The Ugly Truth of Sustainable Energy

For the last decade, we’ve seen increasing concern about the environment. Initiatives on sustainable energy research had emerged around the world. We think sustainable energy is one of the keys that will prevent climate change, is it though?

Large Scale Solar Energy Farm in Southern California (source: 8minute.com)

Free and sustainable energy, at what cost?
We’ve all heard campaigns about solar panels, wind turbines, hydropower plants, etc. They generate electricity by harnessing power from nature. One of the main advantages of sustainable energy is zero gas emission, especially the greenhouse gasses that will prompt climate change. The more trivial advantage is free material and sustainable process — meaning we will not get out of resources like we predict fossil fuels will be.

However, if it’s too good to be true, it probably is. If we can make free energy, why don’t we all invest some money on it now? The answer is because we haven’t talked enough about the costs and the consequences.

Solar panels
Why solar panels? Because the sun is the primary source of earth’s energy, and we will always have it. Well, that argument only applies when it’s daytime, sunny weather, and no dust that covers our solar panels. It’s such a reliable source of energy, isn’t it?

We’ve seen a reduced cost of solar panels throughout the last decade. The ROI (return of investment) of a solar panel is nearly eight years, which is reasonable on paper, but what about the space it needs to take? It needs around 400–500 acres of land to build a 100-megawatt plant compared to 40 acres of land required by a steam power plant — a massive ten times. This space requirement means we need huge land acquisition, and it will destroy many habitats and ecosystems.

Broken solar panels release toxic chemicals (source: AFP)

The solar panels can last about 25 years, and the truth is, we haven’t figured out how to deal with the waste. If a solar panel is broke, pollutants like lead and carcinogenic cadmium could be washed out by rainwater and damage the environment.

Wind Turbines
The underlying problem of all sustainable energy remains the same: how can we make sure the wind is there to turn the turbines? The fluctuation creates a new requirement for other systems to accommodate these wind turbines. Because, if the power output drops significantly, or if there is a substantial amount of change in the electricity load, the system will fail.

Environmentally speaking, the wind turbine might be worse than the solar panels. It held responsible for slaughtering millions of birds and bats annually. What we scared of is not the small birds that it kills, but the big birds like eagles that are not many in the population.

Wind turbines slaughter millions of birds and bats (source: windmillskill.com)

When golden eagles fly, they sometimes are looking down for prey instead of looking ahead. And, sometimes they don’t see the turning blades of a wind turbine. So, eagles and millions of smaller birds and bats are accidentally killed by wind farms. When eagles and bats population are decreasing, we can assume that it will disrupt the food chain and affects the ecosystem.

Hydropower Plants
Generating electricity from river streams is probably the most reliable option compared to all of the above, even though it will still rely on the precipitation rate of the year. The hydropower plants enable other renewable sources of energy to be used because of its flexibility. The power output can be adjusted by controlling the watergate. It does not release any toxic chemicals into the water and minimizes the production of greenhouse gasses.

Aerial view of Sayano-Shushenskaya hydropower station in Russia

However, building a dam to support the hydropower plant consumes a lot of money and time — around 40 years on return of investment. The plant can alter the flow and temperature of the river that can harm native plants and animals around it. The water can also accumulate sediments that can damage the facility’s mechanical components and reduce reservoir storage capacity. Locating the spot to build the hydropower plant is not an easy task and hence opens the question of its scalability.

A way to move forward
With sustainable energy, we wanted to stop climate change to save our environment. Instead, we could destroy the environment itself because of the side effects, like disrupting the food chain or releasing toxic chemicals.

Saving the environment was always going to be difficult. The research about sustainable energy was indeed a great way to move forward back then. But now that we know it can’t save our planet, are we going to let it keep destroying our environment? I believe there are two paths that scientist can take:
1. Solve the missing puzzle of sustainable energy — e.g., produce harmless solar panels.
2. Come up with another solution for generating electricity and other aspects related to climate change.

Most of us can’t decide how to generate electricity. But in the meantime, we can try to reduce our carbon footprint. I will discuss how we can start small to reduce our carbon footprint in the next article.

Note: This article was meant to put up realities into perspective. We can save the environment, but we have to do it together.

Cheers mate!

Sharing my thoughts and experiences to the world. Engineering/Finances/Philosophy.