The accumulation of plastic waste that is polluting our environment could have been predicted decades ago, before we all embraced plastic without thinking about the possible consequences.
The same could be said about our embrace of renewable energy.
It may seem to be the sensible thing to do but we should be asking ourselves what the unintended consequences will be and take this into account.
Wind turbines do not last forever.
Many locations in Europe are currently in the process of decommissioning equipment generating tons of waste. In Medicine Hat the solar thermal plant is already obsolete and waiting to be dismantled.
A recently published estimate of what it takes to build one wind turbine says it requires 900 tons of steel, 2,500 tons of concrete and 45 tons of non-recyclable plastic.
It has been estimated that in order supply enough wind turbines to supply half of the world’s electricity will take two billion tons of coal to provide the necessary concrete and steel plus about two billion barrels of oil to make the composite blades.
The Institute for Energy Research published a paper in November last year that estimated the cost of decommissioning each of its wind turbines at one location would be $532,000 for a total cost of $71 million. The concrete base is generally 15 feet deep. The turbine blades contain glass and carbon fibres that give off toxic dust. The U.S. alone is estimating it will have 720,000 tons of blade material to dispose of in the next 20 years alone.
In Europe, which was a leader in wind renewable energy, the lifespan of wind turbines has been about 12 years according to one source. Subsidies that were the driving force initially are running out and this is now making them no longer profitable depending on the future price of electricity.
Solar energy takes even more cement, steel and glass, plus other metals.
The International Renewable Energy Agency (IREA) has predicted mining for silver and indium will increase 250 per cent and 1,200 per cent respectively in the next two decades to meet demand.
The IREA has calculated that if the world meets the Paris Accord’s goals, the disposal of outdated solar panels will be double in 2050 compared to what we currently see in plastic waste.
To manufacture just one battery for an electric car means digging up and processing about 500,000 of raw material.
If the prediction about the increase in electric vehicles is accurate the requirement for cobalt and lithium will increase 20-fold.
It is worth noting that 70 per cent of the world’s demand for raw cobalt is currently mined in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The DRC is estimated to hold 50 per cent of the world’s cobalt reserves.
China handles 90 per cent of the refining of cobalt.
The DRC’s mining of cobalt has been under scrutiny because of its labour practises.
Since 1960 the United Nations has had thousands of peace keeping forces, at times up to 20,000 troops, in the DRC on an ongoing basis. It is not a stable country.
The price of cobalt is of course climbing. There was a four-fold increase between 2016 and 2018.
In 2017 roughly 72 per cent of the world’s cobalt consumption annually was used in the mobile devices we depend on such as smartphones, laptops and tablets.
Let’s not pat ourselves on the back regarding progress on the renewable energy front without counting the true cost and calculating the waste and disposal of that waste as a result.
This editorial originated in The Medicine Hat News.