Green Energy’s Environmental Impacts: Out of Sight, Out of Mind
The Missouri Renewable Energy Standard requires that at least 15 percent of Missouri’s electricity from state-regulated electric utilities (such as Ameren and Evergy) come from green energy sources by next year. There has been some movement to increase this, as at least one member of Missouri’s Public Service Commission—the body regulating electricity in Missouri—supports raising the requirement. Further, an initiative petition that circulated earlier this year proposed increasing the requirement to 50 percent by 2040.
While such goals are often introduced as environmental necessities, a new report from the Manhattan Institute calls for a reality check on the environmental impact of such green energy goals. The report highlights “the inescapable reality that every product and service begins with, and is sustained by, extracting minerals from the earth.”
But what does this have to do with green energy? While wind and sunlight are renewable, wind turbines and solar panels are not. Further, energy-storing batteries require large amounts of non-recyclable materials. In fact, all three are quite resource intensive and producing them can have serious environmental consequences.
The report notes that, compared to a natural gas plant, wind and solar power plants require 10–15 times as much steel, concrete, and glass to generate the same amount of energy. Manufacturing a single 1,000-pound electric vehicle battery requires mining, moving, and processing 500,000 pounds of materials.
These machines wear out, too. Wind turbines and solar panels last between 20 and 30 years, and electric vehicle batteries last around seven.
Those concerned about large amounts of unrecyclable waste should be equally concerned about the afterlife of these machines. According to the International Renewable Energy Agency, current solar growth policies will result in roughly 51–67 million tons per year of unrecyclable waste by 2050. While not a perfect comparison, this is nearly twice the current annual level of unrecyclable plastic waste. If wind energy grows as the International Energy Agency predicts, turbines will contribute another 3 million tons per year of unrecyclable plastic waste by 2050. Lastly, the Manhattan Institute report calculates that more than 10 million tons of batteries per year will become unrecyclable waste by 2030 under current projections.
None of green energy’s environmental drawbacks change the fact that fossil fuels negatively impact the environment as well. However, every energy source has environmental impacts, and currently there is no magic bullet for truly “clean” energy production. As Missourians are asked to support green energy programs at the state and federal level, they should recognize the tradeoffs involved. While green energy’s environmental impacts may be out of sight, they should not be out of mind.