WHY GREEN ENERGY MIGHT not be the best option
Nowadays green energy is regarded as the most modern, most sustainable, and the most suitable energy source. The green lobby in Western countries is so strong that sometimes both the people and the media forget the price of such energy. As a matter of fact, when it comes to the cost of “green” energy, it does not seem as a rational and sustainable option as it is pictured by the mass media. In this paper, I will argue that green energy is often irrational and not as “eco-friendly” as one would imagine. While the term “green energy” applies to a vast amount of energy sources, I will try to concentrate on three of them: wind turbines, solar panels, and biofuel.
First, I will start with wind turbines. They do have a lot of problems originating from the design and the materials of wind turbines. The first and the foremost concern of a wind turbine is its cost and the amount of carbon emission generated during its production. As it was noted in the report by International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA), “The installed cost of a wind power project is dominated by the upfront capital cost (often referred to as CAPEX) for the wind turbines (including towers and installation) and this can be as much as 84% of the total installed cost. Similarly to other renewable technologies, the high upfront costs of wind power can be a barrier to their uptake.” (IRENA A, 24). Not only the price of the wind turbines is relatively high compared to their output, but the carbon dioxide emissions released during the production of the wind turbines is also huge: to produce one wind turbine, on the average from 200 to 230 tons of steel (Martini), and from 130 to 240 m3 of concrete (which is 88 tons of cement) for relatively small (1-2 MW) turbines (Berndt, 10) is needed. In order to produce 230 tons of steel, approximately 150 tons of coking coal and 260 tons of iron ore are required, which also have to be obtained by using a lot of resources and carbon-consumptive operations. If we were to convert these resources to CO2 emissions, the rough numbers would be such: according to Rammed Earth construction consulting data, every ton of cement produced is equivalent to 1.25 metric tons of carbon emissions (Rammed Earth Consulting), and for each ton of burned coal, 2.6 metric tons of carbon emissions are released (Hong, Slatick). Therefore, just for a 1-2 MW wind turbine, 500 metric tons of CO2 would be emitted, not to mention all infrastructure needed for the wind turbine to be operational: the roads, the batteries, etc. Such amount of carbon emissions hardly corresponds to the “carbon-neutral” image of the wind turbines.
Not only do the wind turbines consume as many resources as the more “conservative” sources of energy, but they are also harmful to the health of the people and the animals nearby. A number of cases have already been reported where people suffered from the effects of the noise produced by wind turbines. For example, in Ireland, two brothers and a sister in Cork have suffered various illnesses from the noise from a 10-turbines wind farm stationed 700 meters from their farm. These illnesses included “nosebleeds, ear aches, skin rashes, swollen and painful hands, loss of power in their limbs, sleep disturbance, and headaches.” (O’Loughlin) As a result, they settled their High Court actions for a total of €225,000 and had to move from their farm. Another such case was known in France, where 400 hundred cows died because of the construction of the wind farms nearby. Furthermore, the local farmers have also reported suffering health issues caused by the infrasound (Rossin). The medical studies confirm these cases as well: the low-frequency sound and the infrasound which wind turbines generate, can indeed seriously harm the creatures living near them (Carlie, Davy, Hillman, Burgemeister). Thus, wind generators are not as safe as one would like to think: they harm all humans and animals within a decent range around them. In other words, staying or living near wind farms for a long time can be dangerous to the life and health of an individual.
Moving on to the solar panels, we face a different issue: the enormous amount of space which they have to occupy. The more countries rely on renewable sources of energy, the more space they will have to give up for the green energy generators. With solar panels, this problem is the most critical one: for the construction of a one-megawatt solar plant, two hectares of land will have to be given up (Yacoubou). In order for the solar field to reach the average coal powerplant output level of 350 MW, 700 hectares of land would have to be used. If one wanted to compare it, 700 hectares is an approximate area of a city with 20,000 residents like Pesochin in Ukraine (or one-third of the size of Blagoevgrad in Bulgaria). Again, the space required for the additional infrastructure such as batteries is not even included in this calculation. Therefore, huge areas that could have been used otherwise would have to be used for carbon-neutral solar plants. We also have to remember that there is not so much space on the Earth which is just plain fields: therefore, for large-scale solar farms, whole forests would have to be cut down. Hundreds and thousands of trees, which are one of the main tools to fight the increasing CO2 levels, would be cut to install “green” solar panels.
Another serious issue with solar panels is their utilization. Solar panels have a short lifetime of 20-30 years, and after that, they have to be dismantled and recycled. However, there are problems with that: International Renewable Energy Agency calculated that “At the end of 2016, cumulative global photovoltaic (PV) waste streams are expected to have reached 43,500-250,000 metric tons.” and that “PV waste streams are bound to only increase further” (Irena B, 11). This means that old solar panels, which contain toxic materials, will only increase in their numbers. This is slowly becoming a major problem in China, where a massive amount of solar panels will soon be outdated, and they will be very hard to recycle. Even piling up the old panels in the landfills is problematic: the Electric Power Research Institute concluded, that “Disposal in regular landfills not recommended in case [solar] modules break and toxic materials leach into the soil” (Enbar, 20). Consequently, seemingly “green” solar panels after their term of service become, in fact, a waste that is hard to utilize or recycle.
Finally, we will overview the biofuel. As biofuel consists of a vast field of different sources of energy, I will concentrate on the most controversial one: the wood pellets. In the last few years, wood pellets became an important source of energy, and one of the reasons for this was the formal status of “green energy”, as trees are considered a renewable resource. However, this “green” source has as many problems and consequences as the burning of coal. Bob Abt, a professor of natural resource economics and management at North Carolina State University, claims that Burning wood pellets releases as much or even more carbon dioxide per unit of energy as burning coal (Drouin). Moreover, huge amounts of trees are being cut each day to feed the wood pellets consumption, especially in Estonia and the U.S.A. In Estonia, for example, public organizations report dozens of holy sites were destroyed due to the work of industrial loggers, and the area of deforestation continues to grow (Elbein).
Not only do wood pellets production provide a threat to the forests, but it is also polluting the air. The studies show that only half of the samples of the wood pellets on the market reach quality standards. This means that because of the burning of the pellets, the air is getting polluted by harmful substances, such as sulfur, potassium, and chlorine. (Toscano et al) This claim is also supported by the letter signed by the Allergy & Asthma Network, American Academy of Pediatrics, American Lung Association, American Public Health Association, Asthma, and Allergy Foundation of America, National Association of County & City Health Officials, National Environmental Health Association, and Physicians for Social Responsibility. Their statement is such: “Biomass is far from “clean” – burning biomass [and wood pellets in particular] creates air pollution that causes a sweeping array of health harms, from asthma attacks to cancer to heart attacks, resulting in emergency room visits, hospitalizations, and premature deaths.” (Stashwick). This all means that biomass is as harmful, or even more harmful to people’s health than burning of coal and other fossil fuels. This strongly contradicts the image of the “green energy” as, above all, a safe source of energy. As the examples above have shown, biofuels, and wood pellets, in particular, are harmful to people.
Of course, a few counter-arguments could be suggested to the ideas and the claims in this paper. For example, some may argue that although the initial cost of building a wind turbine or solar panels is high, they are very cheap to maintain because they do not require fuel. By continuing this logic, it also could be argued that as wind turbines do not need fuel, there is no need to pay for power plant fuel or waste logistics. And, because they do not require much active personnel to operate the generator, the overall efficiency will increase. Thus, the use of green energy as the primary and sustainable source is completely justified.
Furthermore, some may argue that even if wind turbines indeed emit as much CO2 during the production phase as I have shown in this paper, they still do not emit any CO2 during their service period. Moreover, in some of the wind generators it is possible to “produce hydrogen and synthetic fuels like kerosene and diesel in a climate-friendly way” (Rueter). Consequently, this is what makes them way more carbon-neutral and “sustainable” than the other types of generators. Therefore, they would claim, the use of wind turbines is justified as well.
However, I would strongly disagree with such counter-arguments. First of all, though wind turbines do not require people as active personnel operating them, numerous teams are still used to maintain all the wind infrastructure, roads to the wind turbines, etc. These people would also be needed to repair the wind turbines in case something happens. Wind turbines are huge, and to deliver just one blade of the turbine to the required location, a whole truck or even more would be needed. Consequently, although direct operating costs are relatively low, the maintenance, frequent repairs, modernization, and other implicit costs of the wind turbines will require a lot of resources and money.
Secondly, wind generators actually do produce carbon emissions, as was shown in the study by the scientists from the University of Edinburgh (Thompson, Harrison, 16). According to their data, on average, a wind station would produce 64 grams of CO2 per kWh, depending on the location. It means that if we take an average wind 1.6 MW turbine from the station Limon II in Colorado which produces 76,800 MW of energy as our example, during its’ lifetime of 20 years, it will generate approximately 4,915 metric tons of CO2. Again, this is not to mention the carbon prices of recycling the turbine, which blades are, just as the solar panels, hardly recyclable.
In conclusion, green energy indeed has a vast amount of problems and drawbacks, which, unfortunately, are rarely brought up in the media. When we evaluate certain options and then make the final decision, it is best when we have a full overview of both the positive and the negative aspects of a choice. Still, for some reason, the media and the government often forget about the price we have to pay for green energy. This leads to harsh consequences, such as the deforestation of Estonia, the energy crisis in Europe during the Fall-Winter 2021, etc. With this paper, I am not trying to protect more traditional sources of energy, such as nuclear energy or fossil fuels energy. They all have their drawbacks, and I believe that if we recognize the limitations and the negative sides of green energy as well as such in other sources of energy, we will be able to make a more rational, more balanced, and more effective choice.
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