Traveling I-35 on a trip to Corpus Christi, I noticed wind turbines had sprouted where there weren’t any before. It reminded me of an article about the construction of the largest wind farm to date, and how the wind power industry is growing alongside the cries of climate change. It’s supposed to be a “clean” energy, but how clean is it really? Those new turbines began a discussion with my travel companions, and when I returned home, I decided to dig a little deeper.

How clean is green?

Many traditional energy companies such as Shell, BP and Chevron are investing heavily in “renewables.” They’re looking into new energy sources, investing in wind and solar farms and electric vehicle charging stations. Maarten Wetselaar, Director of Shell’s Integrated Gas and New Energies Division, said of the trend toward the fossil fuel industry’s investments in renewables: “It’s mostly driven by the irreversible choice the world has made to decarbonize, to address climate change and to go to a net-zero energy system. And by far, the easiest form of energy consumption that can be carbon-free is electricity.” That sounds like a great idea, except for one thing: The vast majority of electricity we have is here thanks to fossil fuels.

Let’s look at the wind turbines as an example. They are made of three major components: steel, concrete and fiberglass. Steel makes up the tower. Where does that steel come from? Iron ore is mined by stripping the land with machines powered by fossil fuels; it is transported from the mine to the production facility, using huge diesel-powered transport ships and vehicles; the ore is made into steel using large amounts of coal or natural gas.

Concrete makes up the pad holding the steel tower. Where do we get the concrete? Concrete requires cement. Cement is made in a kiln powered by coal or natural gas. And finally, the blades of the tower are constructed of fiberglass, a petrochemical creation. In other words, you need energy to create energy.

Not as friendly as you think

If you still think of wind energy as better for the environment than traditional energy, let’s take an even closer look. According to the Audubon, “Wind turbines kill an estimated 140,000 to 328,000 birds each year in North America, making it the most threatening form of green energy.” And that’s not including the number of bats wiped out every night. To produce the same amount of power as one power plant, we would need hundreds of square miles of wind turbines. Think of the birds in that case. If this trend continues, we will definitely have a silent spring. 

The blades of a wind turbine are designed to have a 20-30 year working life span. What to do with the spent ones? Recycle? They aren’t recyclable, so to the landfill they go. And don’t forget the diesel engines required to get them there. Someone, I think in Germany, suggested chopping up the blades and using them as a fossil-fuel-free way of producing cement. I guess someone forgot to mention to them that fiberglass is made of petrochemicals. 

It isn’t always windy, making wind power an unreliable source of energy. Let’s use some batteries! That is sure to help on calm days. Well, they aren’t exactly green, either. Metals and minerals needed to produce them must be mined; traditional energy is needed to manufacture and transport them; and then, at the end of their usefulness, we run again into the problem of what to do with them. Landfill? No, they produce toxic waste. What to do? All this clean energy sure seems to be hard on the environment.

 

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