The Hidden Costs of Green Energy
In this day of steadily rising energy costs, increasing difficulty in finding readily accessible supplies of non-renewable resources, aging power production and transport facilities and environmental awareness individuals, local government and private utilities are turning towards renewable energy resources at an increasing rate. Many of these entities tout the benefit of their decisions as “green” and “environmentally friendly”. The real cost of these projects is often ignored completely either through true ignorance of the facts or in an attempt to be duplicitous about the damage that is really being done.
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While numbers for more recent years weren’t readily available, it was reported by the State of California that seventeen companies, which had forty-four manufacturing facilities in California, produced 46.5 million pounds of sludge and contaminated water from 2007 through the first half of 2011 (Dearen, 2013). While most of this waste was disposed of in-state, approximately three percent (more than 1.4 million pounds) was transported to nine other states including Arkansas, Minnesota, Nebraska, Rhode Island, Nevada, Washington, Utah, New Mexico and Arizona (Dearen, 2013).
If the world were to make the move to one-hundred percent solar energy like some propose (Waller, 2013) we would need to produce hundreds of thousands (of not millions) of tons of contaminated sludge, use carcinogenic materials and continue to expose workers to phosphine gas, hydrogen fluoride and lead.
As the winds of the debate on the benefits of solar power continue, we shift our attention to our efforts to harness the very power of the wind itself. In 2012 the United States installed a record 13.2 gigawatts of new wind energy production come online accounting for (at the time) 6% of the nation’s total generating capacity (Woody, 2013).
However, as the capacity of wind turbines increases, so too does the risk they pose. Every year wind installations injure, maim, and kill hundreds of thousands of birds in clear violation of federal law (Fisher, 2013). While this is a problem unique to wind turbines, they have a common problem with other forms of energy generation: the need for Rare Earth Minerals (REM’s).
According to Dawn Stover of the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, a 2 megawatt (MW) wind turbine contains about 800 pounds of neodymium and 130 pounds of dysprosium (Stover, 2011). These minerals are mined almost exclusively in China, which has an estimated ninety-five percent of the world’s known reserves of Rare Earth Minerals. REM’s are typically obtained by strip-mining, the process of removing existing earth and vegetation above the mine site, which is known to be devastating to local flora and fauna. The other option for obtaining these minerals is to run a more traditional mining operation underground, but this can lead to cave-ins, subsidence of land above the mine and can lead to easier pollution of ground water due to the nature of the mining operation.
After looking at some of the methods of gathering the materials needed for the production of wind turbines, it becomes clear that they, like PV panels, also have skeletons in their manufacturing closet. The need for REM’s in the production of both PV and Wind Turbines leaves much to be desired, but one thing that...