You may see environmentally friendly solar panels and wind mills. I can’t help but think what happens to all this equipment at the end of its life.
Duke Energy (who provides energy here in the Carolinas) just ran an ad showing acres and acres of solar panels and windmills generating power for a world increasingly reliant on electricity to function.
All dressed up as thinking differently about energy, for “cleaner energy, everyday.”
But I can’t help to think about the environmental damage created when all this equipment was manufactured. I can’t help but think about the environmental damage that will be caused when all this equipment reaches the end of its life and has to be decommissioned.
Here’s the thing. Eliminate Federal subsidies for “clean energy”, and the cost of generating wind and solar energy is significantly higher than through traditional means of burning fossil fuels to generate energy. Cost is, at least when it comes to manufacturing equipment such as a field of solar cells or a massive boiler to turn a steam turbine, related to the amount of natural resources (iron ore, heavy metals, energy used to extract steel, transportation costs–including fossil fuels used to power those trucks) that are required to build and install all this equipment. (Remember: the steel to make a wind turbine is extracted from iron ore using coal.)
Which means higher costs imply greater environmental impact in manufacturing windmills and solar cells than manufacturing a coal or natural gas fired generator.
Worse, without grid-sized energy storage solutions–grid sized solutions capable of storing enough energy to power a local energy grid for hours, not milliseconds–wind and solar solutions require conventional fossil fuel power plants to be running but with the generator disengaged. Burning fuel but without putting out any electricity. That’s because even the fastest hot-start power plants today require almost an hour to be ready to generate electricity–and that is for a plant that has already been heated up to operating temperature (by burning fuel). Cold start times are significantly longer–which makes sense, when you think about it: think of a power plant as a kettle put on the stove, except several million times bigger. It takes a while to come to a boil.
Even smaller turbines which look more like jet engines attached to a generator take time to warm up and spin up–longer than it takes for a cloud to obscure a field of solar cells or a change in wind direction to stop power generation at a field of wind turbines.
I strongly believe we need cleaner energy, and my comments are not to suggest that somehow I oppose clean energy sources.
But we need to look at all of this with our eyes open, and thus far it seems to me we’ve been sold a pig in a poke.
Sure, Duke Energy is trying very hard to rehabilitate its image in light of a coal ash spill in Eden, North Carolina, which arguably impacts the environment even today.
(I say “arguably” because the press has been overwhelmed by environmentalist “experts” who have a political axe to grind, fighting with other environmental “experts” who also have a political axe to grind who claim the Duke spill has been resolved. Part of the fight involves heavy metal contamination detected in home owner well heads, contamination no-one can say wasn’t present prior to the coal ash spill. To throw a wrench into the debate, I note one major contaminant, hexavalent chromium, which environmentalists opposing Duke claim came from the coal ash, happens to be a naturally occurring contaminant in the water supply in Los Angeles–and is present in Los Angeles at higher concentrations than being fought over in North Carolina. So there is precedence that this sort of heavy metal contamination can be present from natural sources.)
But it is sad to me how we take, on faith and without little analysis, the idea that a field of wind turbines and solar power plants is somehow more environmentally friendly than coal, natural gas or nuclear.
Remember: no matter how we generate our power, there is no such thing as a free lunch. The best we can hope for is to reduce the price we pay. And sometimes the best way to reduce that cost is non-obvious and counter-intuitive.