Rare Earths and Other Chemicals Damaging the Environmental Value of Renewables
David Sims posted on August 23, 2013 | 6214 views

thomasnet, rare earth, china, US, mongolia, economy, environment, chemicals, renewablesThe old adage about how you don’t want to see how laws or sausage is made applies to so-called renewable energy. Specifically, you don’t want to know the environmental cost of all those rare earth minerals that the technology requires.

Solar energy requires components which are manufactured using lots of dirty traditional energy. The wind power industry produces a great deal of toxic waste and kills thousands of birds. Mining rare earth minerals, which are essential for so much green energy, especially wind turbines, is a dirty business.

Is it worth the cost? That depends on whom you ask.

Solar Energy: Not So Clean After All.

Solar energy turns sunlight into electrical power. What’s not to like? Well, there is that whole process of manufacturing solar panels, which requires a great deal of energy. All that energy requires generation via means other than solar power — usually coal.

“In the case of silicon-based solar panels, which are the most common type, the silicon material requires melting silica rock in roughly 3,000-degree F ovens,” notes The Data Center Journal. “That energy, however, typically comes from coal plants, meaning that although solar panels may produce no emissions when in operation, they indirectly produce a fair amount during manufacturing.”

And what to do with the solar panels when their productive life is over in about 25 years or so? And what about all the waste chemicals generated by the solar panel manufacturing process? The Union of Concerned Scientists write that the photovoltaic (PV) cell manufacturing process “includes a number of hazardous materials,” similar to “those used in the general semiconductor industry,” such as “hydrochloric acid, sulfuric acid, nitric acid, hydrogen fluoride, 1,1,1-trichloroethane, and acetone.” If we’re talking about thin-film PV cells, it’s worse, as UCS explains, since those have “more toxic materials than those used in traditional silicon photovoltaic cells, including gallium arsenide, copper-indium-gallium-diselenide, and cadmium-telluride.”

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 Wind Energy: About Those Rare Earths…

Wind energy seems so clean — gentle breezes quietly spinning sleek blades, generating energy. What could be dirty about that? According to The Data Center Journal, for one, the answer is, “Plenty.”

See, to get those wonderful turbines, one needs a rather large quantity of rare earth minerals (which, despite their name, are not so rare). Mining and processing these rare earths generates a tremendous amount of “hazardous and radioactive byproducts,” the DCJ reports, which “can cause tremendous harm to both people and the environment.”

In fact, the environmental effects of rare earth mining can be literally sickening. In the Mongolian town of Baotou, the epicenter of Chinese rare earths production, the mining has literally killed off the local farming, The Guardian reports: “The soil and groundwater are saturated with toxic substances. Five years ago (local farmer) Li had to get rid of his sick pigs, the last survivors of a collection of cows, horses, chickens, and goats, killed off by the toxins.”

The environmental damage that rare earth production requires might be one of the major reasons the U.S. is happy to let China do most of it, and buy the finished product from them. The irony is rather hard to miss — proponents of wind power demand stringent environmental standards on our domestic coal and nuclear industry, but seem strangely unconcerned at the appalling environmental conditions necessary to supply their rare earths habit.

This article was originally published on ThomasNet News Industry Market Trends  and is reprinted in its entirety with permission from Thomas Industrial Network.  For more stories like this please visit Industry Market Trends.

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