I have been concerned about the environment for as long as I can remember (to the extent that I once almost voted for the Green Party, before they became obsessed with climate change). I have been perplexed for some time by the state of environmentalism, where concern about “carbon” (as they insist on calling CO2) seems to trump any real concern for the environment. Any environmental degradation is acceptable, even welcome, it seems, if it’s “renewable”. The end justifies the means.
In August 2017 Paul Kingsnorth published “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist”, and there are aspects of Paul’s book that resonate with me. This passage says it all for me, and sums up the current state of environmentalism nicely:
“This reductive approach to the human-environmental challenge leads to an obvious conclusion: if carbon is the problem, then ‘zero carbon’ is the solution…
To do this will require the large-scale harvesting of the planet’s ambient energy: sunlight, wind, water power. This means that vast new conglomerations of human industry are going to appear in places where the energy is most abundant. Unfortunately, these places coincide with some of the world’s wildest, most beautiful and most untouched landscapes. The sort of places that environmentalism came into being to protect.
And so the deserts, perhaps the landscape always most resistant to permanent human conquest, are to be colonised by vast ‘solar arrays’, glass and steel and aluminium, the size of small countries. The mountains and moors, the wild uplands, are to be staked out like vampires in the sun, their chests pierced with rows of 500′ wind turbines and associated access roads, masts, pylons and wires.”
He continues with a catalogue of environments, each doomed to destruction through the introduction of large scale industrialisation, all in the pursuit of ‘net zero’: open oceans, coastlines, estuaries, rivers, croplands, and even the rainforest. All are to be sacrificed for a ‘greater good’. He finishes with:
“So here I was again: a Luddite, a nimby, a reactionary, a romantic; standing in the way of progress. I realised that I was dealing with environmentalists with no attachment to any actual environment. Their talk was of parts per million of carbon, peer-reviewed papers, sustainable technologies, renewable supergrids, green growth and the fifteenth conference of the parties. There were campaigns about ‘ the planet’ and ‘the Earth’, but there was no specificity: no sign of any real, felt attachment to any small part of that Earth.”
It’s nice to know that I’m not the only one scratching my head over the willingness, even apparent desire, to destroy the environment, on the part of people who call themselves environmentalists.
One tenth of the contiguous US states to be blanketed in turbines and solar panels
Paul Kingsnorth’s words turned out to be remarkably prescient. On 15th March 2021, the Guardian published an article headed “The race to zero: can America reach net-zero emissions by 2050?” and sub-headed “Joe Biden wants zero emissions by 2050, but time is ticking. So how will the country have to change over the next 30 years?”
“If America finally weans itself off planet-heating emissions, the country will look and feel very different.
Landscapes from coast to coast would be transformed, carpeted in wind turbines and solar panels, with enough new transmission lines to wrap around Earth 19 times. The populace would whiz past in their electric cars, to and from homes equipped with induction stoves and heat pumps. Hundreds of thousands of people who would have prematurely died from the toxic fossil-fuel age would still be alive.
It’s an appealing vision, according to Eric Larson, senior research engineer at Princeton University…”
An appealing vision? Well, an absence of premature deaths would be good news, but there must be other ways to achieve that. As for the rest of it…really?
Further on, the article tells us that as the use of coal, oil and gas is scaled back,
“A gargantuan effort [will be required] to erect solar panels and wind turbines – first an extra 300GW of wind and 300GW of solar by 2030, before supply soars further to five times today’s transmission capacity by 2050.
This endeavor [sic] will require around 590,000 sq km (or 227,800 sq miles) of America to be blanketed in turbines and panels, around a tenth of all the land in the contiguous US. If you took a stroll along an Atlantic-facing beach there would be a good chance you’d see renewable energy in all directions, with an expanse of ocean the size of Belgium dotted with towering offshore wind turbines.
… As solar and wind are intermittent, moving clean energy to all corners of the country will require the current electricity transmission system to triple in size, an extraordinary roll-out of new poles, wires and substations.”
To my mind, this is a Dantean vision of hell, a sign of the world going mad. Yet to some people, this is “an appealing vision“. It ought to be an environmentalist’s worst nightmare.
“A very significant pollution event”
The environmental damage caused by the new breed of environmentalists is increasing all over the world. And it’s all too evident in the British Isles. An incident that has received little publicity, but which was reported on the BBC website in November 2020 was described as “peat slide devastation” at Meenbog Wind Farm, under construction in Donegal. It caused damage on both sides of the Donegal/Tyrone border, as thousands of tonnes of peat were washed into an internationally protected salmon spawning river, the Derg. An Ulster Angling Federation spokesman said:
“…this is a very significant pollution event, one of the largest in the history of Northern Ireland and Ireland and involving large acreages of bogland. It is one that will be difficult to reinstate.”
Interestingly, the report also suggests that there had been opposition to the wind farm development with anglers and others claiming it could lead to instability in the bog where the 19 turbines are going in, but planners had decided it was not a risk.
Ironically, a 2014 report for the Northern Ireland Environment Agency noted that siting wind turbines on peatland could release considerable carbon dioxide from the peat, and also damage the peatland contributions to flood control and water quality:
“The potential knock-on effects of using the peatland resource for wind turbines are considerable and it is arguable that the impacts on this facet of biodiversity will have the most noticeable and greatest financial implications for Northern Ireland.”
This wind farm, though, was built just over the border.
Even more ironically, Northern Irish politicians are currently falling over themselves to introduce a Climate Change Act, to the extent that two bills to this end are currently before the Stormont Assembly. Given that Northern Ireland’s greenhouse gas emissions are utterly insignificant in the global scheme of things, perhaps they would do better to concentrate on looking after the environment?
120,000 square metre artificial island
On 4th February 2021 the Guardian reported on plans by Denmark to build a “clean energy hub” by building a new artificial island 50 miles offshore in the North Sea. The island is to be the size of 18 football pitches. Despite that, we are warned that:
“…the North Sea island might be difficult to complete before 2033, meaning it might not help Denmark reach its ambitious 2030 target of cutting greenhouse gas emissions by 70% from 1990 levels.”
The tone of the whole article is rather breathless and very enthusiastic, and we are told:
“’This is truly a great moment for Denmark and for the global green transition,’ Denmark’s climate minister, Dan Jørgensen, said in a statement. ‘The energy hub in the North Sea will be the largest construction project in Danish history’.”
Apparently this sort of thing is “green”. Nowhere does the article discuss the possible environmental problems that might be associated with this plan. The article contains only the briefest reference, near the end, to the need to carry out environmental impact assessments on the sea bed.
It seems that we are back in Paul Kingsnorth’s world, where he wryly observes, “Container port wiping out estuary mudflats: bad. Renewable hydro-power barrage wiping out estuary mudflats: good.”
For example, in 2009, the greenprophet website complained that Dubai’s artificial islands project was causing environmental damage. As recently as March 2019, the Guardian reported in critical terms on the Hong Kong government’s plans to build one of the world’s largest artificial islands, discussing claims that the island could damage the environment and marine life. In 2016 the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague, as well as rejecting China’s sovereignty claims in the South China Sea, ruled that China’s building of artificial islands there had caused environmental damage.
But you’ll look in vain for environmental criticism of any artificial islands constructed for the purposes of supplying “renewable” energy. The BBC’s article on the subject of Denmark’s “energy island”, published on its website on 4th February 2021 made no mention of possible environmental issues, and (like the Guardian) is gushing in its general tone. The Euronews online article (which invited me to sign up for its green newsletter) was similar in tone and content. The same is true of Forbes, DW (Deutsche Welle), the Independent, and pretty much any news website that has reported on the story.
Minimising, but not avoiding, bird deaths is a victory
On 1st March 2021 a report appeared in the Guardian with this heading:
“Wind power company vows to help save critically endangered California condor”
and this sub-heading:
“The condor, a vulture threatened by giant wind turbines, may be helped by energy company’s breeding project “
The report advises that:
“The threat to wildlife from renewable energy turbines has been a growing concern for environmentalists. In 2013, a study by the Wildlife Society into bird and bat fatalities at California’s Altamont Pass wind resource area projected 573,000 bird deaths a year nationally, including 83,000 raptors, and 888,000 bat fatalities.”
With no apparent sense of irony, the turbine company’s operations wildlife compliance manager said:
“Our goal is to minimize the risk of mortalities. We see this as a win for condors”.
In fairness, the company in question is trying to do something positive, but it’s a strange world when minimising condor deaths (i.e. killing condors, just not so many of them) is regarded as “a win” – especially for the condors in question.
Solar power – more bird deaths
What of solar power? On 1st January 2017, an article appeared on the Black & Veatch website with the heading:
“Impact of Solar Energy on Wildlife Is an Emerging Environmental Issue”
It reported on how large concentrating solar plants use “power towers” that consist of hundreds of thousands of computer-controlled mirrors to track the sun throughout the day, reflecting the sunlight to boilers at the tops of towers several hundred feet high. The concentrated sunlight heats the water in the boiler pipes to create superheated steam, which is then piped to a turbine to generate power.
Birds, insects, and bats that fly through the highly concentrated, high-temperature solar beams they are ignited in mid-air. The report says that they may be killed by the heat, by the force of falling to the ground, or by a waiting predator…
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) law enforcement personnel at a large concentrated solar project in California observed this happening every couple of minutes.
The article claims that it’s also possible that the brightness and intensity of the light from large solar fields could be attracting insects even during the daytime, which in turn attracts their predators, birds and bats. Night lighting of these facilities consists of security lighting, which also attracts insects and their predators from the surrounding darker desert. The USFWS Office of Law Enforcement in a report released in April 2014 refers to the types of large-scale solar projects that cause these impacts as “mega-traps.”
Pollution at end of useful life
On 14th December 2020, Conor Prendergast wrote an article for the website of Discover Magazine, which summarised the problems that we face when solar panels reach the end of their useful life (after maybe 20-30 years). He pointed out that to improve the efficiency of solar panels, cadmium and lead are often added. These are difficult to extract when it’s time to dispose of defunct solar panels, to the extent that if done properly, it can cost more to recycle a solar panel than to manufacture it in the first place. It’s not uncommon for solar recycling plants to extract valuable silver and copper, and then simply burn what’s left, dumping the residue in landfill, whence there is a danger of leaching into groundwater. Cadmium is a carcinogen. China and the USA are the largest users of solar power, and neither country has required solar companies to collect and recycle properly. Maybe the USA will follow the EU’s lead here, but what of China and poor developing countries? It’s not a small problem – the International Renewable Energy Agency has suggested that by 2050 up to 78 million metric tons of solar panels will have reached the end of their life, and that the world will be generating about 6 million metric tons of new solar e-waste annually.
And the problem isn’t just with solar panels. On 7th February 2020, the BBC website published an article under the heading “What happens to all the old wind turbines?”. The opening paragraphs make for stark reading:
“Welcome to the wind turbine graveyard. It stretches a hundred metres from a bend in the North Platte River in Casper, Wyoming.
Between last September and this March, it will become the final resting place for 1,000 fibreglass turbine blades.
These blades, which have reached the end of their 25-year working lives, come from three wind farms in the north-western US state. Each will be cut into three, then the pieces will be stacked and buried.”
It pointed out that the first wave of wind turbines from the 1990s are now reaching the end of their useful lives, and that disposing of them in an environmentally-friendly way is not easy. The materials that they are made from – glass fibre in the case of older blades, carbon fibre in the newer ones – are very difficult to recycle. Pyrolysis is – in theory – one option, involving breaking up the composite fibres in ovens at temperatures of up to 700C. This can recover the materials for alternative uses, but vast amounts of energy are required.
Turbines, of course, are popping up everywhere, and are only getting bigger. And so is the size of the headache of what to do with them at the end of their useful lives. Liu and Barlow’s paper, “Wind turbine blade waste in 2050” estimates that there will be 43 million tonnes of blade waste worldwide by 2050, with China possessing 40% of the waste, Europe 25%, the United States 16% and the rest of the world 19%. Not so renewable after all, then.
Rare earth minerals
Rare earth minerals are vital for many aspects of modern life, including smartphones and flat screen TVs. They are also essential for magnets in wind turbines, and are used in the batteries required for electric cars. They are therefore, as technology currently stands, vital to the “net zero” agenda. However, there is a problem, a problem that the BBC brought to our notice in April 2015 when Tim Maughan wrote an article for the BBC website headed “The dystopian lake filled by the world’s tech lust“. China has a substantial proportion of the planet’s rare earth minerals and so, apart from the danger to the developed world’s plans, if China decided not to co-operate in this area, there is a serious environmental problem associated with this issue too.
The industry associated with China’s extraction and use of rare earth minerals is centred on Baotou in Inner Mongolia, about which the article tells us:
“Even before getting to the toxic lake, the environmental impact the rare earth industry has had on the city is painfully clear. At times it’s impossible to tell where the vast structure of the Baogang refineries complex ends and the city begins. Massive pipes erupt from the ground and run along roadways and sidewalks, arching into the air to cross roads like bridges. The streets here are wide, built to accommodate the constant stream of huge diesel-belching coal trucks that dwarf all other traffic.”
“Diesel-belching coal trucks”, eh? There’s an irony.
I’ve mentioned elsewhere that the western world is exporting its CO2 emissions (and jobs) to countries with poorer environmental standards, such as China. It seems that it’s more than just CO2 that we’re exporting to China – we’re exporting environmental degradation too, thanks to the apparent lack of concern of China’s authorities with regard to such matters:
“For example, cerium is extracted by crushing mineral mixtures and dissolving them in sulphuric and nitric acid, and this has to be done on a huge industrial scale, resulting in a vast amount of poisonous waste as a by-product. It could be argued that China’s dominance of the rare earth market is less about geology and far more about the country’s willingness to take an environmental hit that other nations shy away from.
And there’s no better place to understand China’s true sacrifice than the shores of Baotou toxic lake. Apparently created by damming a river and flooding what was once farm land, the lake is a “tailings pond”: a dumping ground for waste by products.”
And here’s the final irony:
“It’s a truly alien environment, dystopian and horrifying. The thought that it is man-made depressed and terrified me, as did the realisation that this was the by-product not just of the consumer electronics in my pocket, but also green technologies like wind turbines and electric cars that we get so smugly excited about in the West.”