Clean energy or green energy. You may have heard both. They both refer to forms of energy creation designed to replace the use of fossil fuels, which various studies and general consensus suggest are having a detrimental effect on the environment.
In commercials, wind turbines are operating in beautiful green pastures on sunny days with bright blue skies. They stand tall, white, shiny and new. Similarly, solar panels are often represented as futuristic. The marketing is spectacular.
It’s quite easy to advertise these energy sources in their already implemented form—but how exactly do we get there? What is the environmental cost of this great transition?
These are questions that must be asked. Just how ecologically destructive will the manufacturing and installation of ‘clean energy’ be?
According to Foreign Policy, in order to forge the infrastructure needed for this green energy, it will “require a dramatic increase in the extraction of metals and rare-earth minerals.”
In 2017, The World Bank released a report titled ‘The Growing Role of Minerals and Metals for a Low Carbon Future’. It explored the question of what would be required to support this future of emission-free renewable energy.
Based on that report, and tweaked for the United State’s population and emission goals, Foreign Policy found that an estimated “34 million metric tons of copper, 40 million tons of lead, 50 million tons of zinc, 162 million tons of aluminum, and no less than 4.8 billion tons of iron would need to be extracted from the Earth” to build the infrastructure required.
Resources like wind and sun are not reliable. The wind sometimes ceases blowing, and each night the sun ceases shining. As a result, large batteries at the grid level are required for power storage. An estimated 2,700% increase in lithium extraction would be required to support this.
It’s also necessary to factor in the expected transition from internal combustion engine vehicles to electric vehicles. Foreign Policy suggests that this rapid and large scale transition will require “an explosive increase in mining,” with the extraction of some metals and minerals expected to increase by up to 400%.
Land use is also a concern, especially when it comes to solar energy. According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, wind turbines can share land with farmers for agricultural use, but solar panels are not as versatile. The spatial requirements of clean energy can also threaten natural habitats as land is seized for energy use.
An attempted solution has been placing solar panels in “lower-quality locations such as brownfields, abandoned mining land, or existing transportation and transmission corridors.”
Wind power is not perfect either. “Wind beats coal by any environmental measure, but that doesn’t mean that its impacts are negligible,” said David Keith, Gordon McKay Professor of Applied Physics at the Harvard John A. Paulson School of Engineering and Applied Sciences (SEAS) in an article published in the Harvard Gazette.
Two research papers are referenced in the article, in which Harvard researchers concluded that the “U.S. would require five to 20 times more land than previously thought [to make the transition to wind and solar power], and, if such large-scale wind farms were built, would warm average surface temperatures over the continental U.S. by 0.24 degrees Celsius.”
According to David Kieth, “The direct climate impacts of wind power are instant, while the benefits of reduced emissions accumulate slowly.” This is important to note, as the United States could likely end up in a worse environmental state if they attempt to transition too quickly.
Thomas Sowell was right when he said, “There are no solutions. There are only trade-offs.”
Clean energy may solve our Co2 problem, but what about the ecological consequences of the mass extraction required to produce it? What about the threatened habitats resulting from rapid and large amounts of land use?
The views expressed in this article are the opinion of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Lone Conservative staff.