There Is No Such Thing As “Green Energy”

I know what you’re thinking: how could there be “no such thing” as green energy? We are constantly bombarded with the news about how we must switch to “green energy” or else the earth’s climate will change.

Wind, solar, nuclear, and hydroelectric has all been touted as “cleaner” than coal and natural gas. Electric cars are “superior” to gas guzzlers.

But is this really true? Could it be that there are absolutely no environmental drawbacks to these types of technology?

If my microeconomics course taught me anything in college, it’s this: There is no such thing as a free lunch!

So, I thought why don’t we study these types of energy and see what are the pros and cons of each.

Solar energy: Solar panels work by capturing the energy of the sun and automatically converting it to electricity. Unlike other forms of energy, green or otherwise, it doesn’t require the turning of a turbine. Instead, particles of sunlight, called photons, knock electrons free from atoms, which, similarly to nuclear fission, create electricity.

There area lot of downsides to solar energy, including efficiency, disposal, and toxic waste problems. Solar panels leech toxic waste into the environment because it is cheaper to throw them in a trash pile it’s to recycle them. Solar panels also contain heavy metals, so as soon as they break they become toxic. These metals include cadmium and lead.

They are not economically feasible to recycle, with only silver being the metal of value, which is why they end up in landfills. By 2050 an estimated 78 million metric tons of solar panel waste will be dumped into our landfills.

This means endless government subsidies to prop them up, if we wish for them to be recycled, which they would have to be as we would quickly run out of safe places to dispose of them.

Also, it will never replace coal, natural gas, or nuclear power because sunlight is not consistent enough across the country to provide for our energy needs, and the panels themselves aren’t efficient enough to capture the energy to make it efficient.

I’m sure these problems can and will be fixed, but for right now, they don’t appear to be very environmentally friendly.

Wind Energy: Wind energy works by using the wind to turn propellers. These propeller-like blades turn around a rotor, which spins a generator that creates electricity.

Wind turbines also have a disposal issue, as they are not being recycled and ending up in dumpsters, but luckily they are not made out of toxic chemicals, making them slightly better than solar panels.  It’s once again cheaper to throw the blades in the landfill than it is to recycle them, leading to endless subsidies by our government to make sure that they are recycled properly. If the blades are not disposed of properly they run the risk of ruining waterways.

Wherever they are placed, they run the risk of degrading habitat for fish, wildlife, and plants. In addition, they pose a grave threat to birds and bats. So the places where they can be placed are limited, due to bird migration patterns.

Finally, they require clear land that is free from obstruction, so they can’t just be placed on top of a house, or anywhere where the land has already been utilized to build houses. That means we will have to clear habitats on land or place the wind turbines in lakes.

This will obviously take away land that can be used for housing, parks, or even natural habitats for animals to thrive.

In addition, they warm the surface temperature of whatever land they sit on, by disrupting the natural airflow in their environment.

Hydroelectric energy:  So hydroelectric power is one of the oldest energy resources in the USA and it works by having water move a turbine to create electricity. It’s used most frequently in Idaho, Washington, and Oregon, where they have built big dams to generate electricity.

However, dam building causes flooding of the natural environment which destroys wildlife preserves and farms, and in extreme cases, entire communities have had to move to make way for the hydroelectric dam.

It also causes problems with algae and other plant life, and if these dams are built along fish migration routes the environmental impact on those fish will be damaging.

However the good news is they are efficient, they don’t create humongous amounts of waste, and their parts last a lot longer and need a lot less replacement than do solar or wind parts do. That means that they’re far more cost-effective than solar panels or wind turbines.

Their number one downside is just like wind and solar energy, they are location specific. So, for example, Arizona is a great state for Solar Panels.

Nuclear Energy: Nuclear energy works by creating heat from the splitting of uranium atoms,  and that heat creates steam, which turns the turbine which produces electricity.

Nuclear energy is perhaps the most controversial “green energy” type on the planet, but it’s also the most consistent. It’s not reliant on specific weather patterns like Wind and solar are, and it’s not location-specific like hydroelectric is. It’s even now possible for nuclear waste to be recycled.

France, thanks to innovation, within 7 years built enough plants that 70% of their electricity is based on Nuclear Power, and although the U.S. doesn’t recycle their spent nuclear fuel, the French do.

So why are we not jumping on this opportunity? Fear.

There have been several nuclear accidents, all of which have been catastrophic, resulting in birth defects, cancers, and other health effects that are felt in the area for years afterward. Chernobyl is probably the most famous of these accidents, and it happened in the 80s. This accident was caused by a design flaw that made the emergency shut-off button. Instead of the button instantly shutting down the reaction, it accelerated it, causing not a meltdown but an explosion. This left the core of the reactor open, pouring nuclear radiation into the atmosphere. It took weeks to close it, resulting in land that is still uninhabitable to this day.

In the USA we also had our three-mile island incident in 1979. This accident was relatively mild to those living within a ten-mile radius, but it took them days to evacuate the town which led to unnecessary radiation exposure. In the three-mile island incident, no sensors were indicating that the valve inside the reactor became stuck, releasing all the coolant. This resulted in the problem getting worse which led to a nuclear meltdown.

The problem with Nuclear Power is that an accident can cost many lives if not well contained, and make the land uninhabitable for hundreds of years afterward.

Everyone likes the idea and consistency of nuclear power, but nobody wants to live near a nuclear power plant.

Electric vehicles: An electric vehicle works when an electric battery which powers an electric motor which in turn turns the wheels inside.

The raw materials used to make an electric vehicle drivetrain are an environmental concern. These raw materials include:

Lithium Carbonate Equivalent, neodymium, and Praseodymium which are difficult to create and dirty to produce are used in the drivetrain of the vehicle.

These are rare earth minerals, the mining of which produces environmental pollution as well as human rights concerns. Cobalt especially is mined oftentimes in the Congo by children, without proper ventilation equipment or protective gear.

The battery meanwhile is made of aluminum and copper, both of which have a significant environmental impact. Additionally, because the batteries of the car are extremely heavy, the body of the car is made with aluminum and carbon fiber-reinforced polymers (heavy-duty plastics), which, as we all know, plastics are extremely difficult to properly recycle.

Additionally, there is not yet a plan to deal with all the batteries as of November 2021. These batteries are dangerous, leak noxious fumes, and cause fires. In the Chevy Volt, just one battery weighs 960 pounds.

They have yet to come up with an “efficient and planet-friendly way” to recycle them. So far the Chevy Volts batteries which caused massive fires in people’s homes are sitting in a warehouse.

Finally, electric vehicles are putting the cart before the horse.

How is most electricity produced in the United States?

61% of electricity is produced with coal, natural gas, petroleum, and other gasses, all of which are fossil fuel-based, all of which produce carbon.

While this is much better than what I expected, according to the NY Times, if you plug in your vehicle in a state that mainly uses coal (West Virginia, Wyoming, Pennsylvania) it produces more pollution, not less.

In conclusion, one of my favorite quotes from Thomas Sowell is “There are no solutions, only trade-offs.”

I agree that pollution is something we should care about. But in my opinion, we should care about all types of pollution. Not having our drinking water poisoned, our oceans filled with plastic, our fish and wildlife getting destroyed, and nuclear energy-giving everyone cancer is just as important to the quality of life for all life on earth, as having clean air for everyone to breathe.

And a greater balance between all energy types will lead to a healthier planet in general.


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