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Dispelling the Myth of "Clean" Green Energy

By Michael Sandoval

Clean Water Action’s Gary Wockner plays the card in his Denver Post guest editorial that is usually intended to end any debate between advocates of renewable energy technology and those in favor of continuing the exploration of fossil fuel resources–“What are the environmental impacts?”

Typically, readers are treated to some sort of facile environmental comparison between say, coal power and wind turbines:

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Casual readers are expected to deduce that in comparison to coal power, wind power generation is nearly neutral environmentally–aside from being “20-story high Cuisinarts” for flying animals like birds and bats.

Just a bad website oversimplifying. Ok. The American Wind Energy Association has this to say in its teaching materials intended for K-2:

“As long as the sun shines there will be wind moving across the earth. Wind is called a renewable energy source because solar energy makes wind all of the time. We will never run out of wind.

Wind turbines do not burn fuel, so they do not pollute the air. Wind is a safe, clean energy source for making electricity.”

Ok, we’re talking 7 year olds. What about high school seniors?


“Wind is energy in motion—kinetic energy—and it is a renewable energy source. Along with wind, renewable energy sources include biomass, geothermal energy, hydropower, and solar energy. They are called renewable because they are replenished in a short time. Day after day, the sun shines, the wind blows, and the rivers flow. Renewable sources only make up seven-percent of the United States’ energy portfolio. We mainly use nonrenewable energy sources to make electricity.”

The education materials provided by the AWEA ignore completely the production of the permanent magnet (labelled “generator”) that converts wind, rather inefficiently, into electricity. While the mechanics of the conversion are explained, the manufacturing process of the magnetic generator has been elided.

Conveniently, these renewable energy industry lobbyists have carefully omitted the one very glaring portion of wind energy production that is most environmentally unfriendly: the creation of the wind turbines themselves. It’s as if they sprout up, pre-fabricated and ready to generate power, from a Dutch wind turbine bulb farm.

Aside from the rather obvious environmental cost of transporting the various large windmill components to their often remote final destination (wherever wind is deemed sufficiently consistent), it is in the actual creative portion of the wind turbine–the parts that convert the rotation of the turbine’s blades into energy–that the true environmental impact can be found.

In a few words? Rare earth elements. Simply put, without REEs, many of the most crucial components of most renewable energy platforms do not exist. REEs are the sine qua non of the “New Energy Economy,” and their production has been obfuscated by the most ardent green proponents.

The Environmental Protection Agency, in the report “Investigating Rare Earth Element Mine Development in EPA Region 8 and Potential Environmental Impact” (PDF) dated August 15, 2011, outlines a few of the specific uses of REEs over a range of “renewable” products, including wind turbines, hybrid vehicle batteries, lighting, and other electronics:

“Permanent magnets represent the staple clean energy technology of future green economies. They constitute main components of lightweight, high powered motors and generators due to their production of a stable magnetic field without the need for an external power source. Permanent magnet motors power contemporary electric, hybrid electric, and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles, while permanent magnet generators produce electricity from wind turbines (USDOE, 2010). The key element derived samarium-cobalt permanent magnets dominate rare earth technology because they produce a magnetic field in a much smaller size. The samarium-cobalt permanent magnet also retains its magnetic strength at high temperatures making it ideal for clean energy and even military applications, including precision guided munitions and aircrafts (IAGS, 2010).

Permanent magnets work in conjunction with high efficiency rare earth based batteries to store energy in electric, hybrid electric, and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles (USDOE, 2010). Current generation hybrid electric vehicles use a battery with a cathode containing a host of rare earths including lanthanum, cerium, neodymium, praseodymium, and cobalt (Kopera, 2004). Each hybrid electric battery may contain several kilograms of rare earth materials (USDOE, 2010). Plug-in hybrid and electric vehicles require even greater storage capacity and higher power ratings than typical hybrid vehicles. In light of this, automakers will likely use the lithium ion battery, increasing demand for yet another key element. Scientists at the Argonne National Laboratory estimated one lithium ion battery contains 3.4-12.7 kilograms of lithium depending on proprietary design (USDOE, 2010).

Perhaps the fastest growing consumer of rare earth material is the phosphor production industry. In 2008, phosphors alone accounted for 7% of all rare earth usage by volume and 32% of total rare earth value. Phosphor materials produce luminescence essential to today’s lighting technologies. Older generation fluorescent lighting used no rare earths, but rare earths make current fluorescent lighting phosphors more efficient and visually pleasing. Specific rare earths responsible for this include lanthanum, cerium, europium, terbium, and yttrium. Fluorescent lighting phosphor usage is expected to rise by 230% over current levels due to USDOE mandating increased efficiency ratings. Mass quantities of similar phosphor materials are produced for application in television screens, computer monitors, and electronic instrumentation, increasing demand for rare earth based phosphors (USDOE, 2010).”

Just as wind turbines don’t magically sprout from the ground, rare earth elements require extensive mining and refining processes pose significant environmental impacts–significant enough for the EPA to stipulate the each step of the destructive extraction, chemical processing, toxic tailing and contaminant disposal, and transportation. REEs are often derived as byproducts of other mining operations, as most REE deposits are not economically viable on their own, due to their, erm, rarity.

The EPA details the specific byproducts of the production of REEs, and they’re not very “green”:

“According to the Chinese Society of Rare Earths, every ton of rare earth elements produced generates approximately 8.5 kilograms of fluorine and 13 kilograms of flue dust. Additionally, sulfuric acid refining techniques used to produce one ton of rare earth elements generates 9,600 to 12,000 cubic meters of gas laden with flue dust concentrate, hydrofluoric acid, sulfur dioxide, and sulfuric acid. Not only are large quantities of harmful gas produced, alarming amounts of liquid and solid waste also resulted from Chinese refining processes. They estimate at the completion of refining one ton of rare earth elements, approximately 75 cubic meters of acidic waste water and about one ton of radioactive waste residue are produced. The IAGS reports China produced over 130,000 metric tons of rare earth elements in 2008 alone (IAGS, 2010). Extrapolation of the waste generation estimates over total production yields extreme amounts of waste. With little environmental regulation, stories of environmental pollution and human sickness remain frequent in areas near Chinese rare earth element production facilities (Figure 21). United States government agencies, including EPA, can learn a lot from China’s environmental issues related to rare earth element production.

As discussed, mining and refining processes can introduce radionuclides, rare earth elements, metals, and other potential contaminants into the environment at unnaturally high rates. Once introduced into the environment, the potential contaminants can be redistributed through the three “environmental mediums.” These three mediums include air, soil, and water. Living organisms depend on environmental mediums with stable chemical properties for their survival. The release of the possible contaminants from rare earth element production could alter the properties of the three environmental mediums.”

“Extreme amounts of waste.” These are not the words of a report from a think tank in the pockets of “big oil,” Mr. Wockner. Apparently the proponents of wind power that produced the earlier images somehow missed this report.

There are no “green” mulligans for renewable energy, it seems. But if pictures are worth a thousand words, then video is even better (including a cameo from Vestas, which coincidentally has four wind turbine factories and an estimated $1 billion investment in Colorado at the moment):

“Green campaigners love wind turbines, but the permanent magnets used to manufacture a 3 MW turbine contains some two tons of rare earth,” says the reporter.

Using the EPA’s numbers, each turbine in a windmill farm produces approximately 20,000 cubic meters of toxic gases, 150 cubic meters of acidic waste water, two tons of radioactive waste residue, plus a variety of other harmful dusts and chemical byproducts. Perhaps the largest wind farm in the world, the Roscoe Wind Farm in Texas, houses more than 600 wind turbines stretched out over 400 square kilometers. Quick mathematical calculations reveal that the environmental impact of these wind turbines is somewhat greater than just a bird blender. The American Wind Energy Association estimates the output of wind power in the U.S. at more than 43,000 MW through the 3rd quarter of 2011.

Roscoe Wind Farm as seen from Google Maps:
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In the embedded video, Zhao Zengqi of the Baotou Research Institute of Rare Earth acknowledges the environmental impact of the production of the permanent magnets that comprise the “green” wind turbine technology. “The environmental problems include air emissions with harmful elements such as fluoride and sulfur, waste water that contains excessive acid, and radioactive materials too. China meets 95 percent of the world’s demand for rare earth, and most of the separation and extraction is done here, so the pollution stays in China too,” said Zhao.

China’s monopoly (which they threaten to enforce through decreased production of REEs) has forced the most damaging aspects of wind power out of sight and mind. But the planned reductions have pushed the U.S. to consider its own strategic defense implications–hence the EPA report–and push more homegrown REE mining projects, including the possibility of opening mines in Colorado.

As Jim Burnell, a senior geologist for the Colorado Department of Natural Resources told the Post in January, “There’s no such thing as no-impact mining. You can’t promise that.”

Not even when you’re “green,” Mr. Wockner.

Like their renewable cousins, solar modules, wind turbines are anything but “clean” and “green.” The EPA report examined the potential risks to air and soil quality, and particularly to water contamination:

“Water represents the environmental medium of overall greatest concern at Bear Lodge. Not only can the possible contaminants go into solution, a great deal of water is consumed during rare earth element mining and processing. Such issues generate both water quality and quantity concerns that will heavily depend on what management practices are put into place.”

The EPA strongly urges appropriate environmental mitigation efforts, pointing to the harmful effects of REE production that include cancer:

“The possible contaminants cause negative effects towards aquatic and terrestrial organisms in addition to humans. Some of the radionuclides and metals contaminants are even classified as human carcinogens by international and federal health agencies. Others possible contaminants increase the mortality rates of aquatic and terrestrial organisms. Cooperation between all government agencies designed to protect the environment and companies responsible for rare earth element production will prove invaluable in ensuring these operations do not pose a threat to human health and the environment in the United States . . . Areas of China have suffered the consequences of haphazard rare earth element production.”

Given the combination of China’s stranglehold on REE extraction and delivery, and the gross environmental negligence it allows such production to operate under, wind turbines for the foreseeable future will continue to be manufactured at less than “green” standards.

Environmental advocates like Mr. Wockner will quickly point to Vestas as an outstanding local alternative to the new exploration in Northern Colorado. Given the precarious nature of the wind energy sector sans FTCs and the turbines’ established environmental cost, a more proper evaluation comparing energy “futures” can be undertaken. The EPA’s report, combined with the realities of REE production, indict nearly every renewable energy platform due to the centrality of REEs as part of the actual energy generation or storage mechanism in each, respectively (magnets and batteries). These impacts can only be projected to increase given government pushes to expand renewables as part of state or national portfolio standards.

Wind power is only reliable 32 percent to 42 percent of the time. Fully diversified energy portfolios requiring significant amounts of renewables, therefore, necessitate significant backup capacity to bridge wind power’s production shortfalls. Furthermore, subsidizing failure is bad enough; subsidizing environmentally degrading platforms that could virtually disappear overnight without lucrative federal tax credits coveted by crony capitalist players is even worse.

Let us return now to the question posed by Mr. Wockner: “What are the environmental impacts?” As demonstrated here using the EPA’s own report, the environmental impact of wind alone is nowhere near “neutral” as some in the renewable energy cheerleading camp would like consumers and taxpayers to believe. Through rhetorical kabuki, they dress up or eliminate the actual manufacturing steps in the process of wind or solar production, skipping straight to the energy generation portion of the renewable unit’s life cycle and then conduct their comparison.

Dispelling the myth that “clean” and “green” energy is produced without environmental impact is critical for establishing a level playing field for comparison between renewables and fossil fuels.

Michael Sandoval is the Managing Editor of People’s Press Collective and a former political reporter for National Review Online.