“Green” Energy Has Consequences Too

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While much has been made about the dangers of so called “dirty energy” such as coal or gas in recent years, few realize that “green” energies such as wind and solar also carry with them environmental consequences. If policymakers are to have an honest conversation about energy pros and cons, they must consider all benefits and all consequences of energy options.

For example, solar panels are made with toxic elements such as lead or cadmium that can’t be easily removed without breaking the entire glass panel. Those chemicals make it almost impossible to recycle the panel, meaning old solar panels often end up in landfills. This is deeply problematic, since broken panels mean toxic chemicals can leach into the soil and be carried away by rainwater.

There are no shortage of ideas on how to deal with solar panel waste, but implementing those ideas has proved expensive. In fact, recycling old panels costs more than building new ones, making that option an ineffective solution. Having solar panel manufacturers store the waste themselves is another idea, but that option presents new costs and new problems. Potential new costs of storing waste could even force more struggling solar firms into bankruptcy, leaving taxpayers stuck with the tab. Whatever the solution, solar waste is a problem that must be solved soon as the amount of solar panel waste in the world is expected to reach 78 million metric tons by 2050.

Another consequence of using more wind and solar power is the necessity of using rare earth minerals needed to build them. The U.S. no longer mines rare earth minerals, forcing our nation to import them from places like China or Africa where they are often mined under third-world conditions. Miners, lacking the protections and regulations of their American counterparts, are frequently exposed to dangerous chemicals. With a lack of strong regulatory oversight, the mining process in these nations, too, creates thousands of tons of toxic wastewater that can make its way into drinking water supplies. 

Finally, solar and wind power farms can also have direct environmental consequences on wildlife and land, including impacts on birds, tortoises and bats. Energy Fairness has written in the past, for example, about the environmental problems caused by California’s Ivanpah solar plant which has been responsible for the deaths of thousands of birds and bats while failing to meet expectations for power generation. Even eagles have found themselves on the losing end of renewable power.

“Regulators and politicians ignore the devastating environmental impact on the huge land areas needed by wind and solar farms,” explains Physicians for Civil Defense president Jane Orient, M.D, “while imposing costly requirements on other energy sources for relatively trivial effects.” 

”Energy poverty due to unreliable and unaffordable energy is also a major health threat,” Dr. Orient adds.

None of this is to say that green energy is inherently dangerous, but labeling some types of energy as “clean” and casting others aside as “dirty” is a facile distinction and doesn’t add much to the discourse about our shared energy future. We’ll need all types of energy to keep serving customers and fueling our future.