Transitioning to 100% renewable energy sounds like a sweet deal, right? And, sure, who doesn’t like the idea of saving the earth from climate change. It’s for the children after all. And what wouldn’t we do for the children?
It turns out the reality of “clean” energy is not as sugary sweet as some have portrayed. The impact to our land is much worse than many realize, which questions the environmental value of what would be left behind.
From start to finish, the manufacturing of “green machines” such as wind turbines, solar panels and electric vehicles, is land, water and energy intensive. And, with renewable energy contributing about 9% of our power make up now, and electric vehicles only making up 1.8% of transportation market share, it is imperative to weigh the costs of increasing our reliance on these technologies, most of which is not made here in America.
The Clean Energy Myth
While the manufacturing of these machines might start like most – in a factory – what many wind and solar advocates conveniently overlook is the labor and land intensive mining of rare earth elements.
For example, the brains of the electrical systems inside a wind turbine, relies on neodymium. Currently the world only mines about 7,000 tons per year of neodymium, but in order to achieve 100% renewable energy build out like Biden-Harris propose, the mining of neodymium would need to increase 1,000 – 4,000% according to the Manhattan Institute. Likewise, the same study estimates that indium production, used in solar technology, will need to increase as much as 8,000%. The mining for cobalt, used in electric vehicle batteries, will need to increase by 300%–800%. Lithium production, used for electric cars, will need to rise more than 2,000%.
But it seems like no one is talking about the massive environmental footprint of drastically expanding these mining operations. The process of extracting and refining rare earth elements is far from “clean.”
Remote mining facilities, typically powered with old, inefficient and outdated machinery, break apart the earth and crushes massive amounts of rocks in order to extract ore containing the rare earth elements. And it takes a lot of ore to get what they are after. For example, securing one ton of cobalt requires processing 1500 tons of ore. That refining process uses a toxic chemical cocktail to separate the rock from the element. As a result, there is a massive amount of waste left over, much of which is radioactive.
So, where is all this mining happening?
Even though the U.S. is estimated to have 2.7 millions tons of rare earth metals, the majority of mining happens overseas. Challenged by strict environmental laws and the threat of litigation, it is simply not as profitable to mine in the U.S. Instead, companies choose to start operations in countries where there are more relaxed environmental and child labor laws.
China produces around 70% of the global annual production for rare earth elements. Years of mining has had grave environmental consequences for mining districts. One article cites China’s State Council report that rare earth element mining had “damaged surface vegetation, caused soil erosion, pollution, and acidification, and reduced or even eliminated food crop output.” Further, the radioactive waste from processing the rare earth elements typically ends up getting dumped into bodies of water. China’s largest mining district, Batou, has a 11-square-kilometer waste pond — about three times the size of New York City’s Central Park. The pond is filled with black, barely-liquid, toxic and radioactive sludge. One nearby village was dubbed the “death village” because 61 people died from lung and/or brain cancer within a seven year period.
There have also been recent human rights concerns about mining in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), which extracts 60% of the world’s cobalt. An estimated 35,000 child miners work in western Congo’s mines for less than $2 dollars per day. In December of 2019, Tesla was named by the International Rights Advocates in their lawsuit seeking damages for deaths and injuries of child miners in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Tesla was accused of profiting off this abuse since cobalt, an important part of its electric vehicle batteries, is sourced from the DRC.
Along with rare earth elements, green machines require enormous amounts of plastic, glass, steel and concrete. These conventional materials are mostly created through the use of fossil fuel.
The installment of these technologies also eats up land.
Some have calculated the footprint to provide electricity for a city of 300,000 would require 233 5-megawatt wind turbines, covering nearly 55 square miles, to equal the same output of a 500-megawatt coal power plant only requiring 0.46875 square miles. That may mean more land for the wind turbines than the city itself.
Now consider that the Biden-Sanders Unity Task Force plans to install 60,000 “made-in-America” wind turbines. Using the above calculations, one could estimate that this installation would require a line of wind turbines spread over 28,159 miles, which could roughly span the distance between Washington DC and San Francisco 10 times. Keep in mind, the parts for these wind turbines are manufactured in places like China, they are only assembled in the U.S.
Further, it would appear that when it comes down to renewable energy installation, most people do not want to be near it. The ‘Not in My Backyard’ effect, also referred to as NIMBYism, has been a substantial barrier to wind development. In 2019, San Bernardino County passed an ordinance prohibiting large renewable-energy projects in most of the county. Sammy Roth of the Los Angeles Times explained that county officials were “bending to the will of residents who say they don’t want renewable energy projects industrializing their rural desert communities.”
The other less discussed topic of a clean energy future is the needed updates to our nation’s grid. One study found that achieving 100% renewables would require doubling our high-voltage transmission lines. Currently, the US has around 200,000 miles of high-voltage transmission and 5.5 million miles of local distribution lines. Adding this extra mileage has already received some pushback. In June, a federal judge ruled that the US Fish and Wildlife Service had not considered “all of the impacts of a 225-mile, 345-kilovolt transmission line designed to go through Nebraska’s Sandhills” — a project that was intended to enable the transmission of electricity from future wind farms.
Finally, where do these giant machines go when they cannot function anymore?
Both solar panels and wind turbines need to be retired every 20-30 years. This poses a concern for the US’s waste management of such items. Unfortunately, the idea of recycling these green machines is less than feasible. Often it is more profitable to start with fresh resources than painstakingly extract small amounts of elements from retired machines.
According to the International Renewable Energy Agency, there were about 250,000 metric tons of solar panel waste in the world at the end of 2016. That number could reach 78 million metric tons by 2050. As noted by NPR, more that 720,000 tons of wind turbine blade material will be disposed of over the next 20 years. It is worth noting that that figure does not take into account taller higher-capacity turbines.
This enormous amount of waste is even more concerning when taking into account that EV batteries and solar panels can also leak toxic and flammable chemicals into the ground if left unattended in a landfill.
Not only is the journey to 100% renewable energy deceivingly unclean, it is also extremely costly. One analysis found that shifting to 100% renewable energy comes with a price tag of $4.5 trillion. This sum combines the costs of building out wind and solar capacity ($1.5 trillion), battery story ($4 trillion) and transmission lines ($700 billion).
Categorizing these green machines as renewable or environmentally friendly is misleading. Like all energy sources, they have an impact and, in some cases, we’re trading for less efficient energy sources or encouraging deadly, child-labor practices. It’s easy to sell the idea of a clean energy utopia, but let’s make sure those sugar-coated plans truly decrease our environmental footprint and benefit the futures of all children.