KEVIN LEININGER: Overselling benefits won’t boost ‘green’ energy, but economics might

This wind farm just across the Ohio border on U.S. 30 contains 55 turbines featuring blades 160 feet long. They don't produce emissions, but that doesn't mean there's no environmental impact. (News-Sentinel file photo)

This wind farm just across the Ohio border on U.S. 30 contains 55 turbines featuring blades 160 feet long. They don't produce emissions, but that doesn't mean there's no environmental impact. (News-Sentinel file photo)

As the Associated Press reported earlier this month, General Motors “has pledged to roll out 20 new zero-emissions vehicles by 2023.” It wasn’t exactly fake news, but neither was it completely accurate, because any honest discussion of “green” energy will produce several shades of gray.

Just for starters, the obvious fact is that electric vehicles do not produce “zero” emissions because they rely on an American power grid that is 40 percent coal, 25 percent natural gas and 20 percent nuclear. All three have environmental downsides, as does hydroelectricity, a major component in the 10 percent of the grid powered by “renewable” sources.

What’s more, even the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Department of Energy have questioned the environmental impact of the lithium-ion batteries used in most electric vehicles. Lithium is extracted from brine but an increasing amount is coming from crushing rock in Australia and processing the mineral in China. The batteries and other components contain such things as nickel, copper, cobalt, aluminum and other rare metals that require a substantial amount of mining in countries not known for environmental protections. In fact, manufacturing an electric vehicle requires more carbon emissions than producing a conventional car, according to the Union of Concerned Scientists.

“(Lithium’s) continued use needs to be monitored, especially as lithium mining’s toxicity and location in places of natural beauty can cause significant environmental, health and social impacts,” the European Commission on Science and Environmental Policy concluded.

Nor are other forms of “clean” energy as environmentally pure as some would have us believe. According to a study in the Wildlife Society Bulletin, every year 573,000 birds and 888,000 bats are killed by wind turbines. The study was based on 2012 wind capacity data, and wind-power generation has increased since then with the help of federal and state incentives. As of last year, there were more than 52,000 wind turbines in the U.S., with more under construction. Some people living near wind farms have reported health concerns.

Solar energy, too, is not without its downside. As the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers has pointed out, most of today’s solar cells start as quartz, which exposes miners to the lung disease silicosis. The quartz is refined into silicon in giant furnaces that require a lot of energy. And turning the metallurgical-grade silicon into a purer form called polysilicon creates the very toxic compound silicon tetrachloride. The heat generated by some solar facilities has also proven fatal to birds.

None of this is intended to deny the benefits of these and other “green” technologies. A Tesla Model S, for example, can travel more than 265 miles on a single charge, equating to about 89 miles to a single gallon of gasoline. Inevitable advances in technology will improve that performance while reducing the environmental impact of electric, solar wind and other alternative forms of energy production.

But to accept such alternatives as “emission free” is more than inaccurate. It can also be counterproductive if allowed to mutate into a near-religion eager to worship the benefits while ignoring the drawbacks and labeling skeptics as heretics. As even the AP acknowledged this month, “currently most automakers lose money on electric vehicles.” GM expects that to change by 2021, in part by making electric vehicles 30 percent more affordable.

The importance of market forces shouldn’t be dismissed because conservation comes in many forms — starting with consumers’ perfectly legitimate aversion to spending more for something than is absolutely necessary. The future of green energy, in other words, will not be assured by its environmental purity but by another sort of green: the color of money.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at kleininger@news-sentinel.com or call him at 461-8355.

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