Environmental catastrophe

Why Minnesotans need to understand the costly impacts of Minnesota’s Green New Deal.

Environmental activists and popular media like to portray wind turbines and solar panels as the only salvation for a civilization on the brink of a manmade environmental disaster. But the reality is not so simple: All human activities impact the environment, whether that activity is manufacturing, mining, or even tourism.

Unfortunately, “green energy” activists invariably overlook this fact as they argue that wind turbines and solar panels provide an unqualified benefit for the environment.

This muddles Minnesotans’ ability to make informed decisions about the costs and benefits of competing electricity generation technologies. To do so, they need to understand the significant, negative environmental impacts associated with these “green” technologies.

This article will examine the environmental impact of a Minnesota “Green New Deal,” a hypothetical situation in which our state transitions away from fossil fuels and nuclear energy to a grid powered exclusively by wind turbines, solar panels, and batteries, as proposed by Governor Tim Walz and other Democratic legislators.

What would a “Green New Energy Grid” look like?

Everybody knows that sunlight and windy breezes do not create pollution. However, the technologies that humans build to harvest the energy from wind and solar resources — wind turbines, solar panels and lithium-ion batteries — require the mining of raw material, processing of minerals, manufacturing, construction, and ultimately, tearing them down at the end of their useful lives, and each of these phases has an impact on the environment.

Engineers have trouble predicting how many wind turbines, solar panels and batteries would be needed to have a “Green New Electric Grid” because it’s impossible to know how much electricity these energy sources will generate at any given hour on any given day. Their electricity generation varies with the weather.

During the early summer of 2021, for example, wind turbines produced less than one percent of their potential output for multiple hours due to low wind speeds, even as demand for electricity for air conditioning soared (See Figure 1).

As a result, grid planners need to “overbuild” the number of wind turbines and solar panels needed to compensate for the highs and lows in power production. Even then, they pray they’ll have enough electricity available when it is needed most, and avoid the shortages experienced in California and Texas.

Figure 1

This calculation becomes even more complicated when we consider that only about one-third of our daily energy comes from electricity. The rest comes from the oil in our cars, trucks and planes, and the natural gas used for home heating and industrial purposes.

For our own estimates, American Experiment used an analysis prepared for Xcel Energy by Energy + Environment Economics (E3), which sought to determine how many wind turbines, solar panels and batteries would be needed to eliminate fossil fuels and nuclear power from their electric grid.

Then, we scaled these numbers up to reflect how much wind, solar and battery capacity would be needed to eliminate fossil fuels from the entire economy (beyond Xcel’s coverage area). We also calculated how much metal would be needed to replace Minnesota’s roughly five million gasoline and diesel-powered cars with electric vehicles.

The numbers are striking.

Massive quantities of metal

Wind and solar are infinite energy resources, but the metals and minerals used to make wind turbines, solar panels, batteries and electric vehicles are not. This is crucial to understand because a recent study by the International Energy Agency (IEA) found that “renewable” energy sources require far more metal than traditional energy sources.

Using estimates of metal consumption from IEA and the World Bank, American Experiment estimated the quantity of metal required to eliminate fossil fuels and nuclear power from the U.S. energy system and replace America’s cars with electric vehicles.

It would require four percent of the global annual production of copper, 18 percent of global nickel production, and 164 percent of global annual cobalt production to “decarbonize” a single U.S. state (See Figure 2).

These figures are stunning. Further context reveals the full scale of metals needed to convert just one state from fossil fuels to wind, solar, and batteries.

A recent analysis by Goldman Sachs entitled “Copper is the New Oil” concluded that only one million metric tons of the copper were used for “green” purposes, in wind turbines, solar panels and electric cars, in 2020. This means that electrifying the state of Minnesota would account for roughly 71 percent of global “green” copper consumption in 2020. Anyone who thinks this is “sustainable” needs to take a sobering look at the numbers.

Figure 2

Where we mine matters

Increasing our reliance upon wind turbines, solar panels, batteries and EVs will spur an enormous demand for metals. The amount of environmental destruction that results from this mining will largely depend upon where the mining occurs because different nations have vastly different regulations in place to protect the environment from the impact of mining.

Developed nations like Australia, Canada and the United States have robust regulations that protect workers and the environment during and after the mining process. In contrast, environmental destruction is often greatest in the developing world, where oversight and enforcement of environmental protections are weak, or non-existent.

For example, 55 percent of global cobalt production comes from the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), where the United Nations Children’s Fund estimates 40,000 boys and girls are working in cobalt mines. These children work in unsafe working conditions and wash the cobalt ore in rivers. Such a practice would be unthinkable and illegal in the modern mining industry in the United States.

Ironically, many of the same advocacy groups who want to run our energy system on
an electric grid using wind turbines, solar panels and batteries are also at the forefront of fighting environmentally responsible mining projects in Minnesota, which has some of the largest deposits of copper, nickel, and cobalt in the nation.

If we don’t mine in areas with strong protections, the metals will be developed in areas with few, if any, protections for workers or the environment. This means the mining will do more damage than it would in countries with robust regulatory frameworks.

Sadly, the amount of environmental damage that occurs as a result of unregulated mining operations is impossible to calculate because these operations do not conduct environmental monitoring to measure the impact of the mine on the environment.

Where we manufacture matters, too

Solar panels and wind turbines don’t magically appear. They must be manufactured. According to Reuters, 80 percent of the global supply of solar panels comes from China. As you can probably imagine, Chinese manufacturing facilities are not subject to strict environmental regulations.

In fact, protests erupted outside of a Jinko solar manufacturing facility in 2011 because the company was dumping toxic waste into rivers, killing fish and harming the ecosystem.

China also produces much of its supply of polysilicon, a crucial ingredient in solar panels, in Western China — in factories powered by coal-fired power plants, according to the New York Times. These panels are being assembled by Muslim Uighurs in what has been described as slavery.

Decommissioning wind turbines and solar panels

Another environmental concern that deserves greater attention is the impact of tearing down wind and solar facilities after they have reached the end of their useful lives.

While all power plants eventually wear out and need to be replaced, wind turbines only last for 20 years, and most solar panels are only warrantied for 25 years, which means these electricity generation technologies do not last as long as coal and natural gas, which operate for more than 60 years, and nuclear power plants, which can last for 80 years.

This means wind turbines and solar panels are essentially disposable power plants that will need to be decommissioned and disposed of more frequently than natural gas, coal and nuclear power plants.

Wind turbines

There are two main structural components of a wind turbine: the turbine itself, and the concrete foundation it is anchored to. Decommissioning each of these structures comes with financial and environmental costs.

Most of the actual wind turbine is made from recyclable materials. This includes the steel, iron and copper used in the tower and electrical wiring. The wind turbine blades, however, are not recyclable because they are made of very high strength fiberglass and plastic. As a result, these wind turbines are crushed and sent to the handful of landfills around the country that will accept them.

Wind turbine foundations, composed predominantly of concrete and steel rebar, are not recyclable, either.

There are a wide variety of wind turbine foundations used by the industry, but one of the most common types, the octagonal foundation, measures 40 to 60 feet in diameter, and is eight to 11.5 feet thick. However, utility companies and wind turbine owners only remove the first four feet of a wind turbine foundation, which means most of this concrete will remain underground forever.

Solar panels

Solar panels present a much larger environmental problem than wind turbines because there is no cost-effective or practical way to recycle them.

The Harvard Business Review estimates it costs between $20 and $30 to recycle a single solar panel but only $3 is recovered from selling the recovered copper, aluminum and glass. Sending that solar panel to a landfill, instead, costs only $1 to $2. As a result, solar panels often end up in landfills, or they are exported overseas for reuse in developing countries with weak environmental protections.

Solar panels also contain heavy metals such as cadmium and lead, which are toxic. Academic research has found that these heavy metals can be almost completely washed out of broken solar panel fragments over a period of several months by rainwater, which has slight natural acidity.

The Harvard Business Review finds that generous subsidies for solar panels are incentivizing people to replace them before their 25-year lifetimes are over, causing a much larger amount of solar waste. The researchers warned of a “looming solar trash wave,” where the volume of solar waste would surpass new installations. By 2035, discarded panels would outweigh new units sold by 2.56 times.

Impact on global temperatures

Activists view wind turbines and solar panels as the solution to global warming, but these people ignore scientific research from Harvard University that shows wind turbines cause far more local surface warming than reducing Minnesota’s greenhouse gas emissions could ever hope to avoid.

The 2018 Harvard study in the academic journal Joule found that wind turbines cause significant local surface warming near wind facilities because wind turbines redistribute heat within the upper and lower atmosphere by mixing boundary layers, like a giant box fan circulating heat in a room. The blades of the wind turbine bring warm air, that would normally rise, back down to the surface.

Wind-driven warming is very significant. Real-life measurements taken at a Texas location with one of the world’s largest clusters of operational wind turbines documented differences in surface temperature in three observational studies. These studies found the Texas location is 0.018 degrees Fahrenheit warmer during the day and 0.5 degrees Fahrenheit warmer at night.

This enormous amount of warming swamps the amount of temperature increase that would be averted by reducing Minnesota’s carbon dioxide emissions to zero. Using the same logic as the Obama administration, completely reducing

Minnesota’s greenhouse gas emissions would reduce future global temperatures by 0.0054 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100, an amount that is nearly 100 times smaller than the actual observed temperature increases measured in Texas.

For these reasons, the Harvard researchers state, “If your perspective is the next 10 years, wind power actually has — in some respects — more climate impact than coal or gas. If your perspective is the next thousand years, then wind power has enormously less climatic impact than coal or gas.”

This admission is stunning because Minnesotans are continually told that all manner of plagues and natural disasters will happen if we don’t build more wind turbines and solar panels. For all practical purposes, these energy sources will produce almost 100 times more warming at the surface, where it will make droughts worse by evaporating soil moisture, melt snow cover, and harm the ability of farmers to put food on our tables.

Liberal hypocrisy

The activists that tell Minnesotans that building wind turbines and solar panels is their only ticket to environmental salvation, should also admit that nothing is free. These energy sources also have negative impacts on the environment.

Interestingly, the urban liberals most likely to preach about the importance of wind and solar energy almost never bear their costs. Many times, the same people who oppose environmentally responsible copper-nickel mining in Minnesota are the groups advocating for more wind turbines, batteries and electric cars. As a result, the people who drink fair-trade coffee oppose fair-trade cobalt, and they are effectively ensuring that this mining will cause far greater harm to people and the planet than would otherwise occur if we mined in our backyard.

Similarly, urban liberals generally don’t have to live next to the landfills that contain deceased wind turbine blades and solar panels, because those will be out in rural Minnesota or in other states. They also won’t have to experience the regional warming that wind turbines cause because they’ll be many miles away in their air-conditioned homes.

This article summarizes a more comprehensive forthcoming study by Isaac Orr and policy analyst Mitch Rolling.