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.