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Green Energy: The Big Picture

A broader look at our approach to renewable energy,

where we not only look at the carbon cost,

but the human cost too.

The inspiration for this topic came from a user suggestion.

SUBJECT

Future topic

MESSAGE

Deciding where the line is on destroying the environment for renewable energy sources.

I reached out to for clarification. The user said

"explore the dark side of renewables and other green technologies... to what extent does the end justify the means."

Opening Assumptions

The document shows that REEs (rare earth elements) are used to varying degrees in generators and fuel cells for various types of energy production.

 

Don’t let the name fool you though, REEs aren’t that rare, and their use isn’t extremely problematic. The major issue lies primarily with elements like cobalt and copper.

What's the issue with copper and cobalt?

Inherently, there isn't really an issue with using these elements. The problem lies in the fact that over 60% of all cobalt produced is exported by the Democratic Republic of Congo, where Congolese people are paid peanuts and exposed to toxic cobalt.

Trees are cut down, water supplies have become contaminated, and people are required to handle this toxic material without safety equipment.

So rather than just focusing on carbon emissions, I want to discuss a few other aspects of renewable energy sources that are often ignored. 

Green Energy = Good Business

When it comes to solar energy, the American Southwest is one of the top three regions for solar energy production. The US also has the second largest wind capacity for energy generation in the world. This leaves us, as a country, in a great position to shift energy production into green, clean sources.

 

The Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 appropriated billions of dollars to guarantee loans given for various reasons. Companies now have access to cheap credit for the purposes of building renewable energy sources, refining the minerals, recycling, retooling old fossil fuel plants, adapting old infrastructure, and so much more.

 

This is a huge stimulus for the energy sector.

 

In terms of innovation, new methods of producing, transmitting, and storing energy are being created faster than ever. This is great because our current methods of generating green energy may be better than burning coal or gas, but there’s still lots of room for improvement.

Breakthroughs in nuclear fusion spell the potential for abundant, clean energy within the near future. If fusion is the holy grail of energy production that some people think it is, it could make our current forms of green energy obsolete.

 

One exciting form of energy storage, which isn’t new but is being improved upon, are redox flow batteries. These work like a rechargeable fuel cell, with common variants using an element called vanadium as its charge carrier. Vanadium is primarily exported out of Russia, China, and South Africa. It is an element with practical uses in many fields, making it expensive, but new developments have been able to make redox flow batteries using salt rather than vanadium. 

 

These new RDFs (redox flow batteries) are cheap to produce, have long lifespans, and can even create clean water as a by-product. Over their lifespan they are supposed to outperform traditional lithium-ion batteries which are the most common today.

 

There are also gravity batteries, which use excess energy to lift a mass (most often water) to a higher reservoir. When the energy is needed, that water flows back down and through turbines which generate electricity again. A simple but genius method of energy storage.

 

Why am I writing about batteries? Because these alternative methods of storing energy could drastically reduce our need for elements, like cobalt, that are gathered using unethical practices.

 

Speaking of ethics…

The Two Branching Paths

While there are five types (or more) of environmentalism, in my experience there are two broad umbrellas people tend to fall under:

Anti-Human Environmentalists

Have a general sentiment along the lines of "human beings are a cancer to the Earth, they're bad bad bad, and they're hurting the planet."

Pro-Human Environmentalists

Have a general sentiment along the lines of "human beings have really screwed things up lately, so we need to work extra hard to get back into a balance with the planet."

I'm amazed when I meet someone who feels so negatively about their own species. Thankfully, they aren't as common (or at least not as commonly outspoken) as more empathic environmentalists, in my experience.

 

Still, I feel like it's common for people to feel guilt over existing at all. In Christian religions there is the idea of original sin where human beings are inherently tainted merely for being human beings. In a country founded on Christianity, which has since largely moved away from it, it's not unreasonable to assume that some of that latent guilt for existing has taken a new form. Instead of feeling guilty for sinning against God, people feel guilty for "harming" the planet. You never know, though. It could entirely be The Matrix's fault that people feel this way.

Despite my optimism that not too many people are Anti-Human Environmentalists, articles like this still pop up every once in a while, so I want to address it quickly.

Earth has undergone countless cataclysms. Its topography, environments, and species have been constantly changing since the planet has existed. The idea that we are “harming” the Earth requires you to select one point in Earth’s history and decide that that’s the correct way for the Earth to exist.

What if I came in and said “the Earth began as a lava-covered, lifeless sphere, so that’s obviously how it should be.” You'd probably disagree.

So the truth of the matter is that we’ve decided that a clean, green Earth is desirable because it is what we find desirable. We want an Earth that seems right for us, where humans can flourish and live in harmony with the planet. Why then do some people hold such contempt for humankind? Are we not trying to live in tune with the Earth for our own sakes? The Earth will continue to change with or without us, it will “heal” from whatever we throw at it (although implying healing would once again imply that the Earth has a correct configuration).

Rather than hate on humanity for being human, let’s shift our focus to creating a better world not just for the planet, but for us too.

 

So if we can agree that the goal of restoring the climate is to ensure long-lasting, mutually beneficial life on Earth, we can begin to address the problems honestly.

 

Here is a good article on the above.

The Source of Our Power

The most popular form of renewables these days is solar energy. The panels used to capture and convert solar energy are primarily made of silicon, along with a few other precious metals. Information on the carbon emitted during its mining and refinement is scarce and unreliable, since the two biggest producers of silicon are China and Russia.

 

China is the world’s largest emitter of CO2 and has put off its goal to reduce their carbon emissions in favor of higher manufacturing output. In fact, the Chinese government maintains that fossil fuels are the key to growth for their manufacturing sector.

Top producers of carbon emissions bar graph

It is important to note that while China remains the biggest producer of greenhouse gasses, their emissions per person are still lower than the United States, which is the second largest producer.

China 10.1 tons per person, US 17.6 tons per person

The chart up in the first section showed that, even though panel production primarily happens in pro-CO2 China, the carbon cost of the panels is still way lower than burning fossil fuels.

 

What about the human cost?

Most of us know that the rare earth minerals required to make our phones, computers, TVs, cars, headphones, and just about every piece of technology comes from mines where workers are treated like slaves and exposed to toxic elements daily. We even know that populations are essentially held captive, tortured, brainwashed, and forced to build these things as with the Uyghers.

The Chinese people at large have less rights and opportunities to speak out against their working conditions. Couple that with government censorship and you have a captive workforce with very few opportunities to improve their situation. The world relies on watchdog organizations to conduct independent reports which share information on working conditions in the country. 

 

Many of us have heard about sweatshops in east Asia, and reports abound online, but when looking for more recent articles they don’t seem as plentiful. You may even remember stories of secret notes slipped into consumer goods sold in America.

Some people may believe the conditions have been improved, and maybe they have somewhat, but closer to the truth is that the Chinese government has tightened their grip over the information leaving their country, or Westerners have lost interest.

 

That last part, us losing interest, is what’s really relevant to this article.

The Democratic Republic of Congo

Concerns over mining conditions in the DRC (Democratic Republic of the Congo) are fairly common for anyone who have seen these conditions. The Congolese are sent into the mines, which are often joint ventures between foreign powers and their own government, without proper safety equipment or training.

 

Copper, cobalt, diamond, and gold are major exports of the DRC. Some of these elements are what are known as conflict minerals, which are minerals sold to fund wars in the area (you’ve probably heard of blood diamonds, that’s this).

 

Not only does the sale of these mined materials fund wars, but an extremely small percentage of those profits makes it back to the people who mine them.

Going Green - Marketing at its Finest

Its usually the case that those who are outspoken for environmental conservation and restoration are also concerned with human rights. There are people out there doing the work, volunteering in places that need help, sacrificing their time and energy to help those in need, tying themselves to trees, changing regulations in favor of the planet, and more.

 

Those people deserve a tremendous amount of respect.

As for the rest of us, we either don't care or only pretend to.

There are things we can do, today, that would reduce our carbon footprint and take us further away from the exploitation of people overseas. We think we're eco-warriors when we order a composting bin online, but the additional emissions from having it brought to our doorstep, and the fact that it was made in a country where people are paid pennies negate any positive impact we think we're having. Recycling doesn't just mean throwing your plastic in a different colored bin, it means reusing the things we constantly choose to throw away.

Rather than do the dirty work, we prefer things clean and new. We don't want to see the ugliness of life, and when we do it makes us feel bad.

We crave ways to feel better about our overconsumption, our waste, our desire for comfort. How could we ever feel good about our rampant consumerism?

View from inside a recyling bin
Tag criticizing "greenwashing"

What if we could continue to buy whatever we wanted and feel good about it?

Enter Green Marketing.

I know, its ironic that I'm bashing marketing on a website I made in order to land a marketing job. The self-sabotage is not lost on me. This is, however, a website for honest opinions and discussions, and it always will be.

I also want to note that not every instance of green marketing is deceitful. In fact, there are plenty of companies out there making incredible products in environmentally conscious ways.

Most of the honest eco, fair-trade products are made extremely well, and buying a well made thing once is way better on the planet than buying cheap things multiple times.

 

The barrier between most people and these products, though, is money.

I believe that most people would be happy to spend the money on products that align with our values, work well, last long, and come from small businesses. The problem isn't the price of these things, it's our pay. While there are plenty of people in the US who make over $100k each year, those dollars buy less and less as the months go on. Not only that, but compared to 50 years ago, we have so many more things to buy!

In the past, a television set and a radio were a family's main electronics. Now we buy phones, gaming consoles, VR sets, automated vacuums, laundry machines, dishwashers, a second refrigerator, video doorbells, video cameras, computers, tablets, and the list goes on.

At what point do we chill out?

TL;DR - Conclusion

To summarize:

  • Green energy is cool, but not as perfect as people think.

  • Cobalt mining is bad for the people in the mines. Like, very bad.

  • The US is putting a ton of money towards the green energy sector, which could be good.

  • Many of the pieces involved in renewable energies are made in factories overseas with terrible working conditions.

  • The country making our green energy components (China) outputs a ton of carbon.

  • We should take a holistic view of the situation and not only focus on our carbon footprint.

  • Many of the actions taken in the name of saving the planet are just ways to make us feel better about ourselves.

  • We should look at as many factors of our consumption as we can, not just the green logo on the products we buy.

  • When you can, buy from better companies.

  • Think about if you really need to have 3 gaming consoles and 4 TVs in the same house.

I don't typically take a strong stance on things. The more I learn, the less I know. Informing yourself on any given topic is the best way to know how you truly feel about something.

Companies, the government, your job, and society at large all have an agenda. They want you to feel a certain way about any given topic. 'Listen closely, but pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.'

 

Do your research.

The moment you feel vindicated or justified, make the choice to keep looking. The first answer is often the wrong one. We'll never have the full picture, but we can do our best with the information available to us. Don't let anyone prey on your emotions in order to control you.

Make up your own mind on topics, don't subscribe to a belief based on social pressures. We can't do what's right if we never figure out what that is.

I thank you for your time. I hope everyone reading this well and, till next time, take care.

I entered this research with the understanding that renewable energy is not as clean as people think it is. I’ve worked on solar farms and have seen the waste involved, as well as the habitat destruction. I thought that, in terms of greenhouse gas emission, renewables weren’t much superior to burning fossil fuels.

 

I considered the:

  • Mining of materials (Often in poorer countries using quasi slave labor.)

  • The transportation between countries of the materials (Typically on big cargo ships.)

  • Fabrication of the devices (Making the panels in a factory.)

  • Transportation to customers (Typically western countries, a considerable distance from where they're commonly fabricated, China.)

  • Product loss (Damage to panels before installation, which is inevitable.)

  • The construction itself (Which involves various types of machinery and manpower to prepare a site, create the infrastructure, and install the panels.)

  • Cleaning the panels (Panels are generally in deserts, which cover the panels in fine dirt. Cleaning these panels requires plenty of water in thee dry regions.)

  • The lifespan of the panels (Solar panels last between 20 and 30 years. Some well-made panels may even last up to 40 years.)

  • And their disposal (Recycling them is costly and company’s often prefer to dispose of them and buy new ones).

It seems that my assumption that their emissions were comparable was way off.

When determining the benefits and drawbacks of these sources of energy, in terms of greenhouse gasses the winner is clear.

 

While researching the topic, I discovered a document containing information on the types of materials (primarily focused on rare earth elements, REEs) used in the production of each type of renewable energy source.

The primary element used in solar panel production is silicon, which is extremely abundant on Earth.

My assumption was that it involved the use of cobalt.

Renewable emissions compared to fossil fuels bar graph

Solar panels produce energy directly from sunlight in a process called photovoltaics.

 

Other forms of green energy production (and pretty much every form of “dirty” energy production) generate electricity by spinning a rotor containing electromagnets inside of a giant coil of wire. This is the traditional method of producing electricity.

 

Whether its wind power, hydroelectric power, nuclear power, burning fossil fuels, or even geothermal, power is generated by spinning a turbine.

One user wanted to know more about how the church impacted the way we still live today. Here's an example.

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