Clean energy isn’t clean
Wind turbines and solar panels don’t grow on trees
Wind and solar energy do not generate much electricity, but they have a great power to cloud people’s minds. It is now fairly well known that wind and solar can pose serious threats to the nation’s wildlife — from endangered right whales to tens of thousands of bird deaths each year from solar. But optimistic green energy advocates still don’t realize the many environmental impacts associated with manufacturing, maintaining, and disposing of solar panels and wind turbines.
It takes a great deal of material to produce solar panels and wind turbines. Wind and solar energy technologies collect diffuse and intermittent gusts of wind and rays of sunlight to generate electricity, which means they have a very low energy density in comparison to other generation technologies, like fossil fuels or nuclear.
Because of the diffuse nature of their fuel sources, renewables consume orders of magnitude more materials for the same electricity output, thereby causing greater environmental burdens than do more dense energy sources.
A single 100-megawatt natural gas-fired turbine about as large as a residential house will power 75,000 homes. Replacing that energy output with wind requires 20 wind turbines that occupy around 10 square miles of land, and it also needs “enormous quantities of conventional materials, including concrete, steel, and fiberglass, along with less common materials, including ‘rare earth’ elements such as dysprosium,” Mark Mills, senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, wrote in a 2020 report.
Increased demands for materials leads to the first major impact: Wind and solar require massive increases in mining.
“Global mining today already accounts for about 40 percent of worldwide industrial energy use” Mills wrote. But “renewable plans proposed or underway will require from 400 percent to 8,000 percent more mining for dozens of minerals, from copper and nickel, to aluminum, graphite, and lithium.” The energy system “is dominated by hydrocarbons, and will be for decades,” Mills told the House Energy and Commerce Committee in April.
After the materials are mined, the wind turbines and solar panels must be manufactured. Construction materials—steel, glass and concrete—are produced in energy and emissions-intensive industries (cement/concrete and steel production account for 7% each of global CO2 emissions). The industry relies on iron smelting, cement kilns, petrochemical feedstocks and fuels for plastics and fiberglass. Fossil fuels are also needed to power ships, trucks and construction equipment, as well as providing lubricants for gearboxes on turbines.
In 2021, wind and solar combined to produce less than 5% of total U.S. primary energy. But President Biden has targeted “achieving a carbon pollution-free power sector by 2035 and net zero emissions economy by no later than 2050.”
“If wind turbines were to supply half the world’s electricity,” explains Mills, “nearly 2 billion tons of coal [around one quarter of all global coal use] would have to be consumed to produce the concrete and steel, along with 1.5 billion barrels of oil to make the composite blades.”
Economic and environmental damages aren’t the only problems with wind and solar power. There’s a third problem of moral cleanliness. Around half of the world’s polysilicon, a key ingredient in solar cells, is made in Xinjiang, China, where Uyghur Muslims are enslaved to produce it.
The majority of the world’s cobalt (over 70% in 2021) is mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Cobalt is essential to manufacture the batteries that will be needed to provide backup for wind and solar and to power electric vehicles.
“As of 2022, there is no such thing as a clean supply chain of cobalt from the Congo. All cobalt sourced from the DRC is tainted by various degrees of abuse, including slavery, child labor, forced labor, debt bondage, human trafficking, hazardous and toxic working conditions, pathetic wages, injury and death, and incalculable environmental harm,” Siddharth Kara wrote in his shocking exposé Cobalt Red.
I don’t know about you, but I prefer my energy, metals and minerals to be produced by well-paid roughnecks and miners under strict labor and environmental regulations rather than extracted under compulsion by poverty-stricken Congolese children or enslaved Uyghurs.
Finally, wind turbines and solar panels don’t last forever. Solar and wind energy sources are said to last an average of 25 years (though in practice, wind is often “repowered” after a median of only 10 years). As a result, the process of extraction and production is renewed in half the time, as the old panels and turbines must be disposed of.
“Clean” energy waste is nothing to scoff at, either. Many of the materials used to manufacture solar panels can be toxic, and if disposed of improperly, they can leach into drinking water.
Similarly, wind power will create “over 3 million tons per year of unrecyclable plastics from worn-out wind turbine blades,” according to Mills. “When the 20 wind turbines that constitute just one small 100-MW wind farm wear out, decommissioning and trashing them will lead to fourfold more nonrecyclable plastic trash than all the world’s (recyclable) plastic straws combined. There are 1,000 times more wind turbines than that in the world today.”
Both wind turbines and solar panels are coated with PFAS sealants. PFAS-covered waste in landfills has a record of leaching into groundwater. The Biden administration’s Environmental Protection Agency has proposed a pollution limit of these “forever chemicals” of four parts per trillion. That limit is almost certainly far too stringent to be reasonable, but if the administration is serious, it will need to hold wind and solar to a special, more lenient standard than other forms of electricity generation.
So is using wind and solar any better than burning fossil fuels? This is a false dichotomy. Wind and solar energy infrastructure would not exist without the fossil fuels needed to manufacture it. And the intermittency of wind and solar means “that some of the renewable advantage of ‘clean energy’ is offset by extra gas burned inefficiently as backup,” wrote Meredith Angwin in her book “Shorting the Grid.”
“Do not be fooled by the idea that a high renewable percentage is the most virtuous form of grid,” Angwin wrote.
This is especially the case if the grid isn’t stable. If green virtue is obtained only by ceasing the use of fossil fuels, renewables are entirely virtue-free.
Wind and solar simply shift fossil fuel usage from the electric generation portion of the life cycle toward the more inefficient backup role and increased use manufacture and disposal.
Recent data reported by nonprofit Environmental Progress show that because China powers its solar industry with coal, it’s quite likely that solar ends up more carbon-intensive than carbon-capture-aided natural gas.
Ostensibly clean wind and solar are “critically dependent on specific fossil energies,” according to scientist and policy analyst Vaclav Smil. “We have no nonfossil substitutes that would be readily available on the requisite large commercial scales.”
While nuclear offers a form of genuinely clean, scalable electricity generation, it’s nigh-impossible to build in the U.S.
In the end, wind and solar aren’t “clean” by environmentalists’ own standards. If environmentalists were to scrutinize wind and solar as much as fossil and nuclear power, they might find the benefits of the energy transition outweighed by its costs.
Joshua Antonini is a research analyst in energy and environmental policy at the Mackinac Center. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Michigan Capitol Confidential is the news source produced by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy. Michigan Capitol Confidential reports with a free-market news perspective.