Rare Earths and Other Chemicals Damaging the Environmental Value of Renewables

August 22, 2013

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Here's how green energy is made.

Baotou, Mongolia, where rare earths are mined for a variety of high-tech applications, including renewable energy systems.

The 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.”

 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.

Chinese rare earths mining.

Chinese rare earths mining.

In fact, it’s rare earths which account for a great deal of the overall carbon footprint of green energy, energy storage, and other clean technologies.

The 17 so-called rare earth minerals, e.g., the lanthanides, scandium, and yttrium, as well as associated metals molybdenum and tungsten, are needed in the production of items such as cell phones, other popular consumer electronics, batteries, the electronics governing defense systems, and missiles.

Production and consumption of rare earth minerals totaled over 100,000 metric tons in 2012, according to a report from IHS Chemical in Houston. IHS’s study estimates that from 2012 to 2017, global demand for rare earth products will grow by 7.6 percent annually and reach more than 150,000 metric tons, with China leading consumption growth at 8.3 percent annually.

Rare Earths Not So Rare, Actually.

Contrary to the term, rare earths are actually abundant -- far more so than silver and gold. Australia, the U.S., and other have nations have sizable reserves. But world production is predominantly controlled by China.

It’s an almost-ironic situation where carbon-intensive production and mining methods are used to manufacture products designed to lower the overall carbon footprint. Danish wind turbine producer Vestas writes on its website, “The rare earth elements are used in the magnets found in the tower and in the permanent-magnet generators in some of the newer models… to improve the performance of turbines by making the generators more efficient and more grid-compatible,” which allows for smaller generators requiring “fewer other resources (steel, composite structural materials, etc.) and a smaller carbon footprint.”

Rare Earths Not So Eco-Friendly, Either.

According to the online journal Ecocred, “[A]n electric car might use nearly 10 times the amount of rare earth metals as opposed to a conventional car, which uses a little more than one pound of rare earth materials.”

Research conducted at MIT noted, “A single large wind turbine (rated at about 3.5 WM) typically contains 600 kg, or about 1,300 lbs, of rare earth metals.”

The grim trade-off between obtaining power from wind and the methods required to make that happen leave those within the industry uncomfortable. “Executives in the $1.3 billion rare-earths mining industry say that less environmentally damaging mining is needed, given the importance of their product for green energy technologies,” The New York Times wrote back in 2009, adding that Nicholas Curtis, the executive chairman of the Lynas Corporation of Australia, in a speech to an industry gathering in Hong Kong said, “This industry wants to save the world. We can’t do it and leave a product that is glowing in the dark somewhere else, killing people.”

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