Renewable comparisons

Arguments against the deployment of renewable energy supplies range from the ridiculous to the sublime. from economic to aesthetic. From deceptive to just plain lying. The biggest lie, of course, is that they aren’t necessary as global warming is a hoax. The scientific consensus concerning anthropogenic global warming is overwhelming. In terms of the general population, the understanding of the risk is highest among younger, more educated compared to older, less educated populations.

There may be some valid claims that disfavor renewable energy sources but in comparison to what? And at what cost to either our pocketbooks or to a globally stable climate? Considering the current cost and trends, Wind and solar win hands down. Even utilities in conservative parts of the country – Entergy as one example are installing solar panels and producing or at least buying wind-generated power.

The most important issue is one of the release of greenhouse gasses, notably Carbon Dioxide (CO2.) It has been disingenuously argued that because of the energy used in the construction of renewables, they release more CO2 than traditional fossil fuels. The argument is preposterous. Multiple studies around the planet vary only slightly as to the results. The measure is CO2 produced per net energy produced over the lifetime of source. The units are grams of CO2 produced per kilowatt-hour produced (g/kWh.) The smaller the number the better.

The gold standard is a large hydro dam, at about 4 g/kWh. Wind is second with about 10 g/kWh, but this number is decreasing as turbines become larger and more efficient. Solar Panels, about 30 g/kWh due mainly to the high energy demand to refine sand into pure Silicon. Fossil fuel-powered plants have energy demands from their manufacture but also from the burning of the fuel itself. Relatively clean natural gas results in 400 g/kWh. And the biggest loser? Of course, it’s coal at 1200 g/kWh. Renewable wins again.

Another specious argument is that renewables are bad for the environment due to the use of toxic materials in their construction as if fossil fuel plants don’t. The average solar panel has about 4 grams of Lead per kilowatt of installed power. For a home system which requires on average 10 kilowatts, there are about 40 grams of Lead solder. Recycling the panels brings the toxic load to near zero. A small percentage of panels, about 5%, employ Cadmium technology, but again this toxic material is incorporated into the easily recycled panels.

Compare that with just the lead released to the atmosphere on burning coal, lead that is widely dispersed in the atmosphere and then to the soil and water, over 42 tons per year of Lead that can’t be recycled. Along with other toxic metals including Mercury, Arsenic, and Cadmium. The homeowner with 40 grams of lead in solar panels has over 9,000 grams of lead in the battery of every car in the driveway. Whereas toxic releases are part and parcel of burning fossil fuels, toxic components of renewables are small in amount and are not automatically released to the environment. Renewable wins again.

Whenever you hear someone talking about the toxic components associated with renewable energy be sure you have the whole story which includes the far greater toxic burden associated with fossil fuels.

Dr. Bob Allen, Ph.D., is Emeritus Professor of Chemistry at Arkansas Tech University.

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