Alternative Energy: Environmental Boon or More of the Same?

It has been the holy grail of environmentalism for decades – an energy grid powered by clean alternatives to fossil fuel, crisscrossing the country and allowing humanity to live in harmony with nature.

Big NGOs and groups like the Sierra Club, the Green Party, and the Natural Resource Defense Council, along with smaller citizens groups and municipalities are all advocating for a rapid transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources.

“By harnessing renewable sources of energy such as solar, wind, geo-thermal, wave, biomass and others we can transform how we produce electricity,” the Sierra Club website reads. “…modern wind farms are leading the drive away from polluting sources of energy by capturing the massive wind power potential of the Midwest. Today’s solar panels efficiently transform sunlight into electricity while blending into the design of homes and office buildings.”

In Germany, the world renewables leader, more than 25% of electricity comes from renewable sources, mostly wind and hydroelectric dams. Germany plans to use 80% renewable energy by 2050.

In the United States, the numbers are more modest, with slightly less than 12% of total generation coming from green sources.

Worldwide, renewable energy accounted for only 7% of total power generation in 2008, with 85% of that total coming from hydroelectric dams.

While the Republican establishment has been quick to criticize renewable energy technologies and advocate for more fossil fuel drilling, the Democratic party and many others on the left have closed ranks on the issue, unwilling to examine some of the legitimate issues around alternatives. Like the Sierra Club, most have accepted the party line that renewable energy is the holy grail of environmentalism. The truth is much more complex.

The fundamental environmental issue with renewable technologies is that they are, as the name implies, technologies; like computers, lightbulbs, and electrical grids, they require materials to be extracted, refined, transported, and assembled.

For example, the production of the average solar cell requires mining roughly 2,000 pounds of earth — soil and rock which usually has an ecosystem on top of it. Then the metals have to be purified from the raw ore, which involves an electric arc furnace heating the material to some 3000 °F. Purifying one ton of ore in this manner requires the amount of electricity consumed by the average American household in just over two weeks – 44o kWh. The byproducts of this process include a great deal of carbon dioxide.

Wind power has similar issues. The turbines of a windmill are made of aluminum, which is refined from bauxite ore. More than 100 million metric tonnes of bauxite are mined every year, especially in Australia, Brazil, Guinea, China, Russia, Kazakhstan, and Greece. In central India, mountains containing bauxite are strip mined and blown up to extract ore. About five tons of ore and 1000 tons of water are required to produce one ton of aluminum.

The refining process requires temperatures of 3,600 °F, so most aluminum smelters are located in places where electricity is cheaply provided, often by hydroelectric dams. The main byproduct of aluminum production is called “red mud,” a highly caustic substance usually stored in tailing ponds. In 2010, a large pond at the Ajka alumina plant in Hungary was breached, killing 10 people and extinguishing all of the life in the Marcal river.

Wind turbines also require rare earth elements such as neodynium, which is used to make the powerful magnets used in turbines’ electric generators. The world’s largest source of neodynium is inner Mongolia, a region devastated by the byproducts of extraction and smelting. In the industrial city of Baotou, toxic waste from the production process is dumped into a tailings pond five miles wide; it grows by seven million tons of toxins per year.

And, of course, components that are often manufactured in China or other parts of the world must then be distributed to their final destinations, often on oceangoing vessels that burn bunker fuel, the most polluting form of oil. A single container ship of this size can release as much greenhouse gas as 50 million cars.

“It is a real dilemma for environmentalists who want to see the growth of the industry,” says Jamie Choi, a toxics expert with Greenpeace. “But we have the responsibility to recognize the environmental destruction that is being caused while making these wind turbines.”

While Greenpeace stands with the Sierra Club and others in full support of renewables, some environmentalists are pursuing their logic to it’s conclusion and condemning alternative energy along with natural gas, oil, and coal.

“People concerned with the environment are increasingly aware of the negative impacts of the giant machines and their additional supporting infrastructure (including heavy-duty roads, transformers, and powerlines) on wetlands, birds, bats, beneficial insects, and other wildlife — both directly and by degrading, fragmenting, and destroying habitat for their erection,” writes the National Wind Watch, a coalition of groups and individuals working to save rural and wild places from heedless industrial wind energy development.

Around the world, people are grappling with the dirty side of clean energy sources. In September 2011, factory workers in the Chinese city of Haining rioted, overturning police cars and destroying the property of Jinko Solar Holdings, a fast-growing company which they accuse of polluting the local rivers.

The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) issued a study indicating that 80% of US electrical generation could be supplied by renewable energy technologies by 2050. Today, it’s a little over 10%.

The national leap into renewable energy has already begun.  How that transition will effect the environment remains to be seen.