We have been told for years about the damage to the environment of burning fossil fuels, and the marvelous benefits of renewable energy sources like wind and solar. Steps have been taken and more are being put forth to reduce the amount of CO2 we produce, on concerns of “climate change.” America, incidentally, has led most, if not all, of the world in reducing CO2 in recent years.
And, regardless of whether humankind is really harming the environment to a serious level, we can agree that wind and solar energy are far less polluting when they are in use than machines that burn oil, gasoline, diesel fuel and natural gas.
But when you look at what happens in the process of turning these sources into useful products, and what happens to them after their useful life is over, a very different story emerges.
The details of these processes and products were explained in a Prager University video featuring Mark Mills, Senior Fellow at the Manhattan Institute, who discussed the environmental costs of using these energy sources.
First, windmills and solar panels, and the batteries to store the electricity they produce, are made from non-recyclable materials, Mills said. And after some 20 years since the wind and solar energy technologies were born, and after billions of dollars of subsidies, those two sources provide less than three percent of the nation’s power.
Mills explained that the maximum rate that wind can be turned into electrons is about 60 percent, and the maximum for sunlight is about 33 percent. As of now, we can convert 45 percent of blowing wind and 26 percent of shining sun. Technology is now able to get a little more than half the possible electrons from the wind and the sun. That will likely increase as technology advances.
Since the wind does not blow and the sun does not shine all the time, excess electricity must be stored in batteries. Mills put that into perspective: The world’s largest battery plant, created by Tesla in Nevada for its electric vehicles, would need 500 years to make enough of the batteries it makes today to store enough electricity for just one day of current U.S. demand.
Of course, more battery plants will gradually be built, and perhaps the capacity and efficiency of batteries will also increase. But this presents a tremendous challenge if the U.S. is to end using fossil fuels, as we are told we must, in favor of renewables.
The processes to enable wind and solar energy to produce electricity, he said, are quite expensive, in environmental terms.
One electric car battery weighs half a ton. But to acquire the materials to produce it, 250 tons of earth from somewhere must be mined and processed.
One 75 mega-watt wind farm powers 75,000 homes, and requires 30,000 tons of iron ore, 50,000 tons of concrete, and 900 tons of non-recyclable plastic. And a 75 mega-watt solar farm requires 150 percent more materials — concrete, steel and glass — than a wind farm.
The rare earth and other metals needed — lithium, cobalt, copper, iridium and dysprosium — will require a massive increase in mining activity: from 200 to 2,000 percent of the mining now occurring. Rare earth materials are mostly not available in the U.S., but must be acquired from other countries Some of them, like China, are hostile to us. In 2019, China was responsible for 80 percent of rare-earth materials.
And, the equipment and processes used in acquiring and refining the materials, and constructing and installing the windmills, solar panels and batteries are powered by fossil fuels.
After about 20 years of production, these windmills and solar panels will have exhausted themselves, leaving millions of tons of non-recyclable waste behind that must be put somewhere.
Mills also said that the plastic waste from these sources will total more than twice the amount of all existing plastic waste.
Using the sun and the wind to our benefit makes perfect sense. The more seasoned readers may remember fondly your grandmother or mother hanging freshly washed clothes on the line in the back yard to dry in the sun and breeze. And then electric dryers came along.
The idea that transitioning from burning fossil fuels to wind and solar energy to produce electricity will be cleaner is false. We will trade polluting the air for producing tons of solid waste.
Too much of anything can be harmful: too much vitamin C, too much water, too much sun, too much oxygen, and too much CO2. But the environmental cost to replace fossil fuels with wind and solar power might be as expensive, or more expensive, than the cost of burning fossil fuels, in terms of the waste that is produced.
Geologist and earth scientist Professor Ian Plimer, who is called a “climate change denier” by some, said our “climate is cyclical,” and that Earth is heading to an ice age.
“We are getting towards the end of the warm period, the peak of the warmth was about 5,000 years ago and we are heading for the next inevitable ice age,” he told Sky News.
If so, someday we may want and need more CO2, not less.
James H. ‘Smokey’ Shott, a resident of Bluefield, Va., is a Daily Telegraph columnist. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org