views on the complexities of wind energy development.

Miquel, can you tell us a little something about yourself and your work?

Not long ago, I made a big change in my career. I left behind the lab coat, gloves, and pipettes with which I was trying to help decipher the mysteries of the nano world, to jump into the sustainability boat. Naively enough, I had two certainties about my new field of research before starting. First, that my career path change would be among the most surprising in the field. Second, that I was going to find more tangible and easier-to-grasp puzzles than in a universe governed by quantum laws that we don’t even fully understand yet. I could not even imagine how wrong I was! I guess this puzzle complexity, this entanglement between the natural, social and economic spheres and everything it implies is what makes working in the sustainability field as exciting as it is (apart from also bringing huge doses of frustration).

What research are you working on as part of the JustWind4All project?

Currently, I am starting the second year of my PhD at the Institute of Environmental Science and Technology (ICTA-UAB). I work in the LivenLab, a research group led by Dr. Cristina Madrid and devoted to providing tools to advance the environmental assessment of energy systems and policies. The core of the PhD is framed in the JustWind4All project, and more specifically in the development of a holistic impact assessment tool for wind energy. In a nutshell, we try to assess the socio-environmental impacts and benefits that wind energy technologies can entail at different scales, going from a single technology to regional, national or transnational energy systems where wind technologies are integrated. To do that, we combine life cycle assessment (LCA) and social metabolism approaches. Therefore, we can have the detailed lens on material requirements and environmental impacts beyond greenhouse gas emissions (e.g., water use, mineral resource scarcity, marine eutrophication, etc.) that LCA offers, with the analytical lens of social metabolism that tries to dive into what do these requirements and impacts actually mean and imply for society.

What’s your favourite part about your work?

Although I’ve been working on several things, my main focus so far has been the development of a life-cycle inventory model. The idea behind the model is that, given a set of wind turbine technical parameters (e.g., power capacity, hub height, rotor diameter, etc.), it can ‘guess’ the amount of materials that are required on the life-cycle of this turbine. I enjoyed the process of building the model a lot. Particularly, I found it really stimulating to conceptualize it in the beginning, checking what similar tools others have built in the past and how we could combine some of these previous ideas with our own ones to go a bit beyond. It feels like solving a puzzle, in a way.

Our project highlights justice in wind energy governance. How do you understand justice in this context?

I believe the energy transition should be built upon the principles of democracy, sustainability, decentralization, equity, and social and environmental justice. In my opinion, these principles cannot be followed in a context where energy is viewed as a commodity and exchanged in the market for corporate profit. Instead, I believe energy should be a public or common good aimed at fulfilling people’s needs. I think the energy transition poses a huge opportunity for a system change, but in the process of trying, we are at risk of changing fossil fuel dependency for critical materials dependency and inheriting the same oligopoly schema and geopolitical consequences that the previous fossil model entailed. What should the energy transition look like to avoid falling into this trap is a question I have many shadows on and very little light. Maybe my shadows grow even more when it comes to wind energy, where unlike in the photovoltaic sector, you need to mobilize huge amounts of capital and technical capabilities. I think this hampers even more bottom-up proposals, where projects emerge from citizens’ needs and after democratic discussions. I guess it is possible to increase democracy and participation in top-down projects, by seeking an improved wind energy governance model version. Nevertheless, in my opinion, the starting point is likely to depart from a relation of power between the promotor (with more resources and tools at its disposal) and the communities/citizens, which makes it way more challenging. I believe that as a society we should not reduce the participation issue to only monetary exchanges (e.g., direct financial participation or economic compensations). If that were the case, I think we would be missing an opportunity for effective participation. An example of a project with revolutionary participation, that I find very inspiring is Tvindkraft, in Denmark. A single turbine was built in 1975 by the volunteer and cooperative work of more than 400 people, as an alternative to fossil fuels during the oil crisis. The construction work extended for 3 years with very little budget and without external sources of funding, and they introduced technological novelties that later prevailed for years in the industry. To date, it is the oldest operating wind turbine in the world. Although the turbine with built in a different context than today’s, we might distill some learnings from it.  Find below a picture of the human-powered transportation of a blade, and more information here (Volunteers with a cause – Tvindkraft).

Go to Top