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The True Cost of Renewable Energy

The True Cost of Renewable Energy

Abstract

Instead of a push towards renewable energy, the world should be focused on a push towards clean energy. Those two terms are often used interchangeably especially when green energy advocacy groups are pressuring policymakers to campaign for the use of wind, solar, and electric vehicles. But as the world pushes towards clean energy during the green revolution and begins the transition to renewables, we must ask ourselves: with the shift away from fossil fuels, what is the true cost of clean, green, renewable energy? 


Introduction

As the world enters a new age, policymakers have begun to shift their concentration from pandemic challenges to economic recovery. A major focus will be how to recover the lost jobs as a result of worldwide economies shutting down and forcing society to shelter in place for months on end. One focal point of economic recovery involves infrastructure restructuring plans including those in the energy industry. Green energy advocacy groups are doubling down on pressure to continue, or even increase, the use of wind, solar power, and electric cars. What gets left out of the discussion is any serious consideration for the broad environmental and supply-chain implications of “clean” renewable energy. 

What these green energy groups do not realize is all energy-producing machinery must be fabricated from materials extracted from the earth. In other words, no energy system is actually “100% renewable” since all machines require the continual mining and processing of millions of tons of raw materials during fabrication and the disposal of hardware at the lifecycle’s end once it inevitably wears out [1]. Compared with hydrocarbons, green machines entail on average a 10-fold increase in the quantities of materials extracted and processed to produce the same amount of energy [1]. Compared to fossil fuels and other energy generation methods, what is the true cost of clean, green, renewable energy?

Types of Renewables

Renewable energy, or clean energy, comes from natural sources or processes that are constantly replenished, even if their availability depends on time and weather. Examples of renewable energy include sunlight for solar panels, wind for wind turbines, water movement for hydroelectric power, and heat from the earth for geothermal energy. With increasingly innovative and less-expensive ways to capture and retain nature’s forces, renewables are becoming a more important power source, accounting for more than one-eighth of U.S. electricity generation [5]. The expansion in renewables is happening on both a large and small scale, from residential rooftop solar panels selling power back to the grid to giant offshore wind farms. 

Figure 1: Breakdown of Total Energy Consumption from 2017 [8]. 

Of the many types of renewable energy sources available on the market, this analysis investigates solar panels, electric vehicles, wind turbines, hydroelectric, and geothermal power generation to determine how clean these green sources of energy truly are. Solar, or photovoltaic (PV), cells are made from silicon or other materials that transform sunlight directly into electricity [5]. Since the sun is not always shining, solar cells are connected to battery banks in order to store energy for future use when the sun is not out (night, storms, etc.). Solar supplies a little more than 1% of U.S. electricity generation but nearly a third of all new generating capacity came from solar in 2017, second only to natural gas [5]. Luckily, solar energy systems don’t produce air pollutants or greenhouse gases, and as long as they are responsibly sited, most solar panels have few environmental impacts beyond the manufacturing process. Electric vehicles, like solar panels, utilize large batteries that can be recharged when plugged into an electric outlet. Similar to solar systems, electric vehicles have few environmental impacts beyond the manufacturing and recycling processes. 

Wind turbines are nearly the size of skyscrapers whose turbines spin in the wind to generate electricity. Wind, which accounts for a little more than 6% of U.S. generation, has become the cheapest energy source in many parts of the country and can be placed anywhere with high wind speeds such as hilltops, open plains, or even offshore in open water [5]. Hydropower is the largest renewable energy source for electricity in the United States, though wind energy is soon expected to take over the lead [5]. Hydropower typically relies on fast-moving water in a large river or rapidly descending water from a high point like a dam and converts the force of that water into electricity by spinning a generator’s turbine blades [5]. Large hydroelectric plants, or mega-dams, are often considered to be a clean renewable energy source even though they can cause substantial environmental damage as they divert and reduce natural flows, restricting access for animal and human populations relying on rivers. Lastly, geothermal power harnesses the power of the earth’s core to generate electricity. Drilling deep wells brings very hot underground water to the surface as a hydrothermal resource, creating steam, which is then pumped through a turbine to generate electricity [5]. Geothermal plants typically have low emissions if they pump the steam and water used back into the reservoir. There are ways to create geothermal plants where underground reservoirs are not present, but concerns exist they may increase the risk of earthquakes in areas already considered geological hot spots. 

Mining & Fabrication

For everything built or fabricated, one can trace a straight line back up the manufacturing stream to where heavy equipment was used to extract materials from the earth. It is obvious there is a measurable tonnage in the materials used to build bridges, skyscrapers, and cars, but it is less obvious the amount of materials needed to produce energy or energy making machines. Different forms of energy involve radically different types and quantities of materials to build energy-harvesting machines. Whether it’s liquids extracted from the earth to power internal combustion engines or solids used to build batteries, the physical elements used to power society all come from the earth and must be extracted. 

Over the past century, there have been two significant developments in the extraction sector. First, the United States has not expanded domestic mining, and in most cases the country’s production of nearly all minerals has declined [2]. Second, the demand for minerals has dramatically increased. These two intersecting trends have led to significant transformations in supply-chain dependencies. As recently as 1990, the U.S. was the world’s number-one producer of minerals, but today it is in seventh place [2]. Even though the nation has vast mineral reserves worth trillions of dollars, the United States has over half of domestic needs imported and is now 100% dependent on imports for 17 key minerals and another 29 less prevalent minerals [2]. As a result, any significant expansion of today’s level of green energy consumption will create an unprecedented increase in global mining for necessary minerals, radically exacerbate existing environmental and labor challenges in emerging markets where many mines are located, and dramatically increase U.S. imports and the vulnerability of America’s energy supply chain [1]. 

Figure 2: Percentage of Key Renewable Energy Minerals Imported in 2016 [7].

Replacing hydrocarbons with green machines at current levels will vastly increase the mining of various critical minerals around the world. Furthermore, oil, natural gas, and coal are still needed to produce the concrete, steel, plastics, and purified minerals used to build such machines. In fact, the energy equivalent of 100 barrels of oil is used in the processes to fabricate a single battery that can store the equivalent energy of one barrel of oil [2]. Additionally, a single electric vehicle (EV) car battery weighing 1,000 pounds requires the extraction and processing of about 500,000 pounds of materials [1]. Averaged over a battery’s life, each mile of driving an electric car “consumes” five pounds of earth while using an internal combustion engine consumes about 0.2 pounds of liquids per mile [1]. Not only is the extracting process much more costly, the end result is a vehicle that is no more efficient than existing internal combustion engines. 

Figure 3: Materials Required to Build Different Energy Machines [1].

All forms of renewable green energy require roughly comparable quantities of materials in order to build machines that capture nature’s energy: the sun, wind, and water. Wind farms come close to matching hydroelectric mega-dams in terms of material consumption, but solar farms outpace both. In all three cases, the largest share for material amount needed is found in conventional components like concrete, steel, and glass. Compared with a natural gas power plant, all three require at least 10 times as much material in tons mined, moved, and converted into machines to deliver the same quantity of energy [1]. From a mining and fabrication standpoint, green energy is not as clean as it is made out to be.

Recycling & Decommissioning

All machines wear out. As a result, there is nothing actually renewable about the green machines mentioned above since one must continually extract materials to build replacements for those that wear out. All this requires mining, processing, transportation and ultimately, the disposing of millions of tons of materials, much of it functionally or economically unrecyclable.  For example, building a single 100-MW wind farm requires nearly 30,000 tons of iron ore and 50,000 tons of concrete as well as 900 tons of non-recyclable plastics for the huge blades [4]. Interestingly, for solar hardware the tonnage in cement, steel, and glass is 1.5 times greater than that for wind, with the same energy output [4]. By investigating the current trends in renewable energy infrastructure investments, by 2050 the quantity of worn-out solar panels (much of which is non-recyclable) will constitute double the tonnage of all today’s global plastic waste along with over 3 million tons per year of non-recyclable plastics from decommissioned wind turbine blades [4]. Even more eye opening is the fact that by 2030 more than 10 million tons per year of batteries from solar energy systems and electric vehicles will become garbage [1]. This is garbage that cannot be recycled and can leach harmful toxins back into the environment from which they were extracted and modified. 

Figure 4: Growing Renewable Electricity Generation Into The Future [6].  

How can this problem be solved? Innovative solutions. Take the oil and gas industry as a base example. Before carbon reduction requirements and environmental concerns, the industry had free reign over their actions to pull carbon from beneath the surface. Over time, best practices were developed with industry leaders and government officials ensuring the longevity of the industry and environment went hand in hand. With the continued development of the renewable sector into the future as projected in Figure 4, more innovative solutions must be brought to the table to ensure the staying power of the industry truly aligns with the best interests of the environment. Renewable energy sources may not generate greenhouse gas emissions, but they are far from environmentally friendly. With continued investments and subsidizations from the government, this energy source can truly become another source of viable energy needed to take the energy industry to the next level. 

Conclusion

There is no doubt renewable energy is paving the way for the future of energy. Even though renewable “green” energy is not as clean as policymakers make it out to be, it could be. The oil and gas industry was incredibly harmful to the environment until industry leaders and policy makers took a step back to adopt cleaner best practices for the industry and environment. Now, the oil and gas industry is one of the most highly environmentally regulated industries and is a leader in paving a path towards clean energy in the future. If the renewable sector can follow in these footsteps, a balance can be struck between the energy required today and an energy mix that includes the clean, green energy needed in the future. If the world is ever going to move away from fossil fuels, the transition to renewable sources must be cleaner and more efficient, not just with greenhouse gas emission reductions. 

Therefore, it is important to develop a diverse energy strategy. Neither hydrocarbons nor renewables can be purely relied upon for energy consumption needs in the future. An allocation mix will continue to exist as more countries develop and energy consumption grows. Investment in renewables is necessary, but must also focus on figuring out how to make the mining, fabrication, and decommissioning process less harmful to this planet. To leave the world in better shape for future generations, a balance must be struck to include various sources for subsequent energy development. 

References 

[1] https://www.manhattan-institute.org/mines-minerals-and-green-energy-reality-check

[2] https://pubs.er.usgs.gov/publication/mcs2020

[3] https://media4.manhattan-institute.org/sites/default/files/R-0319-MM.pdf

[4] https://cleanenergysolutions.org/resources/quadrennial-technology-review-assessment-energy-technologies-research-opportunities

[5] https://www.nrdc.org/stories/renewable-energy-clean-facts#sec-whatis

[6] https://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.php?id=42655 

[7] https://www.usgs.gov/news/risk-and-reliance-us-economy-and-mineral-resources

[8] https://www.c2es.org/content/renewable-energy/


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