Earth Day is this week. A day set aside to celebrate “the planet’s clean natural resources”, which is now synonymous with alleviating the costs associated with global climate change. Since alternative technologies are viewed as clean resources that will solve the problem of global climate change, the website earthday.org claims that,
consumer demand for renewable energy sources is one of the most immediate actions you can take to lower your carbon footprint….Wouldn’t you be happier knowing that when you flip the light switch at home that electricity is flowing from a solar panel or wind turbine?
The reality is that we should not necessarily be happier knowing that our lights flow from a solar panel or a wind turbine if the goal is to preserve the planet’s clean natural resources.
There are well documented environmental concerns with solar and wind power, not to mention the higher energy costs that consumers of electricity generated from wind and solar must bear. Yet environmentalists continually fail to account for “the effects that can be seen and those effects that must be foreseen”. Instead, they exclusively focus on the effects that are readily seen while downplaying, or outright ignoring, those effects that are more obscured from view.
Renewable energy’s “seen effects” are quite remarkable. Wind and solar power are impressive technologies that capture the energy from the sun or from the wind and transform these resources into electricity that can power our lives. Since no substance must be burned (e.g., oil, natural gas, coal, wood, or dung) to generate the electricity, solar and wind are framed as “clean energy” and “renewable energy” in contrast with fossil fuels. Fossil fuels are framed as “dirty energy” and “nonrenewable energy” because these resources must be extracted from the earth and once used, are gone.
But the clean and renewable nomenclature is not accurate once the “effects that must be foreseen” are considered.
Solar panels and wind turbines rely on natural resources to generate electricity just like fossil fuel powered plants do. These resources include chemicals such as hydrochloric acid, sulfuric acid, and nitric acid. They also include mineral commodities such as arsenic, gallium, germanium, indium, tellurium, aluminum, and rare earth elements (or the “15 lanthanides on the periodic table”).
Mining these rare earth commodities alone “produce mountains of toxic waste, with high risk of environmental and health hazards. For every ton of rare earth produced, the mining process yields 13kg of dust, 9,600-12,000 cubic meters of waste gas, 75 cubic meters of wastewater, and one ton of radioactive residue.”
Using solar panels and wind turbines has consequences too. As the U.S. Energy Information Administration noted,
As with any type of power plant, large solar power plants can affect the environment at or near their locations. Clearing land for construction and the placement of the power plant may have long-term effects on the habitats of native plants and animals….
Some of these environmental impacts include adverse impacts to local water ecosystems and danger to wildlife from the beam of concentrated light created by a solar power tower. Similar problems afflict wind power too – the senior vice president of the National Audubon Society called it “a condor Cuisinart” for a reason.
Then there is the problem of intermittency. The problem of effective battery storage has not yet been resolved. Consequently, solar and wind energy can only provide electricity to the grid when the sun is shining, and the wind is blowing. Electricity is often needed at night, during cloudy days, or when there is no wind. Consequently, backup baseload power generators are necessary to supplement wind and solar power to ensure that the lights stay on.
This baseload power must be provided by either nuclear power, natural gas, or coal generation facilities. Given the unwarranted hostility toward nuclear power, much of the backup energy comes from natural gas and coal. Accommodating the intermittent generation from solar and wind makes the coal and natural gas plants work less efficiently, which is another cost factor that must be considered.
Therefore, generating electricity from solar and wind resources will not reduce the amount of natural gas and coal generated electricity by nearly as much as proponents claim and they make these resources less efficient than they can be. The reduction in the efficiency of these resources to accommodate the intermittent generation from wind and solar will cause costs to be higher than necessary.
Then there are the disposal issues. As natural resources, the components powering the wind and solar technologies eventually breakdown. Once used up, the wind turbines and solar panels must be disposed of. Given the chemical and mineral components of these technologies, improper disposal could cause significant environmental damage.
Accounting for all these unseen impacts, solar and wind generation are not clean energy sources. Nor are they renewable – they rely on minerals from the earth that are no less of a limited resource than oil and natural gas.
Recognizing this reality does not mean that solar and wind are not important energy resources. The power of future innovation could revolutionize the industry changing these constraints as well. However, the unseen impacts demonstrate that clean is a relative term and that all energy sources involve trade-offs. Establishing policies that recognize that trade-offs exist is the best way to celebrate Earth Day and ensure that the planet’s health and resources are effectively managed.