The Hidden, Dirty side of Renewables

Renewable energy has managed to benefit in popularity with a virtually unblemished brand. Through careful marketing efforts, consumers only see shiny, gleaming images of sparkling solar panels and snow white wind turbines on sunny days.  We never get exposed to the hidden side of renewables, especially not the pollution being created in the mining of the rare earths required, the refining, manufacturing and production pollution of these energy sources or in the waste they leave, when they are defective or at the end of their useful life.  This side of the renewables story remains not only highly masked but advocates downplay and deny the significance of these impacts while simultaneously overstating the environmental impacts of nuclear energy and the mining, processing and manufacture of uranium fuel.  It seems worthwhile to provide a more balanced overview of the environmental impacts that stem from the use of renewables, since these are actually pose a significant impact and should not be swept under the table.

The lake of toxic waste at Baotou, China, which as been dumped by the rare earth processing plants in the background. (Click image to see the Google Map location of this toxic dump in Baotou, Mongolia.)

One of the reasons renewable advocates have been so successful hiding the environmental impacts associated with the production of solar panels and wind turbines is because most of that production occurs in China.  This industry has grown tremendously in China because of the low costs of production there but those low costs come as a result of China’s lax environmental regulations.

In 2011, in an article in the Daily Mail by Simon Parry and Ed Douglas titled “In China, the true cost of Britain’s clean, green wind power experiment: Pollution on a disastrous scale,” they exposed one of China’s well-kept secrets, that renewables production was

“contributing to a vast man-made lake of poison in northern China. This is the deadly and sinister side of the massively profitable rare-earths industry that the ‘green’ companies profiting from the demand for wind turbines would prefer you knew nothing about. Hidden out of sight behind smoke-shrouded factory complexes in the city of Baotou, and patrolled by platoons of security guards, lies a five-mile wide ‘tailing’ lake. It has killed farmland for miles around, made thousands of people ill and put one of China’s key waterways in jeopardy. This vast, hissing cauldron of chemicals is the dumping ground for seven million tons a year of mined rare earth after it has been doused in acid and chemicals and processed through red-hot furnaces to extract its components.”

The minerals being mined, refined and processed for manufacturing in places like Mongolia include neodymium and monazite, rare earth minerals required by wind turbines, which can contain up to ten percent thorium, uranium and other radioactive mineral waste, which are not subject to the same environmental protections and safe storage required by U.S. Mining regulations.  Lax regulations allow miners to dump these into open pits, such as the one shown above and which have created this ten kilometer squared radioactive sludge lake.

Environmental impacts not as easily shown involve the use and release by solar panel manufacturers of three potent gases which are known to be 10,000 to 25,000 more heat-trapping than carbon dioxide, according to the IPCC:

  • Hexafluoroethane (C2F6)
  • Nitrogen trifluoride (NF3)
  • Sulfur hexafluoride (SF6)

These are some of the fastest growing causes of climate change as a result of the growth of the solar cell manufacturing industry.

Comparing Apples to Apples

When renewables advocates exclaim how cheap renewables are, they are looking at what could legitimately be called unfair prices, as China persists in not maintaining the level of environmental protections needed to protect human health.  China has deliberately prioritized industrial growth over the health and life of their citizens.  Were adequate environmental protections—including those preventing the release of toxic gases—enforced, the prices of renewables might not appear so low.  These are the facts.  We need to factor these realities into our calculus when we make decisions about which types of energy to promote.  We are certainly not suggesting that we should not continue to look towards expanding the use of renewables, batteries, electric cars and other clean technologies because they require the use of rare earths mining and processing but we should be willing to look frankly at what their actual impacts are and compare their actual environmental impacts with the alternative technologies such as nuclear energy.

Sourced from “Why Clean Energy is in Crisis” by Environmental Progress. Click image to go to that article.

When it comes to energy, even renewable energy is not 100% clean — even though wind and sunshine are — because these technologies still requires a lot of natural resources and manufacturing processes producing pollution and waste in order to be able to exploit those energy sources. People seem to forget this.  They also tend to over-estimate how much energy a solar panel can generate and under-estimate how much energy a nuclear plant generates, relative to how much materials are required to produce that energy.  Once again, Environmental Progress has helped to clarify what the material throughput is for these various energy sources, so we can evaluate our options comparing apples to apples.

This helps to explain how it is, then, that a study done by Environmental Progress found that solar panels create 300 times more toxic waste per unit of energy than do nuclear power plants. Nuclear plants last for sixty, eighty or more years and the waste they produce to make energy is minimal, as well as highly regulated, controlled and fully contained within storage containers, so it does not impact the environment or health of local populations. Unfortunately, according to Environmental Progress, “in countries like China, India, and Ghana, communities living near e-waste dumps often burn the waste in order to salvage the valuable copper wires for resale. Since this process requires burning off the plastic, the resulting smoke contains toxic fumes that are carcinogenic and teratogenic (birth defect-causing) when inhaled.”

If what we are trying to do is maximize clean energy generation and minimize the impacts of that generation on the environment, on natural resources and on the health and well-being of humans around the world, then we cannot hide from the bad news about the energy technologies we prefer and focus only on its good news while doing the reverse for those technologies that we don’t prefer.