But Is “Green” Really “Green?” by Birgitta Jansen
The article that follows is long and detailed, but the subject ought not be dismissed casually.
The extensive documentation in end notes may be accessed at the Desert Report website by going to the bottom margin on any page and clicking on “reference.”
Since the 1950s, the chorus of voices warning of looming environmental issues has increased exponentially. Countless warnings are now coming from many different directions including the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). Other credible groups and individuals include indigenous peoples, scientists, ecologists, naturalists, biologists, farmers, writers, artists, poets, school children, and environmental activists, to name but a few. However despite mounting indisputable scientific evidence, these warnings still encounter an almost insurmountable resistance from a large number of politicians and corporations as well as from a large segment of the population. This is what we are facing today.
Although the focus tends to be on climate change, climate change is but one aspect of a much larger problem, namely the environmental crisis. Climate change needs to be viewed in the context of the planet’s biosphere. The biosphere is a complex web of life consisting of innumerable factors and variables many of which are not known or fully understood. The biosphere is a closed system and all resources, regardless of how abundant they may seem, are finite. What we have now is all we that we will have in our future. If we concentrate our efforts mainly on climate change and eliminating fossil fuel emissions to alleviate climate change, we may succeed in reducing emissions but we will soon find ourselves stuck in another jar of pickles.
In spite of all the information now available to us, we are once again launching ourselves into resource intensive processes which may turn out to be as destructive as the fossil fuel industry − just in different ways. We seem to be intent on replacing one set of problems with another set of problems. This is illustrated with issues associated with the following examples: industrial solar developments; wind turbines, lithium extraction, and deep sea mining. We may consider the transition currently underway “green” but “green” has come to cover many sins.
INDUSTRIAL SOLAR DEVELOPMENTS
Solar panels have a long list of ingredients such as crystalline silicon, silicon nitrite, solar cell sealant, silicon rubber (or Ethelyne-Vinyl), aluminum, tempered glass, plexiglass, Mylar or Tedlar, and rare earth metals. Cables associated with installations are aluminum or copper and covered by heat resistant thermoplastic. (1) Thin-film PV technologies contain metals such as tellurium, cadmium, indium and silver.
Silicon is one of two most abundant compounds in the Earth’s crust (14 percent). It is mined for use in industry both as sand and as vein or lode deposits. The latter is found in rocks like granite, gneiss, and sandstone. (2) (3)
The issue here is that converting sand into high grade silicon requires massive amounts of energy. The high-purity silicon required by a diverse range of industries is produced from quartz sand and processed with carbon in an arc furnace to temperatures around 2200 degrees C. (4) (5)
The frames of the solar panels are usually made from aluminum, also a common element in the Earth crust (approximately 8 percent). The problem is that it is not found in isolation like gold or silver but as a compound in one of 270 different minerals. This means that a complex and resource intensive process is needed to purify it for industrial use. (6)
Mining aluminum, used for solar panels’ casing and the system’s cables, involves three stages: the extraction of bauxite ore, refining the ore to recover alumina, and smelting alumina to produce metallic aluminum. The ore extraction is a surface operation, referred to as open-cut mining, and done by removing topsoil and overburden with bulldozers and scrapers followed by a complex seven step process to produce aluminum ingots. (7)
The production of aluminum requires “15 kilowatt hours of electricity to produce just 1 kilogram (2.2 pounds) of aluminum. (8) The process from bauxite to alumina uses such vast amounts of electricity that it is economical for some companies to build their own hydroelectric plants, reservoirs, and dams to ensure their power supply. These developments are not always welcomed by local inhabitants. For instance, a dam built in Iceland generated a great deal of conflict about its environmental impact. For many years environmentalists fought to stop the project because the lake created by the dam would also destroy prime habitat for the country’s reindeer and wild geese in one of Europe’s largest tracts of untainted wilderness. They literally begged Alcoa, the largest aluminum producer of aluminum in the world, not to go ahead with the project. Their protests were unsuccessful. (9)
The main waste product that is produced in the processing of bauxite is red mud. It is high in calcium and sodium hydroxide and a potential source of pollution. It is stored in large ponds lined with clay or synthetic liners. (10) Over time these liners are at risk of failure which can lead to significant environmental pollution.
Another product used in the production of solar panels are the backsheets made of a stretched polyester material (biaxially-oriented polyethylene terephthalate) called Mylar, or Tedlar which is another name for polymer polyvinyl fluoride. Both are synthetically produced. (11) Mylar, a trademark of Dupont, Hoechst and Imperial Chemical Industries, is regarded as “dirty” in production and “dirty” to dispose of. This product is not biodegradable. (12)
The mining of rare earth metals, used in the manufacturing of solar panels, involves land-use exploitation, environmental damage, and an ecological burden in the same way as any other mining operation. These mining operations are extremely energy intensive processes, emitting carbon dioxide in the air and toxins in the ground which can have consequences for human health. (13) Rare earth metals (actually not rare but difficult to extract) that are used in solar systems include indium, selenium, tellurium, terbium, molybdenum, cadmium, titanium dioxide, and gallium.(14)
Dustin Mulvaney, Associate Professor, University of California, Santa Cruz, regards mining and land use the biggest concerns with regard to industrial solar developments. He points out that solar panels and batteries are regarded as coupled, integrated systems which include not only the panels but also the batteries, inverters, and cables. In these systems small amounts of gold, nickel, cobalt and other metals are used, all of which require mining. He adds that the lack of safety protocols and worker protection measures in various countries where the mining takes place presents a serious issue. The use of child labor, as permitted in the cobalt mines in the Congo, cannot be tolerated. There are also reports that Uyghurs, detained in forced labor camps in China, are used in the manufacturing process of solar panels. Forty-five percent of the global polysilicon supply comes from the Uyghur region. (15)
The average life cycle of solar panels is approximately 25 to 30 years as the efficiency of their functioning degrades over time. What happens with them when they are done is another matter.
At the moment the capacity to recycle solar panels is minimal. It costs an estimated $20 to $30 to recycle one panel but only $1 to $2 to send it to a landfill. The official projection of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) is that large numbers of discarded solar panels are anticipated by the early 2030’s, and these could total 78 million tons by the year 2050. An article in the Harvard Business Review points out that, “The economics of solar, so bright-seeming from the vantage point of 2021, would darken quickly as the industry sinks under the weight of its own trash.” (16)
A turbine is a complicated electromechanical system consisting of a concrete block that forms the foundation and is usually placed underground, a round tubular steel tower, the nacelle (the ‘nerve center” of the turbine), the hub and the blades.
The nacelle houses all the components that run the turbine such as the rotor, gearbox, generator, inverters, hydraulics, pitch system, yaw system, the low and high speed shafts, the main shaft bearing, the controller, and the mechanical brake assembly. (17) This is the short version. The nacelles can be over fifty feet long, can weigh up to 300 tons, and house more than 1,500 small and large components. (18) The hub is attached to the front of the nacelle, and the blades are attached to the hub.
Considerable resources are needed to build even an average 3-megawatt wind turbine. It has nearly 5 tons of copper wiring in it, 2 tons of rare earth elements, and over 1200 tons of concrete. (19) Resources are also used in building the factories where parts are manufactured, in the assembly of the turbines, and in the transportation of parts to their final destinations. There is a YouTube video that is quite illuminating. (20) While watching this video one realizes that the ingenuity, competence, and capability of humankind is on full display. Regardless of how one feels about wind turbines, what has been achieved is impressive.
The life span of a turbine is currently approximately 20 years, but about 85 percent of all wind turbine components can be recycled or reused such as the steel, copper wire, electronics and gearing materials. (21) The problem however, is with the blades.
Blades were once made primarily with fiberglass but many companies are transitioning to using composite carbon fiber materials. This material is more costly, but it weighs less than fiberglass. This means that the blades made from composite carbon fiber are lighter and can therefore be made longer which results in increased efficiency.
But the blades, regardless of whether they are made from fiberglass or carbon fiber, cannot be recycled. Many companies are scrambling to find a way to do so, and many proposals are being considered, but none have been proven viable thus far. Blades from turbines are piling up the world over. There are only a few specific landfills that will accept the blades here in the U.S., and “it is estimated that up to 8,000 wind turbine blades will be removed and sent to landfills in Lake Mills, IO, Sioux Falls, SD, Casper, WY, and several others. In Casper, Wyoming, for example, a total of 1,000 fiberglass turbine blades were disposed of between September 2020 and March 2021.” (22)
Approximately 90 percent of the carbon fibers are made from a chemical called polyacrylonitrile (PAN) which is petroleum based. (23) The process produces a lot of heat and yields a toxic by-product. (24), (25)
Polyacrylonitrile is also known as polyvinyl cyanide. (26) Acrylonitrile is an important monomer used in the manufacturing of this plastic, which is regarded as reactive and toxic even at low doses and has been found harmful to aquatic life. (27) However the toxicological properties don’t appear to be fully understood. It can only leave one to wonder, what will happen to them in a landfill over time?
Lithium was first discovered in the 1790s on a Swedish island by a Brazilian chemist. It has found uses in both nuclear physics and in medicine where it is the basis for an antidepressant and mood stabilizing medication for those suffering from bi-polar disorder. (28)
In 1991 the first commercial lithium batteries appeared on the market. Since they could be recharged, they soon became popular. However, these batteries come at a significant cost to the environment.
Lithium is a non-renewable resource extracted from either igneous rocks called pegmatite or brine found in salt flats. With salt-flat mining, the process requires large evaporation ponds that are dug out of the salt flats. One set of evaporation ponds in Chile’s Atacama Desert is 5 km (approximately 3 miles) long. (29)
Like most mining ventures, both extraction methods require a great deal of energy and water. Local water supplies are contaminated and considerable mining waste is left. It also irreversibly damages landscapes and ecosystems. Unfortunately, it is currently cheaper to mine fresh product than recycle and repurpose what has already been mined.
Other battery metals include cobalt, nickel, and manganese, all of which need to be mined. As previously mentioned, the mining of cobalt, especially in the Congo, has raised red flags considering the abusive working conditions and use of child labor. The industry is therefore moving away from using cobalt.
Much needed graphite, a non-metal, also requires mining. Lithium makes up only 2 percent of the battery cell mass whereas graphite makes up approximately 33 percent. (30)
The average lithium-ion battery, such as the one used in cell phones, has an approximate lifespan of 300 to 500 charge/discharge cycles. Under ideal conditions, a battery should last for more than a year. (31) Some estimates are for two to three years, but their power does degrade over time. For batteries in power tools, it might be around 3 years or 1,000 charging cycles. (32) Car batteries are built to last approximately 10 years under normal driving conditions, but they degrade by approximately 2.3 percent annually.
This brings us to the garbage heap of the future. “Industry analysts predict approximately 11 million tons of these batteries will reach the end of their life cycle by 2030.” (33)
Once in the landfill, the battery cells can release hazardous materials including heavy metals. (34) Even if recycling becomes a more viable alternative, it remains a potential hazardous undertaking to dig into an EV battery. It could easily short circuit, combust, and release toxic fumes. Recycling wasn’t on the program when the car batteries were designed.
The World Bank estimates a 965 percent increase in lithium demand from 2017 production levels to 2050, which would amount to approximately 43,000 thousand tonnes. (35)
Recycling could not possibly meet that demand.
And there are other issues. As Lucy Crane, a senior geologist with Cornish Lithium Ltd., outlines, the process from brine to battery for an electric vehicle, is a major trip. Once the lithium-enriched solution comes out of the evaporation ponds, it is most likely shipped to China to be refined into battery grade chemicals. From there it travels to South Korea to be put into batteries for electric cars. These batteries are then shipped to factories in Europe and other locations to be put into electric vehicles. As Crane points out in her TEDxTruro talk < https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aWTkiQ64u_U >, the sme components of an average battery for an electric vehicle will travel 50,000 km (31,069 miles) before the car has even driven a single mile.
It is not surprising lithium is becoming known in the mining industry as “grey gold.” (36) Another article describes the push as “The Lithium Gold Rush.” (37) That should make one feel a little uneasy. We can still see the damage wrought by the fevered gold rush in the mid-1800s into the early 1900s, which left environmental degradation, toxic waste, and other garbage in its wake. We don’t seem to learn from history.
DEEP SEA MINING
The push for “green energy” does not stop at the edge of terra firma. Deep Sea Mining is seen as “the new frontier in mining,” although it has been going on for some time already. For example, on Africa’s west coast, the seabed is scraped in search of diamonds, and in the territorial waters of Papua New Guinea, fields of hot springs are being shattered in search of precious metals. Japan and South Korea are also searching for offshore deposits that could be mined. (38)
But now mining companies are turning to International waters where potato sized accretions, called polymetallic nodules, are found. These nodules are unattached and strewn on the ocean floor at a depth of roughly 5000 meters (16,404 feet). This environment is described as pristine. (39)
The average sedimentation rate on the ocean floor is 1 mm every thousand years. The nodules grow 1 cm every million years. For one of those nodules to have reached the size of a potato took 10 million years. (40)
Most unfortunate for the diverse array of creatures that call this area home, these polymetallic nodules have considerable amounts of manganese, nickel, copper, and cobalt in them. These metals, especially nickel and cobalt, are critical to the development of lithium-ion batteries and other applications that are part of the transition to “green energy.” The World Bank predicted that by 2050, the demand for cobalt and nickel for use in EV’s will increase by 1000 percent. (41)
The nodules consist almost entirely of useable materials, and unlike ores mined on land, they do not contain toxic levels of heavy elements. This means there is 99 percent less toxic waste. (42) This makes mining the ocean floor a rather attractive proposition to the mining industry and many others who have an interest in the green energy business.
Much talked about is the Clarion-Clipperton Fracture Zone in the Pacific Ocean between Mexico and Hawaii, where the nodules are abundant. What worries scientists and environmentalists most is that so little is known about the various ecosystems and what the potential impact of scraping the ocean floor could be on these ecosystems. The expectation is that it will be significant. And to be truthful, we can’t really know until in retrospect.
The mining operations that are planned would involve “large, robotic machines to excavate the ocean floor in a way that is similar to strip mining on land. The materials are pumped up to the surface operations vessel, while wastewater and debris are dumped into the ocean, forming large sediment clouds underwater.” (43) To consider the process to be excavation might be a bit of an overstatement, but there is no doubt that the ocean bottom, and creatures that cannot get out of the way quickly enough, will be severely impacted by both the weight of the machinery that will be used and the resulting debris plumes.
The process actually produces two sediment plumes: one that is immediately associated with the machinery that is collecting the nodules and another one that is created by returning sediment and waste to the ocean. This plume is of considerable concern to scientists because it may have a widespread impact. Although the International Seabed Authority (ISA) projects that these plumes will not travel more than 61 miles, research attempting to track how far these plumes will travel and their impact has been inconclusive. What can be said, however, is that where there is mining there will be destruction of the ecosystems. A short video about the process as planned, was put together by a UK mining company: (44)
Nineteen permits have been issued to mining companies by the (ISA) for exploration in the Clarion-Clipperton Fracture Zone. Twelve more permits have been issued for exploration elsewhere for polymetallic sulphides and cobalt rich crusts. (45)
The NGO Mining Watch Canada, in collaboration with the Ocean Foundation’s Deep Sea Mining Campaign, published a detailed report in 2020. They reviewed over 250 science based articles on deep sea mining and based on their conclusions they are calling for a moratorium on regulations that would permit companies to begin mining. They believe that the risks need to be better understood and that alternatives must be explored. (46) The PDF of the report is available on the following website: https://miningwatch.ca/sites/default/files/nodule_mining_in_the_pacific_ocean.pdf.
And here we find ourselves on the horns of dilemma. We know that the need for energy and an energy infrastructure is fundamental to our functioning as a society. We know that we need to construct a different energy system, more efficient and less damaging to the biosphere than what we have hitherto inflicted on the planet. This transition has already begun and should move forward with utmost urgency, otherwise we risk economical and societal upheaval. But when we consider how this transition into a “green energy economy” is going to impact our biosphere, it suddenly does not look so green anymore.
Vaclav Smil, in his book Growth; From Microorganisms to Megacities emphasizes “the trajectory of modern civilization, coping with contradictory imperatives of material growth and biospheric limits, remains uncertain.” (47) He asks, “Will we be able to come close to a genuine planetary equilibrium that would protect the biosphere from any global unraveling, or will our transformation be too late?” (48)
A major contributor to our predicament is the relentless expansion of the global human population, which means that the scale of our needs and wants will continue to increase. Even major efforts to recycle mined ingredients cannot meet the anticipated demand. Unfortunately in the relentless pursuit to meet our needs, wants, and desires, we have already altered many of the natural cycles that evolved to maintain a biospheric balance. We are losing, or have already lost, that much-needed biospheric balance.
It is important that we come to realize that we may fuss over quagga mussels, kudzu, Russian thistle (tumbleweed), pythons, burros, and incalculable other invasive species, but we are the ultimate invasive species. Yes, the climate has been in a constant state of change ever since this planet has existed. But the scale of the changes, the speed of it all, and the way in which we’ve impacted the planet in recent times, is unprecedented. We need to take responsibility for that.
We cannot predict the future. We don’t know what will happen. Predictions are to no avail. But in that uncertainty lies hope. What that future will look like will depend on the decisions we make today.
Part II of this article exploring what some of our options are, will be in the December Desert Report issue.
Birgitta Jansen was an active volunteer in Death Valley National Park. Currently residing in British Columbia, she is a managing editor of the Desert Report, has written previously on a number of environmental topics, and has completed a book about the October 2015 flash floods in Death Valley NP.