Clean energy’s dirty secrets

John Kane-Berman is a policy fellow at the IRR, a think-tank that promotes political and economic freedom.

WHAT could be more agreeable? Oodles of electricity free of charge and free of carbon.

Two big claims are made for solar and wind energy. One is that it is cheap. However, as this column observed last week, this claim ignores the costs of all the back-up required to keep the power on when there is no sunshine or wind.

The other claim is that solar and wind energy is “greener” – that is, cleaner, – than fossil fuels. This ignores even more contrary evidence than the renewables-are-cheapest claim. Sun and wind may come out of the sky, but the machinery to turn them into energy does not. That machinery requires mining, manufacture, and transport.

Vast expanses of land have to be turned into energy farms. Huge quantities of minerals have to be dug up and then transported, mostly across the oceans, to make batteries for energy storage. And when windmills, solar panels, and batteries have worn out, they have to be disposed of.

Because they are available only intermittently, solar and wind cannot be relied upon for the mining, manufacture, and transport of windmills and solar panels. So conventional fuels must be used. “Clean” energy systems accordingly require fossil fuels not only as backup, but cannot even be built or installed without them. Using efficient energy to help the sun and the wind provide inefficient energy is not much of a bargain for anyone other than those, prominent among them Elon Musk, involved in the supply of renewables.

Even the ever green Economist admits that wind and solar power need “a lot more” of some non-ferrous metals than do fossil fuels. Batteries store less energy than fossil fuels, while building the infrastructure to support them is a “huge task”.

A recent paper by Mark Mills, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute and a faculty member of the school of engineering and applied science at Northwestern University, gave some of the detail about the manufacture of “green machines” in the form of wind turbines, solar panels, and batteries for electric cars and other things. “Compared with hydrocarbons, green machines entail, on average, a tenfold increase in the quantity of the raw materials extracted and processed to produce the same amount of energy.”

Says Mr Mills: “Oil, natural gas, and coal are needed to produce the concrete, steel, plastics, and purified minerals used to build green machines. The energy equivalent of 100 barrels of oil is used in the process to fabricate a single battery that can store the equivalent of one barrel of oil.”

A recent article on renewables by Lars Schernikau in International Cement Review calculated that one 500 kg Tesla battery required 25-50 tons of raw materials to be mined, transported, and processed – all entailing carbon emissions. Moreover, 30 kg of coal can store as much energy as that same much heavier Tesla battery.

According to the Minerals Council South Africa (formerly the Chamber of Mines) all 39 elements in green technologies are mined or are by-products of mining. As South Africans well know, mining necessitates the excavation of vast quantities of rock by Caterpillars and other machines using fossil fuels. Much of the mining takes place in poor countries (such as the Congo) with weak environmental controls.

These weak controls then enable richer countries to use poor countries (such as Ghana, Kenya, and Mozambique) as dumping grounds for worn-out batteries, turbines, fibreglass blades, and solar panels. Since all machines wear out and have to be replaced, this process of mining and dumping never ends.

Mr Mills cites forecasts by international energy agencies that on present green plans, the quantity of worn-out and non-recyclable solar panels will constitute double the tonnage of today’s global plastic waste by 2050. More than three million tons a year of unrecyclable turbine blades will also have to be disposed of. By 2030 more than 10 million tons of batteries will become garbage each year.

If rich countries can export some of their carbon footprint and their often toxic waste, they can’t avoid the damage to their own environment resulting from turbine and solar farms. Having been produced using fossil fuels, gigantic quantities of iron ore, cement, glass, and plastics must be transported to the chosen site by trucks using fossil fuels. According to Michael Shellenberger, a former Time “hero of the environment,” solar and wind projects require on average “300-400 times more land than a nuclear or natural gas plant”. This is because of their “low power density”.

These huge wind and solar farms entail habitat loss, the destruction of bird and animal life, the desecration of the countryside, noise pollution, the glare from countless solar panels, and also sometimes the replacement of crop farming by energy (and subsidy) farming in California, the United Kingdom, and elsewhere.

What all this boils down to, in the words of W S Gilbert, is a “most intriguing paradox”. Building more and more green machines necessitates greater and greater consumption of raw materials, the burning of more and more fossil fuels, more and more carbon emissions, more and more environmental damage, and the increasing use of efficient energy to produce inefficient energy.

A strange way to combat “global warming” and “save the planet”.