What’s the Hold-up on Green Energy?

By Ty Johnson

It’s no longer just hype, Al Gore was right — global climate change is a universally proven theory, and fiscal conservatives are reluctantly trading in their coal investments for green energy.  But where are the fields of solar panels and wind turbines?

Let’s start from the beginning — wind turbines and solar panels fall under the category of “renewable energy” because a relatively constant and naturally occurring force (wind or sun) provides their source of energy. By contrast, fossil fuels and natural gases, more commonly used today, are single-use and non-renewable. Once the energy from coal is spent, the coal no longer exists.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recently issued a report stating that climate change is unequivocally human-caused. The burning of fossil fuels in transportation and industrial processes remains a lead offender for the rise in CO2 since the 1980s and has become the primary target for environmentalists seeking lower greenhouse gases. This would explain why environmental activists push for more renewable energy sources.

And, in fact, it’s not just the environmentalists, hippies, and liberals who want to go green anymore. A Gallup Poll from April of 2013 indicated that, despite political affiliation or geographic location, 76% of Americans want the government to focus more on renewable energy sources to help save the environment.

So why aren’t there fields of solar panels and wind turbines already?

Kyle Tisdale, a lawyer with the Western Environmental Law Council (WELC), sat down with our Environmental Communications class in Taos to help explain the hold-up. Although the technology is available and ready, Tisdale explained that “regulated monopolies” still exist within the energy industry, which allows companies to limit the amount of renewable energy that enters their grids. The limit is due to contracts between power plants, utility companies, and the mining industry that all rely on each other to maintain their business models. The industry is so established and the contracts so intricate, that lawyers like Tisdale have years of litigation ahead of them before we can expect to see widespread implementation of renewable energy.

In the meantime, people in places like Taos, who are determined to find a way to battle the bureaucratic and capitalist obstacles by going “off-grid,” store energy in large capacity batteries. These batteries, similar to those found in electric and hybrid cars, allow environmentally minded individuals to offset their carbon emissions by avoiding fossil fuel-based energy and going green.

"Earthship" homes in Taos, NM use solar panels to convert energy and stay "off-the-grid."

“Earthship” homes in Taos, NM use solar panels to convert energy and stay “off-the-grid.”

But is renewable energy really green? Surely if the environmental lawyers and the local hippies selling “save the earth” bracelets are on board then it has to be environmentally friendly, right?

Apparently, not entirely.

Although renewable energy sources do not consistently use fossil fuels to make energy like coal or natural gas, solar panels, wind turbines, and the batteries used to store “off-grid” energy require rare earth minerals to function. Mining minerals necessary for renewable energy releases toxic metals and radioactive elements into the air, water, soil, and groundwater – much like mining for fossil fuels. A Chinese Study of Rare Earth estimates that mining one ton of rare earth minerals results in 75 cubic meters of acidic wastewater and one ton of radioactive residue.

And experts say numbers will only grow. These minerals, such as dysprosium (used for turbines) and neodymium (used for solar panels and turbines) are non-renewable materials mined at alarming levels. A recent MIT study estimated a 2,600% increase (did you see that 2nd zero? That’s 26 THOUSAND) in dysprosium demand over the next 25 years alone that would require opening several new mines around the globe — one even in our own backyard.

The Molycorp mine in California Mountain Pass plans to reopen the rare earth mine that finally shut down in 2002 after numerous pipeline bursts contaminated groundwater with heavy metals and radioactive waste. After a change of leadership and multiple lawsuits, Brian Shields of Amigos Bravos, a non-profit environmental activist agency based in Taos, believes the mining company plans to adopt more environmentally friendly mining practices if only to avoid the legal and financial burdens of environmental damage.

While this may not shine the best light on renewable energy, Tisdale adamantly noted that climate change, and therefore the CO2 emissions from fossil fuels, remains the “preeminent issue.” He believes that while there are some negatives to the construction of green energy, adoption of these practices will play a major role in the reduction of carbon emissions and provide for continued improvements in technology and the way we live.

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