How “Green” is Wind and Solar Power?

A dead field spreads out in front of a rare-earth metals processing center in Baotou, China (photo courtesy of The Guardian).

The Montana Environmental Information Center (MEIC) launched a misleading social media campaign Saturday giving the false impression that oil spills threaten birds more than renewable power.

The MEIC circulated a bifurcated picture of two birds. The top half featured a bird wallowing in an oil pool. A label for the top half said “oil spill.” The bottom half featured a pristine, rolling field and the label “solar spill.” Above both pictures MEIC proclaims, “You can’t spill clean energy!”

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Perhaps you can’t spill solar panels and wind turbines, but you sure can kill plenty of birds and destroy a great deal of open land with them.

The Palm Springs Desert Sun reports wildlife officials counted 34 dead birds in September of 2013 at a single solar power project in California. From the sky, the array of reflecting mirrors resembles an oasis of water, which lures in birds. When the birds get too close, they are fried in mid-flight by the mirrors. Those that don’t get fried frequently suffer deadly or debilitating injuries from blunt force trauma as they attempt to land on the mirrors.

In addition to killing birds in mid-flight, solar panels destroy large swaths of undeveloped land, which disrupts and endangers protected species. Because solar energy is much more diffuse than the concentrated energy in oil, it requires approximately 12.5 square miles of solar panels operating under clear skies to equal the output of a small conventional power plant. Because it is dark half of each day and cloudy for additional portions, it takes at least 30 square miles of solar panels in ideal landscape to equal the output of a small conventional power plant.

Solar power facilities are most efficient in desert landscapes where there are few clouds. This creates additional problems. Desert tortoises, listed as a threatened species under the Endangered Species Act, are frequently displaced by solar power projects, with the resultant reduction in habitat causing a decline in their already dwindling numbers. New transmission lines must also be built — spoiling additional miles of previously unmolested landscape — to transport the desert power to urban centers. Also, water is scarce and crucial in desert environments, yet solar thermal power uses twice as much water as coal power plants and four times as much water as natural gas power plants.

Because solar power facilities can only generate power during daytime hours, and even then are subject to intermittent clouds, conventional power plants still must produce all necessary power at night and ramp up and down during the daytime to compensate for the vagaries of solar power output.

Wind power is even more environmentally destructive than solar power. It requires approximately 600 square miles of wind turbines to replace a single conventional power plant, destroying some of America’s most beautiful landscapes in the process.

Additional land must be sacrificed for the transmission lines that bring wind power from isolated locations to urban centers. Even while providing just 3 percent of America’s electricity, wind turbines kill 1.4 million birds and bats each year, including endangered and protected species such as bald eagles, golden eagles, and California condors. Like solar power, conventional power plants still must be built and remain running most of the time, as wind turbines generate usable wind power only about 25 percent of the time.

All of this, of course, overlooks the fact that MEIC is comparing apples to oranges. Oil and gasoline power motor vehicles; wind and solar power do not.

Nevertheless, oil’s impact on bird populations is insignificant compared to the impact of wind and solar. Large oil spills occur only rarely, yet even they don’t kill birds nearly as effectively as wind and solar. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) found that the BP Gulf oil spill — a once-in-a-generation oil spill — killed less than 7,000 birds. This compares to FWS’s reported 440,000 birds killed by wind turbines every year. Other studies estimate wind turbines kill between 573,000 and 1 million birds every year.

The MEIC campaign of deception drew the criticism of conservatives who pointed out that wind and solar power projects are notorious for killing birds.

“You can’t spill clean energy, but you can pick up the dead birds from wind and solar. What’s your point?” responded State Rep. Mike Miller (R-Helmville).

For one Montana wind farm, the issue of bird deaths could be quite costly. A California Utility — San Diego Gas and Electric (SDG&E) –  had contracted to buy power from the Rim Rock Wind Farm in North Central Montana. However, SDG&E claims that it is no longer obligated to buy the power, because the owner of Rim Rock — San Francisco based NaturEner — has not done enough to protect birds at the site. NaturEner denies those claims and the matter appears to be headed to court.

It is not simply the killing of wildlife that raises environmental issues with wind and solar power. The materials used to make wind turbines and solar panels are usually heavy and rare-earth metals that must be mined out of the ground. For example, wind turbines generally need large amounts of the rare-earth metals neodymium and dysprosium. These rare-earth metals are almost exclusively mined in China where environmental regulations are lax at best.

In August of 2012, a British newspaper published an investigative report about the environmental problems that were occurring in the area of the town of Baotou — considered the epicenter of the Chinese rare-earth metals industry — due to the mining and processing practices allowed by the Chinese Government.

“From the air it looks like a huge lake, fed by many tributaries, but on the ground it turns out to be a murky expanse of water, in which no fish or algae can survive,” states the paper. “The shore is coated with a black crust, so thick you can walk on it. Into this huge, 10 sq km tailings pond nearby factories discharge water loaded with chemicals used to process the 17 most sought after minerals in the world, collectively known as rare earths.”

The expansion of renewable power sources would inevitably require more heavy metal mining.

“To provide most of our power through renewables would take hundreds of times the amount of rare-earth metals we are mining today,” states Professor Thomas Graedel of the Yale University School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.

Popular silicon solar panels offer their own unique environmental catch-22. In order to make the silicon, the element silica must be heated in furnaces to 3,000 degrees farenheit. Most often, the power for those furnaces is produced by coal-fired electricity.”

Solar and wind energy may not be “spillable,” but they’re clearly capable of inflicting severe environmental damage.

“To provide most of our power through renewables would take hundreds of times the amount of that we are mining today,”Read more at: