Today, a hard look at one little-discussed reality of the multi-billion-dollar green energy industry. Whether we are talking wind, solar or electric, they are marketed as environmentally friendly and clean: the opposite of dirty, polluting fossil fuels. But it’s not so simple. What we think of as clean power can take a surprising toll on the environment. We examine the difficult equation when it comes to clean and green.
In the wide, open state of Colorado they’re marching ahead with an arsenal of clean, green energy initiatives to be 100% carbon free by 2040.
Will Toor: There's a large amount of both wind and solar generation coming into the state.
Will Toor heads up the Colorado Energy Office. He used a green mode of transportation to get to our interview at a park in Denver.
Sharyl: What is the state doing in terms of zero emission vehicles?
Toor: So there is a lot that's happening to try to take that clean electricity and magnify its benefits by supporting the transition to electric cars.
Across the country, clean, green energy has become a key strategy for those who insist man is both hurting and capable of fixing the world’s climate.
Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez embodied the concern with a famously dire prediction three years ago.
Rep: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (January 21, 2019): ‘The world is going to end in 12 years if we don't address climate change, and your biggest issue is how are we gonna pay for it?'
Though she later said she didn’t mean it literally. Like-minded leaders are pushing hard to discourage fossil fuel habits. And it’s big business in terms of taxpayer dollars.
President Biden’s “Build Back Better Act” proposal reportedly includes the most tax money ever spent on climate causes much of it aimed at cutting carbon dioxide sources that comes from burning coal, oil and natural gas. But amid the good intentions there’s a hard truth.
Steven Koonin: Nothing that we do in energy is really clean.
Steven Koonin was Undersecretary for Science in the Energy Department under President Obama. He says the dirty little secret is that clean energy— is not.
Koonin: Someone once said to me, "The only humans who don't pollute are dead ones.”
Sharyl: Is clean energy, or what we think of as clean energy, less polluting though, than the traditional forms of energy we know about?
Koonin: In terms of carbon dioxide emissions, or greenhouse gas emissions, more generally, yes. But there are other pollutants, if you like, that are created in building clean energy devices that are different than conventional energy. And it's only a question of which pollution do you prefer. Choose your poison.
So how do the most popular forms of renewable energy stand up on the clean and green front?
Sharyl: Wind seems entirely clean, because you build those big turbines or windmills and all they do is take in the wind.
Koonin: Well, first of all, wind takes a lot of land. Secondly, we've got to make special magnets and other components inside the wind turbine, and they consist of rare earth materials that are difficult to mine and create pollution when they're extracted and refined. And so there are going to be waste acids, water, other minerals that you may not want in the environment, elements like mercury.
At the other end of a windmill’s life span, giant used and useless blades. Tens of thousands of them— some the length of a football field— go to landfills like this one in Casper, Wyoming. There’s an ongoing search for more wide open spaces to bury more.
Sharyl: There seem to be fewer things that are as appealing as the idea of just taking in sun power and using it.
But solar panels, like windmills, pollute on both ends of their life span.
Koonin: You can go to solar fields in southern California and you can see the relics of all the solar panels that people have put up. They’re just sitting there. And nobody's doing anything to clean it up.
Sharyl: Are there chemicals and metals in there?
Koonin: Yeah. It's all, yes, silicon, steel, other exotic metals.
Sharyl: That are not good for the environment?
Koonin: Not good for the environment. No. Currently, most of the solar panels are made in China. And where does China get the energy to do that? Coal, of course, and so-
Sharyl: So it takes coal to make solar panels to make the clean energy?
Koonin: Absolutely. Absolutely. It takes energy to do anything. And right now, the world gets 90% of its energy from carbon-based fuels.
Toor: That concern is just not accurate.
But Toor, Colorado’s Energy Czar, says in terms of clean and green, wind and solar still come out on top.
Toor: As it turns out, when you burn coal, or when you burn gasoline, you then have to run it through a rather inefficient process. So you burn gasoline and you lose about 70% of the energy to heat. You burn coal and in your most efficient power plant, you lose about half of it to heat. Whereas what you're getting from wind and solar is directly useful energy.
So, what about the third pillar of America’s most popular clean, green energy?
Sharyl: There’s a lot of emphasis being put, for example, on electric cars so that there are not these emissions coming from cars. They rely on batteries. Is that a clean source?
Koonin: The batteries, again, lithium, not good stuff to be dealing with. Moreover, if the cars are going to run on electricity, you’ve got to get the electricity from somewhere. And right now, for most of the U.S., the grid is just about as dirty as the gasoline you would use in order to run the cars in the first place.
Sharyl: I think most of the electricity in this country is generated through fossil fuels. So just saying something is electric or battery powered doesn't mean that a problem is being solved.
Toor: That's an argument that made a lot of sense 15 years ago, but it's out of date. Electricity is the one part of the economy that is dramatically shifting away from its traditional coal-based generation towards much lower emissions generation.
Sharyl: So you're saying now when vehicles plug in for their electricity, they're not necessarily supporting or using fossil fuel electricity?
Toor: There's no grid that's a hundred percent clean yet, but it is much cleaner than it used to be, and it's much cleaner than burning gasoline in an internal combustion engine.
The challenges and debates don’t end when it comes to the calculus for nuclear, hydro and geothermal.
There does seem to be a broad agreement that alternative energy will continue to become more prevalent. Just no hard facts on what their ultimate toll on the environment will be.
Toor: I think that when you look at the current state of certainly wind and solar technology, they are just orders of magnitude cleaner than traditional fossil fuel generation. Are they perfect? No, they're not perfect. And there was no energy technology that's ever going to be perfect.
Sharyl: What is an overarching message or a takeaway message if we're looking at the question of, is clean energy really clean, and where we're headed?
Koonin: I think we can have a grid that is emitting less CO2, but it's going to cost us more if we want to keep it reliable as well. And it will be some combination of wind and solar together with battery storage.
Sharyl: Do you think there is no role for fossil fuel in the future or very little role?
Koonin: Oh, I think fossil fuels are going to be with us for a very long time.
Sharyl (on-camera): Koonin says the biggest challenge is that we don't yet have the technology to create a power network that is affordable, reliable and clean.