How “green” is green?

You know all those “green energy” jobs Clinton and Obama love to go on about? Well, here’s a place where those green jobs aren’t particularly doing the environment any favors:

The first time Li Gengxuan saw the dump trucks from the nearby factory pull into his village, he couldn’t believe what happened. Stopping between the cornfields and the primary school playground, the workers dumped buckets of bubbling white liquid onto the ground. Then they turned around and drove right back through the gates of their compound without a word.

This ritual has been going on almost every day for nine months, Li and other villagers said.

In China, a country buckling with the breakneck pace of its industrial growth, such stories of environmental pollution are not uncommon. But the Luoyang Zhonggui High-Technology Co., here in the central plains of Henan Province near the Yellow River, stands out for one reason: It’s a green energy company, producing polysilicon destined for solar energy panels sold around the world. But the byproduct of polysilicon production — silicon tetrachloride — is a highly toxic substance that poses environmental hazards.

Obviously we’re unlikely to see a scenario like the above unfold here. But the point of all this is for most of these technologies there are trade-offs in byproducts and pollutants which can be very toxic and difficult to dispose of. In the case of silicon tetrachloride:

“The land where you dump or bury it will be infertile. No grass or trees will grow in the place. . . . It is like dynamite — it is poisonous, it is polluting. Human beings can never touch it,” said Ren Bingyan, a professor at the School of Material Sciences at Hebei Industrial University.

I’m sure there’s an approved method of handling and disposing of silicon tetrachloride, and I’m pretty sure it is expensive. And unless companies choose to dispose of it as the Luoyang Zhonggui High-Technology company tried to do, consumers are going to pay for it in expensive “energy saving” devices.

This example goes to the question that should be asked of all supposed “green” technologies. What, in terms of pollutants and toxic waste, is produced in the production of the technology? Ethanol, for instance, may use more energy than it produces simply because of the existing production process it requires and the fact that it cannot be transported by pipeline, but must be trucked to and from the refinery.

And photovoltaic cells which the company cited above was manufacturing? Well, at the moment they’re not the most efficient method of generating energy. A squared meter of panels will power 4 100 watt lightbulbs.

William Tucker, author of “Terrestrial Energy: How a Nuclear-Solar Alliance Can Rescue the Planet” points out that the solar panels necessary to power one suburban home would require an array about half the size of a football field and cost in the neighborhood of $140,000. That’s not exactly a short-term ROI when compared to traditional forms of energy generation.

That’s not to say that solar panels aren’t an important part of a total energy solution, but in reality, they’ll be a small part. Same with wind. According to Tucker, because of the unpredictability of wind (recently demonstrated in Texas), only 20% of any grid’s power can be wind driven because that is the most a grid can mask by other sources should wind fail. And then there’s the ‘eye-pollution’ arrays of giant windmills bring – ask Ted Kennedy.

There’s no question that coal isn’t the most pollutant free way to produce energy. But it is the cheapest. We burn 1 billion tons of coal a year (up from 500 million in 1976) and it produces 40 percent of our greenhouse gases and 20 percent of the world’s total carbon emissions.

Tucker points out that an average 1,000 megawatt coal plant uses a railroad car load of coal to provide 20 minutes of electricity.

I know, you’re wondering, “where in the hell is he going with this”. Well, it’s to familiar territory, and you should have gotten the hint in the title of Tucker’s book.

Good old, reliable, clean nuclear energy.

Here’s how Tucker describes the contrast between that 1,000 watt coal plant at which a train with 110 cars each loaded with 20 tons of coal, arrives every 5 days. At a 1,000 megawatt nuclear plant:

“Every two years a fleet of flatbed trucks pulls up to the reactor to deliver a load of fuel rods. These rods are only mildly radioactive and can be handled with gloves. They will be loaded into a reactor, where they will remain for six years (only 1/3 of the rods are replaced at each refueling). The replaced rods will be removed and transferred to a storage pool inside the containment structure, where they can remain indefinitely (three feet of water blocks the radiation). There is no exhaust, no carbon emissions, no sulfur sludge to be carted away hourly and heaped into vast dumps. There is no release into the environment. The fuel rods come out looking exactly as they did going in, except they are now more highly radioactive. There is no air pollution, no water pollution, no ground pollution.”

In other words, if Obama and Clinton want to create green energy jobs, their top priority should be seeing how many nuclear power plants they can bring on line in a 4 year period – assuming either of them ever get the chance.

First published at QandO.

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