We hear and read about the advent of so-called “clean energy” sources, which are scheduled to take over from dirty sources such as coal, oil, and natural gas all over the world. The European Union, The USA, China, and many other countries are embarking on the energy transition with dispatch; banning internal-combustion vehicles, institution “cap and trade” programs to make “fossil fuel” extraction and use uneconomical, mandating utility use of renewable sources of energy to heat, cool, and cook in homes and businesses. But is the so-called clean energy really that clean? Is energy from solar installations and wind turbines as clean as it is portrayed by the environmentalists who have influenced governments everywhere? Let’s take a look.
Let’s start with solar power. Making energy from sunlight has been happening for a long time, starting in the 20th century. Only in the late 20th century and today, have there been serious attempts to generate utility-grade energy from solar installations. Solar power stations require massive amounts of land, and capital investment. Here’s a picture of one of the largest solar power installations in America.
The Ivanpah Solar Generating Station is in the eastern part of California, on the Nevada border, and has been in operation since 2010. This generating station and ones like it all over the world, covers many square miles of desert, and employs thousands of panels and mirrors to concentrate the sunlight. Unfortunately, solar generation stations like this one turn out to be not as powerful as advertised. This station only generated about half the total power that was promised, and has never made a profit for its utility owners. These solar stations have definite drawbacks, too.
First of all, they use land that is habitat for myriad plants and animals, some of whom are threatened species. The above plant was held up for a long time while the environmentalists (who all support solar power) debated the fate of the desert tortoise.
The $2.2 billion facility was developed by BrightSource Energy and Bechtel. The largest investor in the project was NRG Energywhich contributed $300 million. Google contributed $168 million. The United States government provided a $1.6 billion loan guarantee and the plant is built on public land. In 2010, the project was scaled back from its original 440 MW design to avoid disturbing the habitat of the desert tortoise.
Another problem for solar stations is the many birds they kill. The birds fly over the panels, and are literally burned to death in the sky, since the solar panels heat the air above them to sometimes 1,000 degrees Fahrenheit! It’s really hard to tell wild birds not to fly over a solar generating station. Also, I learned from the linked Wikipedia article that solar generating stations need fossil fuels to start up! They invariably use more energy to start, than their planners allowed for. Not to mention the transmission lines needed to get the solar power from the desert to where it can be used! Years of planning and permitting are required before the power plant can distribute its energy.
What makes these installations not quite so clean would be all the panels which actually concentrate the sunlight to make electricity. Those panels are made of glass, metals, and semiconductors; all of which need to be mined (many times in foreign lands which use child labor); manufactured in factories all over the world, and transported to the sites. How many barrels and gallons of fuel are needed to make a solar panel? How many children and other miners are needed to extract the fuels and mine the metals for those solar panels? The power plants themselves are built of materials that are mined, manufactured, and transported, using even more fossil fuels. Now, solar energy doesn’t seem so clean, does it? The value of all the materials needed to build, run, and maintain a solar farm far outweigh the value of the energy eventually produced by the plant. Also, those solar plants only work when the sun shines! After dark, and when the sky is cloudy, no energy can be produced by a solar installation, making its cost of producing electricity even higher. Then, think of the useful life of any solar component. Those solar panels don’t last forever, and need to be replaced when they wear out or are damaged by bird-strikes or other outside influences. That makes a solar installation even more expensive! Free, clean energy from the sun? Not really.
Now, let’s look at wind power. All over the country, more and more hills and waterfronts are being populated with giant wind turbines, slowly turning in the wind, to provide power to cities. Here are a couple of pictures I took of wind turbines found in Eastern Washington.
I am very careful to watch those turbines closely whenever I see them. Normally, not all of them are turning when I watch them. They can be in long lines on a hilltop, getting similar wind, but not all are working. It’s hard to gauge the scale of these modern-day windmills, but they are hundreds of feet high, and the blades are too long for a normal flatbed trailer, so they require special handling to transport. Just look at this one single blade!
Once the towers and blades are at the location where they are to work, it takes many people and many days to put them together. As with solar power stations, wind turbines require massive quantities of land. Those turbine blades can have the same effect on birds as solar farms-they fly into the slowly-turning blades and are killed. From Wikipedia:
Wind farms consist of many individual wind turbines, which are connected to the electric power transmission network. Onshore wind is an inexpensive source of electric power, competitive with, or in many places cheaper than, coal or gas plants. Onshore wind farms have a greater visual impact on the landscape than other power stations, as they need to be spread over more land and need to be built in rural areas, which can lead to “industrialization of the countryside” and habitat loss.Offshore wind is steadier and stronger than on land and offshore farms have less visual impact, but construction and maintenance costs are significantly higher. Small onshore wind farms can feed some energy into the grid or provide power to isolated off-grid locations.
Again as with solar power, those huge towers and blades have a short useful life, and break down fairly often. Below is a picture of a “wind turbine blade graveyard”. Those blades cannot be recycled or reused. They provide fairly cheap energy…when they work.
There are also other drawbacks to wind power. First and most obvious is that they only work when the wind is blowing! And, as we saw this past February in Texas, cold weather can freeze their bearings and make them unusable. When they are turning, wind turbine blades emit very low-frequency sound, which can be harmful to animals and people. You cannot remain very long in the vicinity of turning turbines, due to the uncomfortable effects of the sound. They must be situated a long enough way away from farms and other dwellings, so use even more land.
Wind turbine blades are made of very special plastics and metals. Now, we all know that to make plastics, you need…wait for it…Oil! Yes, to get those clean-energy-producing wind turbines, you need oil as feedstock for the plastics, and as transport fuel for the special trucks to get them to the building site, and then to the graveyard when they wear out or break.
Those “clean energy” sources don’t seem to be as clean, when you really analyze their life-cycles, do they? The next time you hear a politician or environmentalist tout the clean energy of solar or wind, you should be very skeptical, and keep the information above in mind.