By Michael J. Gordon
As a child, I loved watching Dragnet and one of the hallmarks of Dragnet was Sgt. Joe Friday saying, “This is the city–Los Angeles, California.” “I carry a badge.” “My name’s Friday.” But the line I enjoyed the most, which was repeated often in many of the episodes was “Just the facts, ma’am”. My intention in dealing with this subject matter is to just present the facts.
I used to be part-owner of a recycling station in Florida. The bulk of our business was handling 40 yard roll off dumpsters from various waste management companies that were mostly used by construction and other commercial businesses. We would pull out all the recycling materials, such as wood, metal, cardboard, etc. What remained was sent to the landfill. I understand the feasibility of recycling and the challenges of landfills.
Per the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the three major categories of energy for electricity generation are 61% fossil fuels (coal, natural gas, and petroleum), 19% nuclear energy, and 20% renewable energy sources (wind, hydro, solar, biomass and geothermal.)
As a side note, hydrogen is a clean fuel that, when consumed in a fuel cell, produces only water, electricity, and heat. Hydrogen and fuel cells may play an important role in our future national energy strategy, with the potential for use in a broad range of applications, across virtually all sectors—transportation, commercial, industrial, residential, and portable. The International Consortium for Fire Safety, Health and the Environment reported that even though all current fuel cell and hydrogen vehicles are experimental, they are being tested in low numbers on public roadways. However, as a developing technology, fuel cells and hydrogen have some associated safety concerns that must be addressed. Also, according to The Brillouin Energy Corp., they have announced a breakthrough Hydrogen Hot Tube (HHT) Boiler System which uses solid-state low-energy nuclear reactions (LENR) to produce controlled excess heat through the fusion of hydrogen atoms into helium, releasing no emissions, no radiation and no “spent” radioactive fuel material like what we see in the nuclear power industry. This breakthrough uses solid state metal lattice technology that was once dismissed by nearly all conventional physicists and has now been validated, patented, and published in numerous scientific journals.
While I am all for recycling and a cleaner atmosphere, electric vehicles make no sense for the environment or as a replacement for fossil fuels because they rely on batteries. “Going Green” may sound like the Utopian ideal but when you look at the hidden and embedded costs realistically with an open mind, you can see that Going Green can be more destructive to the Earth’s environment than meets the eye.
The most obvious fact is that “batteries do not make electricity” – they store electricity produced elsewhere, primarily by coal, natural gas-powered plants, or diesel-fueled generators. So, to say an Electric Vehicle (“EV”) is a zero-emission vehicle is just not true. For example, if 38% of the electricity generated in the U.S. is from natural gas and 22% is from coal, it follows that 60% of the EVs on the road are powered by fossil fuels. Einstein’s formula, E=MC2, tells us it takes the same amount of energy to move a five-thousand-pound gasoline-driven automobile a mile as it does an electric one. The only question again is what produces the power? To reiterate, it does not come from the battery; the battery is only the storage device, just like a gas tank in a car.
Secondly, electric batteries are bad for the environment. There are two orders of batteries: rechargeable and single use. The most common single-use batteries are A, AA, AAA, C, D. 9V, and lantern types. Those dry-cell species use zinc, manganese, lithium, silver oxide, or zinc and carbon to store electricity chemically. They all contain toxic, heavy metals. Rechargeable batteries only differ in their internal materials, usually lithium-ion, nickel-metal oxide, and nickel-cadmium. The United States uses over three billion of these two battery types a year, and most are not recycled; they end up in landfills. Also, all batteries are self-discharging. That means even when not in use, they leak tiny amounts of energy. You have likely ruined a flashlight or two from an old, ruptured battery. When a battery runs down and can no longer power a toy or light, you think the battery is dead but it’s not. It continues to leak small amounts of electricity. As the chemicals inside it run out, pressure builds inside the battery’s metal casing, and eventually, it cracks. The metals left inside then ooze out. The ooze in your ruined flashlight is toxic, and so is the ooze that will inevitably leak from every battery in a landfill. All batteries eventually rupture; it just takes rechargeable batteries longer to end up in the landfill. In addition to dry cell batteries, there are also wet cell ones used in automobiles, boats, and motorcycles. The good thing about those is 90% of them are recycled.
Unfortunately, we do not yet know how to recycle single-use ones properly. For those excited about electric cars and a green revolution, take a closer look at batteries (as well as windmills and solar panels). All three technologies have significant environmentally destructive production costs. A typical EV battery weighs one thousand pounds, about the size of a travel trunk. It contains twenty-five pounds of lithium, sixty pounds of nickel, 44 pounds of manganese, 30 pounds cobalt, 200 pounds of copper, and 400 pounds of aluminum, steel, and plastic. Inside are over 6,000 individual lithium-ion cells. Keep in mind that all those toxic components come from mining. For instance, to manufacture each EV auto battery, you must process 25,000 pounds of brine for the lithium, 30,000 pounds of ore for the cobalt, 5,000 pounds of ore for the nickel, and 25,000 pounds of ore for copper. All told, you dig up 500,000 pounds of the earth’s crust for just – one – battery. Sixty-eight percent of the world’s cobalt, a significant part of a battery, comes from the Congo. Their mines have no pollution controls, and they employ children who die from handling this toxic material. (FYI – Driven by demand for lithium-ion batteries and electric vehicles, the cobalt market is thriving and the top 5 producers, two of which are China based companies, control the market. The USA is totally dependent on cobalt.)
I stated earlier that landfill issues also apply to solar panels and windmills. Well, California is building the largest battery in the world near San Francisco, and they intend to power it from solar panels and windmills. They claim this is the ultimate in being “green”, but it’s not. This construction project is creating an environmental disaster. The main problem with solar is the chemicals needed to process silicate into the silicon used in the panels. To make pure enough silicon requires processing it with hydrochloric acid, sulfuric acid, nitric acid, hydrogen fluoride, trichloroethane, and acetone. In addition, they also need gallium, arsenide, copper-indium-gallium- Di selenide, and cadmium-telluride, which also are highly toxic. Silicon dust is a hazard to the workers, and the panels cannot be recycled. Windmills are the ultimate in embedded costs and environmental destruction. Each weigh 1688 tons (the equivalent of 23 houses) and contain 1,300 tons of concrete, 295 tons of steel, 48 tons of iron, 24 tons of fiberglass, and the hard to extract rare earths neodymium, praseodymium, and dysprosium. Each blade weighs 81,000 pounds and will last 15 to 20 years, at which time it must be replaced. We cannot recycle used blades. While wind and solar technology can be a source for renewable energy, you must look beyond the myth of zero emissions and earth friendly.
In fact, on July 14, 2022, the Los Angeles Times published a report detailing the “environmental danger” of expired solar panels on the environment. “California has been a pioneer in pushing for rooftop solar power, building up the largest solar market in the U.S.,” the article began. “More than 20 years and 1.3 million rooftops later, the bill is coming due.” The Times’ Rachel Kisela reported “Beginning in 2006, the state, focused on how to incentivize people to take up solar power, showered subsidies on homeowners who installed photovoltaic panels but had no comprehensive plan to dispose of them. Now, panels purchased under those programs are nearing the end of their 25-year lifecycle.” Toxic waste from solar panels is not just a Californian problem, but a problem nationwide.” About 140,000 panels are installed every day in the United States, and the solar industry is expected to quadruple in size between 2020 and 2030,” Kisela said. But there are difficulties surrounding disposal of solar panels: “Recycling solar panels isn’t a simple process. Highly specialized equipment and workers are needed to separate the aluminum frame and junction box from the panel without shattering it into glass shards. Specialized furnaces are used to heat panels to recover silicon. In most states, panels are classified as hazardous materials, which require expensive restrictions on packaging, transport and storage,” she continued. “A lack of consumer awareness about the toxicity of materials in the panels and how to dispose of them is part of the problem,” Kisela wrote.
My last point regarding the use of batteries is that the expected boom in the number of EVs will have a serious effect on the power utility grid. A charger converts electric energy to DC and charges the battery in an electric vehicle. An electric vehicle with a unidirectional charging capability would act as a load in the power system. They are directly connected to the power utility grid and draws power to charge the battery of electric cars and other EVs. Electric Vehicles are comparatively large loads that connected to the power grid when they are being charged. If an electric car with a 60 kWh battery charges 80% in 6 hours, then it consumes 8 kWh/hour. In comparison, a typical household consumes less than 5 kWh per day! Imagine the load increase if a large number of electric cars are connected to the grid for charging. It considerably increases the load on the grid. Furthermore, electric vehicles typically charge after coming home from work. The typical load curve of a household is highest from 7:00 pm to 11:00 pm. Uncontrolled charging of electric cars during peak hours will considerably affect the quality of the power utility grid.
Case in point – California energy officials issued a sobering warning in May 2022, telling residents to brace for potential blackouts as the state’s energy grid faces capacity constraints heading into the summer months. And since the state has committed to phase out all new gas-powered vehicles by 2035, the additional load from electric vehicle charging could add more strain to the electric grid. Ram Rajagopal, an associate professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering at Stanford University, authored a recent study looking at the strain electric vehicle adoption is expected to place on the power grid. “Today’s grid may not be able to support it. It all boils down to: Are you charging during the time solar power is on?” In August 2022, those warnings in California became much more dire.
Lastly, if we are truly earnest in finding alternative sources of electricity to replace fossil fuels, then there needs to be an honest discussion about expanding our nuclear power plant footprint.
The International Atomic Energy Agency (“IAEA”) reports that nuclear power plants are among the safest and most secure facilities in the world in generating electricity. We all know that accidents can happen, adversely affecting people and the environment. According to the World Nuclear Organization Library, there have been three major reactor accidents in the history of civil nuclear power – Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and Fukushima.
- Three Mile Island (USA 1979) where the reactor was severely damaged, but radiation was contained and there were no adverse health or environmental consequences.
- Chernobyl (Ukraine 1986) where the destruction of the reactor by steam explosion and fire killed two people initially plus a further 28 from radiation poisoning within three months and had significant health and environmental consequences.
- Fukushima Daiichi (Japan 2011) where three old reactors (together with a fourth) were written off after the effects of loss of cooling due to a huge tsunami were inadequately contained. There were no deaths or serious injuries due to radioactivity, though about 19,500 people were killed by the tsunami.
These are the only major accidents to have occurred in over 18,500 cumulative reactor-years of commercial nuclear power operation in 36 countries. Statistically, the evidence over six decades shows that nuclear power is a safe means of generating electricity. No industry is immune from accidents but the risk of accidents in nuclear power plants is low and declining.
Terra Power, a private company founded by Bill Gates designs and builds (small modular reactors (“SMR”). SMR’s are built in a factory and shipped to a site to be assembled. SMR’s are built in an assembly line like airplanes and the costs are dramatically cut with regulatory approval being one and done. The key strategy to this design is to allow these SMR’s to be assembled on old coal brownfield sites where water, power lines and infrastructure are already in place. In fact, Terra Power is building their first SMR in Wyoming on an old coal site while Another company NuScale is building 10 plants in Poland and one demonstration plant in Idaho. Another benefit to installing SMR’s on old coal brownfield sites is creating new employment opportunities to those who had worked in the coal mines. SMR’s may prove to be the future for our electric grids.
One day, alternative energy technologies might be sufficiently robust to replace fossil fuels in some of our major applications but until that time, it is crucial that American energy independence is protected through the continued development of the United States petroleum and natural gas.