The darker side of renewable energy | Don Brunell

Renewable energy doesn’t automatically mean it’s clean, especially in how certain renewable energy products are made.

Before our country, in haste, dives totally into renewable energy, we must carefully evaluate its impacts. By just focusing on eliminating natural gas, liquid fuels (gasoline and diesel) and coal to combat climate change, we ignore the effects of other forms of pollution generated by processes in which renewable energy components are made.

Under the Green New Deal, the United States would become 100 percent reliant on renewable energy in a decade and eliminate CO2 producing fuels. It would cost up to $93 trillion over 10 years.

While further reducing greenhouse gases is vital, we can’t ignore the fact that last year only 18 percent of the nation’s energy consumption came from renewables.

And, we can’t disregard the significant water pollution caused from mining and processing copper, lithium, nickel and cobalt ore. They are primary elements used in batteries for cellphone, laptops, electric cars and electrical grid storage.

Before the Green New Deal was announced, demand for copper globally was set to jump 22 percent within five years because of increased usage of the metal in electric vehicles, solar and wind power sectors, Bloomberg reported. Copper in electric cars alone was projected to increase by 1.2 million tons annually.

Nowhere is the growth in copper consumption more evident than China. As it upgrades its industry to “smart factories” annual demand for copper is set to grow by an additional 232,000 tons by 2025.

Copper mining and processing creates acidic and heavy metal laden wastewater which is commonly stored in tailing ponds. In Colorado, the Gold King Mine pond blowout in 2015 coated the Animas River bed with a layer of toxic orange muck. State officials found 230 other old mines statewide leaking heavy metals-laced sludge into headwaters of its rivers. EPA calculates that 40 percent of river headwaters in the West are marred by acid mine drainage.

Lithium is toxic on water supplies as well. In 2016, protestors in Tagong, a city on the eastern edge of the Tibetan plateau, threw hundreds of rotting fish on to the streets. The dead fish along with cow and yak carcass were plucked from the Liqi River which was contaminated by lithium mining operations owned by China’s BYD, the world’s largest supplier of lithium-ion batteries.

According to Cairn Energy Research, the lithium-ion industry is expected to grow eight fold by 2027. Much of that growth is in Salar de Atacama, the largest salt flat in Chile which is rich in lithium. Mining activities now consume 65 percent of the region’s water. Chilean farmers and local residents near the mining area are already forced to truck in fresh water for household and farm use.

Wired.com reports that lithium may not be the most problematic ingredient in modern rechargeable batteries. Cobalt and nickel mining and processing creates big environmental problems as well.

Finally, as lithium-ion batteries reach the end of their useful life, disposal become a giant headache. Today, only a small portion are recycled. The average lifespan of a lithium-iron phosphate (LFP) battery, the dominant type in China’s electric vehicles, is around five years.

According to Quartz.com in 2020, nearly 250,000 metric tons of batteries are set to be retired—nearly 20 times those depleted in 2016. But recycling these batteries isn’t easy, due to the sophisticated chemical procedures involved. If it’s not done properly the heavy metal contained in the batteries can lead to contamination of soil and water if disposed in landfills.

Hopefully, our political leaders will carefully evaluate the entire spectrum of impacts of all energy sources before establishing sweeping government mandates for our nation. It is too important to our environment, economy and affordable living.

Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer and columnist. He recently retired as president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s oldest and largest business organization, and now lives in Vancouver. He can be contacted at theBrunells@msn.com.

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