As people worldwide increasingly feel the heat of climate change, many are looking to “green” energy sources to replace coal. While wind and solar have been the leaders in alternative energy, can they really be called “green” energy? Once installed, they effectively produce energy without polluting, but, the environmental impact in extracting the rare earth minerals to make them is a very dirty reality.
Many of the solar panels that now adorn European and American rooftops and wind turbines standing proudly, have left behind a legacy of toxic pollution in Chinese villages and farmlands.
Manufacturing Pollution: Solar Panels
Luoyang Zhonggui, a major Chinese manufacturer of polysilicon, is dumping toxic factory waste directly on to the lands of neighboring villages, killing crops and poisoning residents. Other polysilicon factories in the country have similar problems, either because they have not installed effective pollution control equipment or they are not operating these systems to full capacity. Polysilicon is a key component of the sunlight-capturing wafers used in solar photovoltaic (PV) cells.
China is now a global leader in solar PV manufacture. According to the recent Worldwatch Institute report Powering China’s Development: The Role of Renewable Energy, PV production capacity in China jumped from 350 megawatts (MW) in 2005 to over 1,000 MW in 2006, with 1,500 MW estimated for 2007. High-profile initial public stock offerings for several Chinese companies, some valued in the billions of dollars, have focused global attention on how this industry will progress—having literally developed from scratch into the world’s third largest PV industry in just five years. Most of this development, however, is driven by global demand, with over 90 percent of Chinese-made solar PV systems being exported to Europe, Japan, and the United States.
Technologies exist to recycle the chemical byproducts of solar-cell production, but some Chinese polysilicon plants, including Luoyang Zhonggui, are cutting costs and corners by avoiding significant extra investment in pollution control. The cheaper prices of their products, which do not currently factor in environmental costs, are projected to fan the rapid expansion of Chinese-made solar PV systems around the world, especially in industrial countries that can afford the still-expensive units.
Although China will eventually benefit from this green technology as well as costs decline further, for the time being the industry continues to tread the traditional path of “pollute first, clean up afterwards.” At stake are the underrepresented groups in Chinese society, especially rural farmers who depend on increasingly polluted lands for a living. China’s shining solar industry, while enabling blue skies elsewhere, is leaving behind a scarred landscape at home.
So far, the environment has been the biggest loser in China’s rapid economic growth. The irony of the recent Post exposé is that the environment is not even being considered seriously by those Chinese industries that bear a “green” tag, and whose products support progress toward a better environment. As China becomes more industrialized and strives to meet the insatiable demands of a burgeoning urban middle class, there is every reason to question how long the current state of affairs can last, and how much time it will take before businesses care enough about their impacts to truly protect the environment.
Manufacturing Pollution: Wind Turbines
Manufacturing of wind turbines is also a resource-intensive process. The wind industry requires an astounding amount of rare earth minerals, primarily neodymium and dysprosium, which are key components of the magnets used in modern wind turbines. A typical wind turbine contains more than 8,000 different components, many of which are made from steel, cast iron, and concrete.
Rare earth elements aren’t actually rare, they are however very difficult to extract. Primarily exported by China,
pollution concerns associated with the extraction of this rare-earth element have prompted government action in recent years, and international research attempts to refine the extraction process.
(Rare earth elements are also used extensively in the construction of modern cars and especially hybrid and EVs).
According to the Bulletin of Atomic Sciences, a 2 megawatt (MW) wind turbine contains about 800 pounds of neodymium and 130 pounds of dysprosium.
An MIT study estimates that a 2 MW wind turbine contains about 752 pounds of rare earth minerals.
To quantify this in terms of environmental damages, consider that mining one ton of rare earth minerals produces about one ton of radioactive waste, according to the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security. In 2012, the U.S. added a record 13,131 MW of wind generating capacity.
That means that between 4.9 million pounds and 6.1 million pounds of rare earth elements were used in wind turbines installed in 2012. It also means that between 4.9 million and 6.1 million pounds of radioactive waste were created to make these wind turbines
Simon Parry from the Daily Mail traveled to Baotou, China, to see the mines, factories, and dumping grounds associated with China’s rare-earths industry.
What he found was truly haunting:
As more factories sprang up, the banks grew higher, the lake grew larger and the stench and fumes grew more overwhelming.
‘It turned into a mountain that towered over us,’ says Mr Su. ‘Anything we planted just withered, then our animals started to sicken and die.’
People too began to suffer. Dalahai villagers say their teeth began to fall out, their hair turned white at unusually young ages, and they suffered from severe skin and respiratory diseases. Children were born with soft bones and cancer rates rocketed.
Official studies carried out five years ago in Dalahai village confirmed there were unusually high rates of cancer along with high rates of osteoporosis and skin and respiratory diseases. The lake’s radiation levels are ten times higher than in the surrounding countryside, the studies found.
For perspective, America’s nuclear industry produces between 4.4 million and 5 million pounds of spent nuclear fuel each year.
That means the U.S. wind industry may well have created more radioactive waste last year than our entire nuclear industry produced in spent fuel.
While nuclear storage remains an important issue for many U.S. environmentalists, few are paying attention to the wind industry’s less efficient and less transparent use of radioactive material via rare earth mineral excavation in China.
The U.S. nuclear industry employs numerous safeguards to ensure that spent nuclear fuel is stored safely.
In 2010, the Obama administration withdrew funding for Yucca Mountain, the only permanent storage site for the country’s nuclear waste authorized by federal law. Lacking a permanent solution, nuclear energy companies have used specially designed pools at individual reactor sites.
On the other hand, China has cut mining permits and imposed export quotas, but is only now beginning to draft rules to prevent illegal mining and reduce pollution.
Not only do rare earths create radioactive waste residue, but according to the Chinese Society for Rare Earths,
“one ton of calcined rare earth ore generates 9,600 to 12,000 cubic meters (339,021 to 423,776 cubic feet) of waste gas containing dust concentrate, hydrofluoric acid, sulfur dioxide, and sulfuric acid, and approximately 75 cubic meters (2,649 cubic feet) of acidic wastewater.”
The isolation process of neodymium:
A key factor in the role of wind turbines as our main source of clean energy
Neodymium is commonly used as part of a Neodymium-Iron-Boron alloy (Nd2Fe14B) which, thanks to its tetragonal crystal structure, is used to make the most powerful magnets in the world. It has been used in small quantities in common technologies for quite a long time – hi-fi speakers, hard drives and lasers, for example. But only with the rise of alternative energy solutions has it really come to prominence, for use in hybrid cars and wind turbines.
A direct-drive permanent-magnet generator for a top capacity wind turbine would use around 2 tonnes of neodymium-based permanent magnet material. Neodymium is found most often in monazite and bastnasite.
Due to the fact that these minerals also contain lanthanides and other rare earth elements, it is difficult to isolate neodymium. The first isolation process involves extracting the lanthanides and metals out of the ores in their salt form. This step is carried out using sulphuric acid, hydrochloric acid, and sodium hydroxide.
To further isolate the neodymium from other lanthanides and metals, procedures such as solvent extraction and ion exchange are used.
Once neodymium has been reduced to its fluoride form using these processes, it can be reacted with pure calcium metal in a heated chamber to form pure neodymium and calcium fluoride. Some calcium contaminants remain in the neodymium, and vacuum processes are used to remove any of these contaminants. It is an expensive and potentially environmentally harmful process.
In a recent posting (February 1st), it was noted that China produces over 90% of the world’s rare earths, and that Beijing’s export reductions in recent years have forced high-tech firms to relocate to China.
An article in a UK newspaper claims to have uncovered the distinctly dirty truth about the process used to extract neodymium: it has an appalling environmental impact that raises serious questions over the credibility of so-called green technology.
According to the report, hidden out of sight behind smoke-shrouded factory complexes lie vast, hissing cauldrons of
chemicals in tailing lakes that are often very poorly constructed and maintained; throughout the extraction process large amounts of highly toxic acids, heavy metals and other chemicals are emitted into the air that people breathe, and leak into surface and ground water.
The report concludes that whenever we purchase products that contain rare earth metals, we are unknowingly taking part in massive environmental degradation and the destruction of communities.
It is a real dilemma for environmentalists who want to see the growth of the renewables industry but we should recognise the environmental destruction that is being caused while making these wind turbines.
Research is underway on turbine and generator designs which reduce the need for neodymium, or eliminate the use of rare-earth metals altogether. Additionally, the large wind turbine manufacturer Enercon GmbH chose very early not to use permanent magnets for its direct drive turbines, in order to avoid responsibility for the adverse environmental impact of rare earth mining.
As Americans make attempts to shift their energy use from coal, it's environmental and health impacts becoming more obvious, they seek out these sources of “clean” energy. While solar and wind may be clean in their production of energy, their manufacturing is far from it. Just because the pollution isn't happening in our country, doesn't mean it's impact shouldn't be heavily factored into the equation when promoting these very dirty products as “green” or “clean”.