THE COLOR GREEN IS OFTEN applied as an adjective to various energy technologies that are seemingly more enviro- or eco-friendly when compared to the unfriendly drilling for oil or the mining of coal. Photovoltaic solar panels, wind turbines and other green technologies do not ravage the natural environment — or do they? At a macro level, almost all energy technologies are extractive industries: holes drilled, tunnels bored, large pits dug and landscapes scraped in order to get to the good stuff.
Green-ness must be viewed at all levels — globally, regionally and locally — in order to be more aware of the truth and reality of energy technologies. An electric vehicle is green at the local level simply because the environmental damage and pollution from deriving the needed commodities have occurred elsewhere. Similarly, solar is green at the local level because the damage and pollution also occurred elsewhere. What is locally green and pretty in Colorado is probably ugly in some other region or country.
The above paragraph’s sort-of emphasis on geography is because of America’s position on the planet. Our import dependence is significantly unbalanced for the minerals/metals, rare earth elements and other exotic commodities necessary for the current and emerging waves of various energy technologies (especially those that are paired with adjectives such as green or clean or friendly).
With respect to energy technology needs, obvious examples of our strategic disadvantage involve EVs, their infrastructure and batteries, solar panels and even wind turbines. EVs use copious amounts of copper, gold, nickel and silver. EV batteries (and other battery uses) need cobalt, graphite and lithium. Solar panels use cadmium, gallium, indium, tellurium and other exotic elements. Wind turbines require vast amounts of aluminum, copper and zinc. Beyond the energy sector’s needs, the list goes on and on.
America’s import reliance is scary, and the departments of Defense, Interior, Homeland Security and other three-letter-acronym agencies are rightly very nervous. What commodity percentages do we import? For EVs — silver 80%, nickel 50+%, gold 50%, copper 37%. Batteries — graphite 100%, cobalt 76%, lithium 50+%. Solar panels — gallium 100%, indium 100%, tellurium 95%, cadmium 50+%. Wind turbines — zinc 83%, aluminum 49%, copper 37%. Similarly, other industrial sectors suffer from import reliance.
And then there are the rare-earth elements: 17 metallic elements, all abundant in the earth’s crust but in most cases nonexistent in mineable concentrations (or not economically feasible for commercial viability). REEs include cerium, lanthanum, neodymium, praseodymium, promethium, scandium, yttrium and others. Industrial uses are wide-ranging and include chemical catalysts, ceramics/glass, electronics, metallurgy/magnets, military/aerospace hardware and others. The U.S. is 100% import-reliant for the REEs (as a group).
America has declared 35 mineral commodities as critical/essential for our economic and national security. In 1995, we were 100% import-reliant for only eight of those listed 35. Here we are 25+ years later, and now we are 100% import-reliant for 18 of them. China is the top producer or top supplier for 23 of the listed 35 commodities. As well, China significantly rules the planet with its REE production and reserves.
Other nations are active on American soils searching for the good stuff. Examples include Australia, seeking cobalt (Jervois Global) in Idaho and lithium (Controlled Thermal Resources) in California. Canadian companies are seeking lithium (Lithium Americas) in Nevada; copper (Hudbay) in Arizona; silver (Viscount) in Silver Cliff; and gold and other precious/heavy metals (Zephyr) near Cañon City. Anglo-Australia (Rio Tinto) companies are searching for lithium and boron in California and copper in Utah. The list goes on and on.
The industries involved in extracting these commodities — these necessary evils of our modern life — not only ravage the land. They also provide risks and hazards to the people performing the work: extracting, refining, processing, transporting, manufacturing and so on. Look at the U.S. Occupational Safety & Health Administration’s (osha.gov) and the U.S. Mine Safety & Health Administration’s (msha.gov) databases for injury statistics for various industrial operations. What of the many other nations’ worker safety and environmental protections? Never mind, don’t ask.
Case in point regarding risk and hazard — this author performed as the environmental, health, & safety manager for a Colorado-based PV solar panel manufacturer using cadmium telluride technology. Due to the potential exposure to toxic materials used in the manufacturing processes, employees wore plenty of personal protective equipment and underwent periodic bio-monitoring to ensure their health and safety — samples of blood, urine and hair, all destined for medical laboratory analyses.
So, the next time you’re feeling oh-so-green by driving around town in your EV or enjoying your solar panel array, please remember that your green-ness might only be local. Don’t forget about the workers’ health and safety and the lands that were sacrificed to enable your particular shade of green. What technology provides the energy to recharge your EV battery? In Colorado, there’s a 30-50% chance (depending on your location) that your electricity is coal-derived. Examine your own lifestyle and energy needs. Ask yourself, how did all that good stuff arrive at your doorstep?
Since the industrial revolution, it is easy to view the continuing and perpetual degradation of a clean, healthy and vibrant ecosphere. But we need/want more, more, more, and the consequences shall be damned. Democrats/liberals are typically labeled as enviro- or eco-friendly. Conversely, Republicans/conservatives are typically labeled as their opposites (but, what are they conserving?). Obviously, politics and money are involved. So, follow the politics and follow the money.
The sources of data and information for this article include, but are not limited to: the U.S. Geological Survey (usgs.gov), the National Mining Association (nma.org), the International Energy Agency (iea.org) and the Center for Strategic & International Studies (csis.org).
In all aspects, the author is a proponent of these “green” energy technologies. For now, they are the lesser of other evils. Now, if we could only manage nuclear waste.
How much of the planet are we prepared to sacrifice to meet humanity’s need for energy?” (Annette Smith, Vermonters for a Clean Environment).
Bill holds an undergraduate degree in biology and an advanced degree in environmental science (and is a certified tree-hugger).