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When is green not all that green? Earth Day clean energy revelations

On the 52nd Earth Day, we realized a grim reality: Many of the ways we intend to solve pressing environmental challenges are failing us badly. Renewable energy is the primary case in point.

For decades, we’ve been told by green activists that renewable energy is far better than the alternatives. Fossil fuels pollute the air, they said, and nuclear power is dogged by the problem of disposing of its waste. Wind and solar, they said, are clean, green and an increasingly cheap means of supplying the nation’s energy needs. But recent media reports demonstrate that renewable energy sources are neither green nor especially cheap.

On April 5, the Department of Justice published a news release describing the sentencing of ESI Energy LLC, a subsidiary of Nextera Energy Resources, “the world’s largest generator of renewable energy from the wind and sun.” ESI, the department said, had violated the Migratory Bird Treaty Act by killing “at least 150 bald and golden eagles.” Most were “struck by a wind turbine blade” at wind facilities across the United States.

ESI was charged more than $8 million in fines and restitution and required to implement up to $27 million in “measures intended to minimize additional eagle deaths and injuries.” Interestingly, the court also ordered ESI to “apply for permits for any unavoidable take of eagles.” The federal government told ESI it should not kill any more eagles, but if it had the right permits, more deaths would be allowed.

Eagle death-by-turbine is not the wind industry’s only problem. Industry executives have acknowledged that the industry is “all in trouble” and has “enter[ed] into a self-destructive loop,” citing inflation. Additionally, the war in Ukraine is compounding already pressing supply chain problems and “fueling [a] current lack of stability” in the industry.

These supply chain issues have driven global contract prices for renewable projects up by almost 30 percent in less than a year. Unsurprisingly, major manufacturers are reporting net losses as several wind energy developments are stalled for want of parts.

Russia’s war in Ukraine is disrupting world markets. China is a significant actor, too, with the wind and solar industries relying heavily on that country for their widely reported price drops over the past several years.

Chinese manufacturers can produce a lot of these products so cheaply because their government liberally subsidizes renewable technologies. And according to the International Trade Administration, theft of intellectual property is “widespread in China.”

Developing the infrastructure of renewable energy requires manufacturing and refining minerals and other inputs, which has environmental impacts. For decades, renewable energy developers have had incentives to relocate those impacts to China, a country with a history of relatively lax environmental regulations. (China says it is tightening those regulations, but its track record does not inspire confidence.) The solar industry recently went through a significant upheaval when news broke that as much as 45 percent of the polysilicon produced for the world’s solar market was being produced by enslaved Uyghur Muslims in China’s Xinjiang region.

Transitioning our energy supplies requires massive amounts of specific minerals and metals, including copper, lithium, cobalt, graphite, manganese, nickel and rare earth minerals. Mining and processing them on a large scale will have a profound impact on the environment.

A May 2021 report by the International Energy Agency (IEA) acknowledged that an electric vehicle uses six times more mineral inputs than a conventional vehicle. Onshore wind uses nine times the levels of minerals as a natural gas power plant. “Since 2010,” the IEA says, “the average amount of minerals needed for a new unit of power generation capacity has increased by 50 percent as the share of renewables has risen.” Work by Mark Mills of the Manhattan Institute mirrors the IEA’s findings. Widespread use of wind and solar, he says, will require that we increase mining for certain critical minerals by as much as 1,000 percent.

The original Earth Day in 1970 began with a goal of reducing human impacts on the natural environment and slowing the rapid declines in endangered species such as the bald eagle. Friday’s 52nd anniversary reminded us it’s time to admit that renewable energy sources are increasingly at cross purposes with these goals. Advocates of renewable energy may have had pure motives, but the sources to which they want to move the world’s people are not always clean, green or cheap. In fact, wind and solar impose far greater economic and environmental costs than many might like to admit.

Jason Hayes is director of environmental policy at the Mackinac Center for Public Policy in Midland, Mich. Follow him on Twitter @jasonthayes.

Tags Fossil fuels Renewable energy Solar power in the United States

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