Is renewable energy really environmentally friendly?

Renewable energy sources may have low CO2 emissions at the point of use, but the mines that make the technology possible are often environmentally destructive


by Robin Delobel

“Africa is at the sharp end of the consequences of climate change, despite only being responsible for 4% of global greenhouse gas emissions, for which developed countries have historically been responsible. The rest of the world must settle this ecological debt to the African continent.”

Surprising though it may seem, these are not the words of an environmental NGO, but rather those of French President François Hollande during the COP 21 climate change conference in Paris.

What is his proposal for reducing the ecological debt to Africa? Certainly not the cancellation of completely illegitimate government debt, nor halting Françafrique (France’s post-colonial approach to Africa) and its pillaging of the continent’s resources. His suggestion – funding for renewable energy – is nothing new.

Yet the issue is rarely raised that these renewable energies have a heavy environmental impact when the total production chain is taken into account – particularly, the stage of mining the metals needed in the production of these forms of energy. Renewable energy sources are often advocated for their low CO2 emissions at point of use, but the overall product lifecycle is often forgotten about completely. In addition, many chemical products are needed in mining operations, leading to severe long-term pollution. It is also worth noting that the process of extracting, transporting, and refining minerals accounts for 8 to 10% of global primary energy consumption. Furthermore, these steps rely on metals whose reserves – far from being infinite – are in decline and we should not forget that, for the most part, these reserves are mined in poor regions, with no regard for human rights and without making a fair contribution to the countries in which these resources are being exploited.

For example, 10% of global copper reserves, 25% of tantalum reserves, 30% of cobalt reserves, and 75% of coltan reserves are held in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). It also has significant reserves of gold, diamonds, tungsten, and tin. The role that the exploitation of these mineral resources plays in the conflicts affecting the DRC – and the east of the country in particular – is now common knowledge. Bolivia has the largest concentration of lithium reserves in the world, a mineral which is particularly in demand for electric cars. In his article Dans l’ombre de la Pachamama (Manière de voir, December 2015), Renaud Lambert explains how the Bolivian government gave authorization to the Bolloré Group to exploit the country’s reserves, provided that they worked “in harmony with Pachamama..

Increasing amounts of energy required to extract energy

As the era of scarce and expensive oil looms near, the same is now true for metals: finite resources which are increasingly expensive to extract. The unusually low price of oil and metals since the end of 2014 hides the fact that the extraction of these resources is becoming more and more restrictive. The calculation of energy produced versus energy invested – the energy returned on energy invested (EROEI) – highlights this irrefutable problem. A century ago, a single unit of energy was required to produce 100 units of energy; oil in the US had an EROEI of 100 to 1. In 1990, the EROEI was 35:1 and it is currently 11:1. The average EROEI for conventional oil production at a global level lies between 10:1 and 20:1. For shale oil, it is 5:1. With a benefit ratio between 1:1 and 1.6:1, the return for biofuels is almost zero.

As Pablo Servigne says, “All of these EROEIs are not only decline, but in accelerated decline.” The EROEI for energy invested in renewables is also known to be very low, with a ratio of 18:1 for wind but more importantly 1. 6:1 for concentrated solar power (large solar plants in the desert) and 2. 5:1 for photovoltaic power in Spain.

Finite metal resources

How does one explain such a low rate of energy return? Both metal and energy reserves are finite. Based on annual production rates, there are between 10 and 20 years’ worth remaining for certain elements such as antimony, zinc, tin, and indium. Most reserves have between 30 and 60 years left, but, as with oil, “the problems are arising earlier than the theoretical number of years left, as every finite resource is reaching peak production levels,” says Philippe Bihouix in his book Quel futur pour les métaux.

Complex infrastructures and metallic resources are essential for recovering metals and the energy needed for the production of renewable energy, not forgetting the fact that the rate of recycling remains low despite the promises of a circular economy. As William Sacher, co-author of Noir Canada and Paradis Sous Terre explains,

“The mining industry faces a huge paradox. On the one hand, the major mineral deposits are running out. On the other hand, the growth in demand is still getting stronger. This contradiction obliges the industry to adopt a modern mega-mining model, involving the use of enormous quantities of chemical reactants, some of which are highly toxic, and the generation of enormous amounts of waste. The pollution produced often poses a danger for decades and even centuries to come. The social, economic, political, and even cultural or psychological impacts are linked with the mega-mining model.”

There are numerous false alternatives based on an increased use of new technologies. It is misleading for these technologies to be over-emphasized excessively considered, as factors in the reduction of the environmental footprint in one sector or another. These alternatives are implemented in scenarios which involve changing the energy model by favoring renewable energy to the detriment of fossil fuels. However, these alternatives are based on the idea of deployment on an industrial scale, which, while involving renewable energy, have no connection with the real world and are not democratic, due to the huge scale of their operations. They involve the destruction of inhabited areas and the pollution of both water courses and large areas of land.

Extracting fossil fuels which are less and less accessible requires an increased need for metals and investment. The extraction of these metals, which are less and less concentrated, requires more and more fossil fuels. Exploiting renewable energies using photovoltaic panels or wind turbines requires greater use of rare metals such as neodymium, indium, selenium, or tellurium. The problem of “more energy required for less concentrated metals, more metals needed for less affordable energy” is an unprecedented challenge for a highly complex and interconnected system which will have to face up to these high levels of investment. Reserves of silver, antimony (used in electronic devices), and indium (used in photovoltaic cells and LCD screens) will run out in 20 years, as highlighted in a study by Philippe Bihouix.

Technologies which are often presented as solutions only serve to increase ecological debt and rates of extraction. The more “successful” these technologies are, the more demanding they are on rare and precious resources. Philippe Bihouix says that “new green technologies are generally based on new technologies and on less common metals, contributing to the complexity of products and so to recycling problems.”

What then are the viable alternatives? Bihouix talks about low tech and simple technology. Thus, it is possible to believe in the ability of renewable energy to localize energy production in the case of simple technologies (domestic solar energy or small wind turbines) but impossible in the case of large, modern, high-tech technologies. Other alternatives which take the problem of metal reserves into account could include de-automating services and favoring the use of renewable and recyclable materials, as well as objects that can be repaired. But first of all, we must establish what is needed and then consider what to produce, why, and how.

Favouring low-tech and small, local organisations must involve

  • Rejecting large-scale energy infrastructures which cause illegitimate debt all over the world;
  • Prioritising research on project:s that take account of the finite nature of resources and their environmental impact;
  • Stopping financing research on biofuels, fossil fuels, nanotechnologies (whose energy requirements are far from “nano”), and nuclear energy;
  • Conducting a comprehensive audit and assessing the ecological debt, leading to an informed energy choice, which, as we have seen, has multiple impacts on the daily lives of populations, in terms of the environment, the economy, health, and society.

Translated by the Committee for the Abolition of Illegitimate Debt (CADTM) from the magazine Les Autres Voix de la Planète,

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3 Responses to Is renewable energy really environmentally friendly?

  1. Robin Whitlock October 4, 2016 at 7:44 am #

    Robin Delobel writes:

    “Yet the issue is rarely raised that these renewable energies have a heavy environmental impact when the total production chain is taken into account – particularly, the stage of mining the metals needed in the production of these forms of energy. Renewable energy sources are often advocated for their low CO2 emissions at point of use, but the overall product lifecycle is often forgotten about completely.”

    These issues are indeed important, but I am afraid Mr Delobal hasn’t really kept up with progress in this area. For a start, the US National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) is playing a leading role in Lifecycle Assessment (LCA) which it now considers a vital part of the manufacturing process. Furthermore, LCA methodologies have been evolving steadily for some years and are supported by international initiatives such as the those by UNEP and SETAC 2010 and by standards such as ISO 2006. So to say that “the overall product lifecycle is often forgotten about completely” is actually nonsense.

    Next, Mr Delobel comments:

    “these steps rely on metals whose reserves – far from being infinite – are in decline and we should not forget that, for the most part, these reserves are mined in poor regions, with no regard for human rights and without making a fair contribution to the countries in which these resources are being exploited.”

    With regard to solar PV, most (90 percent in fact) solar panels are made of silicon and polysilicon. The real problem with this began in 2008 when the majority of the world’s silicon production moved to China, Malaysia, the Philippines and Taiwan, with nearly half the world’s PV being made in China.

    Most manufacturers are now recycling the waste from solar PV manufacturing to make more polysilicon, thereby using less energy and less raw materials to make new solar panels. In 2011, China set standards requiring 98.5 percent of silicon tetrachloride waste to be recycled. Furthermore, NREL is now looking at ways in which to make polysilicon with ethanol, thereby avoiding the creation of silicon tetrachloride altogether.

    Thin-film silicon is also becoming more popular, which uses less energy and material to manufacture and removes many of the environmental hazards from solar PV manufacturing. However, the dominant thin-film technology is cadmium telluride and cadmium indium gallium selenide (CIGS). Unfortunately there isn’t enough information coming out about exposures to workers during the mining of the zinc needed to produce cadmium. However, some companies are now implementing recycling schemes to reduce the need for more cadmium, such as First Solar’s takeback scheme. Researchers at Bristol University and Bath University are looking at how to manufacture thin-film without using toxic elements or rare metals at all.

    As far as energy use goes, the energy return on energy invested for solar is, at most, two years, with some companies reporting an energy payback of just six months. In terms of emissions, the carbon footprint of solar panels made in China is double that of those made in Europe (accounting for transportation and energy in manufacturing), but China is increasingly trying to shift away from fossil fuels, particularly coal, within China itself, thus reducing the manufacturing component of this particular concern. Transportation (probably mostly by air) remains a concern, but I wonder how that compares with all the legions of people taking to the air every year for foreign holidays when they could choose to holiday at home?

    Water use is an issue as well, but nowhere near the water consumption needed for cooling and cleaning etc in a fossil fuel plant.

    So, if you round all this up, what do you get? Yes its true that there are still some major areas of concern with regard to the environmental impact of renewable energy, but in general the generation of clean energy by wind, solar, geothermal and various other technologies more than makes up for this. Secondly, the environmental impact of renewables is far, far, less than that of fossil fuels and nuclear. Thirdly, the global renewable energy sector is indeed aware of the various problems and is actively working to overcome them.

    We could all concentrate on small-scale, devolved, distributed clean energy as Mr Delobel suggests, but in an era of global capitalism where people are much more used to living in cities rather than in low-impact communities, this is unlikely. Nevertheless, there is a significant growth in the numbers of small-scale clean energy schemes and community energy schemes, so some of that is happening anyway.

    In short, yes there are some problems, but there will always be some problems with energy generation and consumption – of any form – in our present society anyway. Far better to concentrate on renewables, even large scale, than to continue the acceptance of fossil fuels and nuclear we’ve been guilty of so far.

  2. Craig Johnson October 3, 2016 at 6:21 pm #

    As this article points out, the ERORI of photovoltaics (for example) is known to be low relative to fossil fuels (http://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0301421513003856), although the ERORI could feasibly increase for PV, given improving industrial and technological efficiencies. However, ERORI is not a sufficient basis for evaluating an energy source, particularly given that it does not encapsulate any information about carbon emissions or other polluting factors/externalities. The appropriate methodology is something closer to life cycle analysis, weighted against the ERORI of a particular technology. Then, each technology should be assessed for appropriateness for a given circumstance (for example, rural or urban use, small- or large-scale, etc.)

    However it would be wise to recall that even the PV industry (for example) is a capitalist industry, and has already survived at least one classical crisis of overproduction. Its major investors are just as likely to demand profits at the expense of nature and labour as any fossil fuel company; in many cases they are/have been identical to the fossil fuel companies themselves (Total, Adani, BP, etc.) They can obviously be pressured in a different way by the environmental movement and their hypocrisies can be used as leverage against them, but they are equally prone to fudging and obscuring numbers as any rotten capitalist entity. The totality of the facts has to be taken into account when discussing the advance of alternative/sustainable/renewable energy technologies.

  3. John Riddell October 1, 2016 at 11:49 am #

    Thanks for this excellent discussion of ERoEI, a crucial but neglected topic. This approach pierces through the fallacious national framework of most emissions discussions.

    The article states the ERoEI of solar panels to be 1:5. A Toronto project based on a carefully monitored solar installation under local conditions and data over many years estimates an ERoEI of only 1:2 or 1:3. The authors, Gord and Susan Fraser, conclude that with an ERoEI that low, solar is not viable for large-scale installations — at least, not in Toronto.

    See their paper at the Ravina Project:

    It would be good to see a response to their argumentation.

    John Riddell, Toronto