By Don Fitz
The fiftieth anniversary of the first Earth Day of 1970 will be in 2020. As environmentalism has gone mainstream during that half a century, it has forgotten its early focus and shifted toward green capitalism. Nowhere is this more apparent than abandonment of the slogan popular during the early Earth Days: “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.”
The unspoken phrase of today’s Earth Day is “Recycle, Occasionally Reuse, and Never Utter the Word ‘Reduce.’” A quasi taboo on saying “reduce” permeates the lexicon of twenty-first century environmentalism. Confronting the planned obsolescence of everyday products rarely, if ever, appears as an ecological goal. The concept of possessing fewer objects and smaller homes has surrendered to the worship of ecogadgets. The idea of redesigning communities to make them compact so individual cars would not be necessary has been replaced by visions of universal electric cars. The saying “Live simply so that others can simply live” now draws empty stares. Long forgotten are the modest lifestyles of Buddha, Jesus and Thoreau.
When the word “conservation” is used, it is almost always applied to preserving plants or animals and rarely to conserving energy. The very idea of re-imagining society so that people can have good lives as they use less energy has been consumed by visions of the infinite expansion of solar/wind power and the oxymoron, “100% clean energy.”
But … wait – aren’t solar and wind power inherently clean? No, and that is the crux of the problem. Many have become so distraught with looming climate catastrophe that they turn a blind eye to other threats to the existence of life. Shortsightedness by some who rightfully denounce “climate change denial” has led to a parallel unwillingness to recognize dangers built into other forms of energy production, a problem which can be called “clean energy danger denial.”
Obviously, fossil fuels must be replaced by other forms of energy. But those energy sources have such negative properties that using less energy should be the beginning point, the ending point and occupy every in-between point on the path to sane energy use. What follows are “The 15 Unstated Myths of Clean, Renewable Energy.” Many are so absurd that no one would utter them, yet they are ensconced within the assumption that massive production of solar and wind energy can be “clean.”
Myth 1. “Clean energy” is carbon neutral
The fallacious belief that “clean” energy does not emit greenhouse gases (GHGs) is best exemplified by nuclear power, which is often included in the list of alternative energy sources. It is, of course, true that very little GHGs are released during the operation of nukes. But it is wrong to ignore the use of fossil fuels in the construction (and ultimate decommissioning) of the power plant as well as the mining, milling, transport and eternal storage of nuclear material. To this must be added the fossil fuels used in the building of the array of machinery to make nukes possible and the disruption of aquatic ecosystems from the emptying of hot water.
Similarly, examination of the life cycle of producing other “carbon neutral” energy reveals that they all require machinery which is heavily dependent on fossil fuels. Steel, cement and plastics are central to “renewable” energy and have heavy carbon footprints. One small example: The mass of an industrial wind turbine is 90% steel.
Myth 2. “Clean energy” is inexhaustible because the sun will always shine and the wind will always blow
This statement assumes that all that is needed for energy is sunshine and wind, which is not the case. Sunshine and wind do not equal solar power and wind power. The transformation into “renewable” energy requires minerals which are non-renewable and difficult to access.
Myth 3. “Clean energy” does not produce toxins
Knowledge that the production of fossil fuels is associated with a high level of poisons should not lead us to ignore the level of toxins involved in the extraction and processing of lithium, cobalt, copper, silver, aluminum, cadmium, indium, gallium, selenium, tellurium, neodymium, and dysprosium. Would a comparison of toxins associated with the production of clean energy to fossil fuels be an open admission of the dirtiness of what is supposed to be “clean?”
Another example: “Processing one ton of rare earths necessary for alternative energy produces 2,000 tons of toxic waste.” Similar to what happens with Myth 2, toxins may not be produced during the operation of solar and wind power but permeate other stages of their existence.
Myth 4. “Clean energy” does not deplete or contaminate drinkable water
Though water is usually thought of for agriculture and cooling in nuclear power plants, it is used in massive amounts for manufacturing and mining. The manufacture of a single auto requires 350,000 liters of water.
In 2015, the US used 4 billion gallons of water for mining and 70% of that comes from groundwater. Water is used for separating minerals from rocks, cooling machinery and dust control. Even industry apologists admit that “Increased reliance on low ore grades means that it is becoming necessary to extract a higher volume of ore to generate the same amount of refined product, which consumes more water.” Julia Adeney Thomas points out that “producing one ton of rare earth ore (in terms of rare earth oxides) produces 200 cubic meters of acidic wastewater.”
Myth 5. “Clean energy” does not require very much land usage
In fact, “clean” energy could well have more effect on land use than fossil fuels. According to Jasper Bernes, “To replace current US energy consumption with renewables, you’d need to devote at least 25-50 % of the US landmass to solar, wind, and biofuels.”
Something else is often omitted from contrasts between energy harvesting. Fossil fuel has a huge effect on land where it is extracted but relatively little land is used at the plants where the fuel is burned for energy. In contrast, solar/wind power requires both land where raw materials are mined plus the vast amount of land used for solar panels or wind “farms.”
Myth 6. “Clean energy” has no effect on plant and animal life
Contrary to the belief that there is no life in a desert, the Mojave is teeming with plant and animal life whose habitat will be increasingly undermined as it is covered with solar collectors. It is unfortunate that so many who express concern for the destruction of coral reefs seem blissfully unaware of the annihilation of aquatic life wrought by deep sea mining of minerals for renewable energy components.
Wind harvesting can be a doomsday machine for forests. As Ozzie Zehner warns: “Many of the planet’s strongest winds rip across forested ridges. In order to transport 50-ton generator modules and 160-foot blades to these sites, wind developers cut new roads. They also clear strips of land … for power lines and transformers. These provide easy access to poachers as well as loggers, legal and illegal alike.”
As the most productive land for solar/wind extraction is used first, that requires the continuous expansion of the amount of land (or sea bed) taken as energy use increases. The estimate that 1 million species could be made extinct in upcoming decades will have to be up-counted to the extent that “clean” energy is mixed in with fossil fuels.
Myth 7. “Clean energy” production has no effect on human health
Throughout the centuries of capitalist expansion workers have struggled to protect their health and families have opposed the poisoning of their communities. This is not likely to change with an increase in “clean” energy. What will change is the particular toxins which compromise health.
Creating silicon wafers for solar cells “releases large amounts of sodium hydroxide and potassium hydroxide. Crystalline-silicon solar cell processing involves the use or release of chemicals such as phosphine, arsenic, arsine, trichloroethane, phosphorous oxycholoride, ethyl vinyl acetate, silicon trioxide, stannic chloride, tantalum pentoxide, lead, hexavalent chromium, and numerous other chemical compounds.” The explosive gas silane is also used and more recent thin-film technologies employ toxic substances such as cadmium.
Wind technology is associate with its own problems. Caitlin Manning reports on windmill farms in the Trans Isthmus Corridor of Mexico: “which is majority Indigenous and dependent on agriculture and fishing. The concrete bases of the more than 1,600 wind turbines have severely disrupted the underground water flows … Despite promises that they could continue to farm their lands, fences and security guards protecting the turbines prevent farmers from moving freely. The turbines leak oil into the soil and sometimes ignite … many people have suffered mental problems from the incessant noise.”
Though the number of health problems documented for fossil fuels is vastly more than those for solar/wind, the latter have been used on an industrial scale for a much shorter time, making it harder for links to show up. The Precautionary Principle states that a dangerous process should be proven safe before use rather than waiting until after damage has been done. Will those who have correctly insisted that the Precautionary Principle be employed for fracking and other fossil fuel processes demand an equivalent level of investigation for “clean” energy or give it the same wink and nod that petrochemical magnates have enjoyed?
Myth 8. People are happy to have “clean energy” harvested or its components mined where they live
Swooping windmill blades can produce constant car-alarm-level noise of about 100 decibels, and, if they ice up, they can fling it off at 200 miles per hour. It is not surprising that indigenous people of Mexico are not alone in being less than thrilled about having them next door. Since solar panels and windmills can only be built where there is lots of sun or wind, their neighbors are often high-pressured into accepting them unwillingly.
Obviously, components can be mined only where they exist, leading to a non-ending list of opponents. Naveena Sadasivam gives a few examples from the very long list of communities confronting extraction for “clean” energy components: “Indigenous communities in Alaska have been fighting to prevent the mining of copper and gold at Pebble Mine in Bristol Bay, home to the world’s largest sockeye salmon fishery and a crucial source of sustenance. The proposed mine … has been billed by proponents as necessary to meet the growing demand for copper, which is used in wind turbines, batteries, and solar panels. Similar stories are playing out in Norway, where the Sámi community is fighting a copper mine, and in Papua New Guinea, where a company is proposing mining the seabed for gold and copper.”
Myth 9. No one is ever killed due to disputes over energy extraction or harvesting
When Asad Rehman wrote in May 2019 that environmental conflicts are responsible for “the murder of two environmental defenders each and every week,” his data was out of date within two months. By July 2019 Global Witness (GW) had tabulated that “More than three people were murdered each week in 2018 for defending their land and our environment.” Their report found that mining was the deadliest economic sector, followed by agriculture, with water resources such as dams in third place. Commenting on the GW findings, Justine Calma wrote “Although hydropower has been billed as ‘renewable energy,’ many activists have taken issue with the fact large dams and reservoirs have displaced indigenous peoples and disrupted local wildlife.”
GW recorded one murder sparked by wind power. Murders traceable to “clean” energy will certainly increase if it out-produces energy from fossil fuels. The largest mass murder of earth defenders that GW found in 2018 was in India “over the damaging impacts of a copper mine in the southern state of Tamil Nadu.” Copper is a key element for “clean” energy.
Myth 10. One watt of “clean energy” will replace one watt from use of fossil fuels
Perhaps the only virtue that fossil fuels have is that their energy is easier to store than solar/wind power. Solar and wind power are intermittent, which means they can be collected only when the sun is shining or the wind is blowing. Storing and retrieving their energy requires complex processes that result in substantial loss of energy. Additionally, the characteristics of solar panels means that tiny fragments such as dust or leaves can block the surface.
Therefore, their efficiency will be much less under actual operating conditions than they are under ideal lab conditions. A test described by Ozzie Zehner found that solar arrays rated at 1000 watts actually produced 200-400 watts in the field. Similarly, Pat Murphy notes that while a coal plant operates at 80-90% of capacity, wind turbines do so at 20-30% of capacity. Since they perform at low efficiencies, both solar and wind energy require considerably more land than misleading forecasts predict. This, in turn, increases all of the problems with habitat loss, toxic emissions, human health and land conflicts.
Myth 11. “Clean energy” is as efficient as fossil fuels in resource use
Processes needed for storing and retrieving energy from intermittent sources renders them extremely complex. Solar/wind energy can be stored for night use by using it to pump water uphill and, when energy is needed, letting it flow downhill to turn turbines for electricity. Or, it can be stored in expensive, large and heavy batteries. Wind turbines “can pressurize air into hermetically sealed underground caverns to be tapped later for power, but the conversion is inefficient and suitable geological sites are rare.” Daniel Tanuro estimates that “Renewable energies are enough to satisfy human needs, but the technologies needed for their conversion are more resource-intensive than fossil technologies: it takes at least ten times more metal to make a machine capable of producing a renewable kWh than to manufacture a machine able to produce a fossil kWh.”
Myth 12. Improved efficiency can resolve problems of “clean energy”
This is perhaps the most often-stated illusion of green energy. Energy efficiency (EE) is the same as putting energy on sale. Shoppers do not buy less of something on sale – they buy more. Stan Cox describes research showing that at the same time air conditioners became 28% more efficient, they accounted for 37% more energy use. Findings such as this are due both to users keeping their houses cooler and more people buying air conditioners. Similarly, at the same time as automobiles showed more EE, energy use for transportation went up. This is because more drivers switched from sedans to SUVs or small trucks and there were many more drivers and cars on the road.
EE parallels increased energy consumption not just because of increased use of one specific commodity, but also because it allows people to buy other commodities which are also energy-intensive. It spurs corporations to produce more energy-guzzling objects to dump on the market. Those people who do not want this additional stuff are likely to put more money in the bank and the bank lends out that money to multiple borrowers, many of whom are businesses which use the loans to increase their production.
Myth 13. Recycling “clean energy” machine components can resolve its problems
This myth vastly overestimates the proportion of materials that can actually be recycled and understates the massive amount of “clean” energy being advocated. Kris De Decker point out that “… a 5 MW wind turbine produces more than 50 tonnes of plastic composite waste from the blades alone.” If a solar/wind infrastructure could actually be constructed to replace all energy from fossil fuel, it would be the most enormous build-up in human history. Many components could be recycled, but it is not possible to recycle more than 100% of components and the build-up would require an industrial growth rate of 200%, 300% or maybe much more.
Myth 14. Whatever problems there are with “clean energy” will work themselves out
Exactly the opposite is true. Problems of “clean” energy will become worse as resources are used up, the best land for harvesting solar and wind power is taken, and the rate of industrial expansion increases. Obtaining power will become more vastly difficult as there are diminishing returns on new locations for mining and placing solar collectors and wind mills.
Myth 15. There Is No Alternative
This repeats Margaret Thatcher’s right-wing perspective which is reflected in the claim that “We have to do something because moving a little bit in the right direction is better than doing nothing at all.” The problem is that expanding energy production is a step in the wrong direction, not the right direction.
The alternative to overgrowing “clean” energy is remembering what was outlined before. The concept of conserving energy is an age-old philosophy embodied in use of the word “reduce.” Those who only see the horrible potential of climate change have an unfortunate tendency to mimic the behavior of climate change deniers as they themselves deny the dangers of alternative energy.
Kris De Decker traces the roots of toxic wind power not to wind power itself but to hubristic faith in unlimited energy growth: “For more than two thousand years, windmills were built from recyclable or reusable materials: wood, stone, brick, canvas, metal. If we would reduce energy demand, smaller and less efficient wind turbines would not be a problem.”
Every form of energy production has difficulties. “Clean, renewable energy” is neither clean nor renewable. There can be good lives for all people if we abandon the goal of infinite energy growth. Our guiding principle needs to be that the only form of truly clean energy is less energy.
Don Fitz (firstname.lastname@example.org) has taught Environmental Psychology at Washington University and Fontbonne University in St. Louis. He is on the Editorial Board of Green Social Thought, newsletter editor for the Green Party of St. Louis and was the 2016 candidate of the Missouri Green Party for Governor. A version of this article appeared in GreenSocialThought.org