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Is Green Green? – Prof.Sriram Prabhakar

March 11 , 2022.

We have been talking and reading about climate change for years on end. Even though pollution leads to a rise in temperatures locally, however adding the phrase “climate change” gives a nice ring to it.

There has been enough and more ink used to describe, discuss, and dissect the negative side of fossil fuels viz. petroleum and coal, and lately, there has been a constant endeavour to switch to green energy viz. Solar, Wind and of course Electricity.

Does it really matter what energy source one uses, if your vehicle is here!!

Source: The Hindu

Arm chair activists all over the world barring a few swear on renewable energy especially Solar and Wind energy.

Are these renewable energy sources really non-polluting as many claim?

People are convinced that if everyone drove electric cars, then all CO2 related problems would be solved.

Transition to Electric

As the energy transition takes us from fossil fuel resources, it is already generating new environmental disasters. Everything around us is made from minerals, electric cars are not too different, they too are made from metals and minerals and these need to be mined somewhere. Completely clean energies don’t exist, whenever humans act and produce things, they create pollution.

The dark side of green energy is often overlooked as the industrial and political challenges are numerous. We pretend to be clean, but in reality, dirty, we simply relocated the pollution. Green tech’s remedies are worse than the evils of fossil fuel. The ecological transition is above all an economic transition. One just needs to visit any leading car show like the Geneva car show or the Dubai Auto expo, electric is the latest fashion and it is even the industry’s future as they claim. Electric vehicles are stamped ZE in Europe, Green number plates in India for Zero emissions. The ecological argument gives the auto makers ideas to reinvent themselves. Nathalie Bauters, Communications Manager at BMW, North America says “The buyers of electric vehicles are people who believe in sustainability, they want to do good for the environment and they want to contribute their part to fewer emissions and less pollution”, this is echoed by all leading car makers like Renault, Volkswagen, Mercedes and others.

Disaster in the making

Environmental constraints are one of the effects of COP21. European Union regulations stipulate that vehicles have to emit almost 40% less CO2 per kilometre by 2030. Obviously auto makers only cite the advantages of the electric cars stating that it preserves the environment and creates new jobs resulting in a technological miracle. But they are aware of the fact that electric vehicles aren’t as clean as they claim to be. Oil has been abandoned and replaced by exotic rare metals like Europium, Samarium, Gadolinium, and these metals have the physical and chemical characteristics to run electric cars.  Some of the parts made by these rare metals are Windshield Anti UV – Cerium, Screens – Europium, Terbium, Indium, Seats – Magnesium, Sensors – Yttrium, Chassis – Tungsten, Headlights – Neodymium, Mirrors – Lanthanum, Night Vision – Germanium, Electronic Components – Bismuth – Tantalum. Neodymium is used to make magnets that are used in electric motors. Among other things, an electric battery contains Cobalt or Graphite and Lithium is used in batteries to release energy. Such rare metals are also used to make photo voltaic cells in solar panels. Even though renewable energy is currently 7% of our electricity production, it is estimated to increase to nearly 50% in the next 30 years. Cobalt is mainly mined in Democratic Republic of Congo, Australia, Chile and Bolivia have abundant Lithium deposits, Indonesia produces Tantalum, Zirconium and Tin, however one country in particular has colossal reserves of these rare metals – China. China extracts 70% of one particular mineral (in the province of Heilongjiang, in the far north region) which is most sought after by these Green tech companies – Graphite, where giant excavators brought down mountains and laid bare the water tables.              

These metals are mined far away from urban centres and far from sight, and manufacturers seldom disclose the whereabouts of these rare metals. In some areas, residents have to leave their villages as the environment is too polluted. This is because instead of treating their hazardous waste before releasing them, they dump them secretly.

3500 Kilometres from Heilongjiang, in Inner Mongolia, in the town of Baotau, the entire population is dedicated to refining these rare metals, more specifically Graphite. The industrial waste consists of Fluorides, Mercury and even radioactive substance like Thorium. The people there have every kind of disease. This is the price to be paid so that the wind turbines, solar panels and green cars can purify the air over Europe. Paradoxically, this is leaving our planet more prone to atmospheric pollution.

To make clean technology, we make dirty residue. There is no zero impact product, no zero CO2 , 100% green, everything has an impact says Philippe Bihouix, Engineer Member, The Momentum Institute.

The Copper conundrum

Not only does the green technology contain rare minerals, they also contain abundant metals. To build a wind turbine, we need 20 tons of Aluminium and 500 tons of Steel. An electric car contains 80 kilograms of Copper, which is 4 times that of a fossil fuel driven car. Switching to electric requires copper, a lot of it as a wind turbine is kept far away from civilization, the electricity generated need to be transmitted to the grid. If you want electric cars in Bangalore, you need to install charging stations everywhere, so more copper.

To define where we are with respect to copper, since the dawn of humanity we have manufactured anywhere between 800 million tons to a billion tons of copper, at current growth rates with the monstrous need, we must produce the same quantity in the next 30 years, says Olivier Randall, researcher at University of Grenoble.

Several other countries are affected by this incessant mining for copper. The Chuquicamata Mine in Chile, which is the world’s largest open pit copper mine, is now 4 kilometres in Diameter, 1 kilometre deep, and Chuquicamata contains 13% of Earth’s known copper reserves and it is getting scarcer with reserves not lasting over 15 years at current rates of production. This has devastated the environment. As 10% of Chilean work force supports copper mining not many are ready to speak freely. Chuquicamata is in an arid zone with no rains in the last 500 years, and copper mining consumes 2000 litres of water every second, hence the surrounding land is also practically devoid of any water. The impact is felt a thousand kilometres away in the pacific port city of Antofagasta where the copper is shipped to the rest of the world. Residents are breathing heavy metals with more and more instances of lung cancer and the connection is indisputable and several studies have shown that it is now more genetic.

These areas are sacrificed areas, they sacrifice their territory, their geography, their health of their people for the benefit of people in other zones and these privileged zones can afford the luxury of promoting clean, green, healthy and renewable energy says Damir Galaz, Historian and Anthropologist, Northern Catholic University.

The Chinese puzzle

This energy transition is absurd, the use of coal is increasing in certain places to generate electricity to power these green cars. The world of Greentech is not as virtuous as some consumers imagine.

Over 25 million green jobs will be created in the next 10 years and Western leaders dream of taking advantage of the economic impact of these green technologies. This dream may never come true as another country has taken hold of some prized possessions. China which holds 75% of rare metal reserves in the world intends to take advantage of its advantage. China is much more ambitious than the petro-monarchies of the Middle East, its not content with monopoly of mines, it also wants to assume monopoly of factories and become a leading exporter of high-tech products says Ma Tianjie of China Dialogue. This nationalism has percolated to other countries too which have reserves of these rare metals. Bolivia, an under developed country has large Lithium deposits with nearly 60% of reserves and the salt flats of Uyuni are now laid bare. With batteries needed for electric cars, the world demand for Lithium has exploded beyond calculations and this demand will be 20-fold in 15 years.

The Recycling paradox

The ultimate paradox in the world of green tech is the question of recycling it. With limited lifespan of wind turbines, huge blades are already abandoned in the wild in Northern Germany. Between 20 and 30,000 tons of wind turbine blades must now be recycled each year in Germany alone, but the recycling technology is just not available, just like the problem of nuclear waste, reproducing the same errors. We just don’t know how to recycle elements like Indium, Gallium, Tantalum, Germanium, Selenium.

The companies involved in making these wind turbines, solar panels, lithium batteries etc. are driven by the world of business and commerce, and that’s not going to save the planet or save the human race.

We have to choose another developmental model as we need to radically reduce the use of energy and material consumption in our lives and this is not a message that can be sold to captains of business nor to the politicians who want to be re-elected.


The War of Rare Metals – Guillaume Pitron, Published by Scribe

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