Green Technology & Renewable Energy
Will green technology save the planet?
Wind turbine magnets
Bingham Canyon mine
No. Wind turbines, solar PV panels, and the grid itself are all manufactured using cheap energy from fossil fuels. When fossil fuel costs begin to rise such highly manufactured items will simply cease to be feasible.
Solar panels and wind turbines aren’t made out of nothing. They are made out of metals, plastics, and chemicals. These products have been mined out of the ground, transported, processed, manufactured. Each stage leaves behind a trail of devastation: habitat destruction, water contamination, colonization, toxic waste, slave labor, greenhouse gas emissions, wars, and corporate profits.
The basic ingredients for renewables are the same materials that are ubiquitous in industrial products, like cement and aluminum. No one is going to make cement in any quantity without using the energy of fossil fuels. And aluminum? The mining itself is a destructive and toxic nightmare from which riparian communities will not awaken in anything but geologic time.
From beginning to end, so called “renewable energy” and other “green technologies” lead to the destruction of the planet. These technologies are rooted in the same industrial extraction and production processes that have rampaged across the world for the last 150 years.
We are not concerned with slightly reducing the harm caused by industrial civilization; we are interested in stopping that harm completely. Doing so will require dismantling the global industrial economy, which will render impossible the creation of these technologies.
Aren’t renewable energies like solar, wind, and geothermal good for the environment?
No. The majority of electricity that is generated by renewables is used in manufacturing, mining, and other industries that are destroying the planet. Even if the generation of electricity were harmless, the consumption certainly isn’t. Every electrical device, in the process of production, leaves behind the same trail of devastation. Living communities — forests, rivers, oceans — become dead commodities.
The emissions reductions that renewables intend to achieve could be easily accomplished by improving the efficiency of existing coal plants, businesses, and homes, at a much lower cost. Within the context of industrial civilization, this approach makes more sense both economically and environmentally.
That this approach is not being taken shows that the whole renewables industry is nothing but profiteering. It benefits no one other than the investors.
Does “renewable” mean that they last forever?
No. Solar panels and wind turbines last around 20–30 years, then need to be replaced. The production process of extracting, polluting, and exploiting is not something that happens once, but is continuous - and is expanding very rapidly. Renewables can never replace fossil fuel infrastructure, as they are entirely dependent on it.
Will renewable energy save the economy?
Renewable energy technologies rely heavily on government subsidies, taken from taxpayers and given directly to large corporations like General Electric, BP, Samsung, and Mitsubishi. While the scheme pads their bottom lines, it doesn't help the rest of us.
Further, this is the wrong question to ask. The industrial capitalist economy is dispossessing and impoverishing billions of humans and killing the living world. Renewable energy depends on centralized capital and power imbalance. We don't benefit from saving that system.
Instead of advocating for more industrial technology, we need to move to local economies based on community decision-making and what our local landbases can provide sustainably. And we need to stop the global economy on which renewable energy depends.
Ok, metal extraction is harmful. What about recycling the materials?
Recycling may be “more efficient” than virgin extraction, but it is not a solution to environmental problems. In fact, it contributes to them.
Recycling the aluminum, steel, silicon, copper, rare earth metals, and other substances used in “green technologies” can only be done at great cost to the planet. Recycling these substances is extremely energy intensive, releases large amounts of greenhouse gases, and contributes to groundwater pollution and toxification of the planet.
Recycling metals requires global trade, as the recycling mostly takes place in impoverished countries with lax environmental and health regulations. It is extremely dangerous for the workers. Many parts of renewable technologies cannot be recycled.
Ok, renewable technologies have some impacts, but they’re still better than fossil fuels, right?
Signs of Insanity
Dig up non-renewable metals
Ship them across the world
Call it Green and Sustainable
Renewable energy technologies are better than fossil fuels in the same sense that a single bullet wound is “better” than two bullet wounds. Both are grievous injuries.
Do you want to shoot the planet once or twice?
The only way out of a double bind is to smash it: to refuse both choices and craft a completely different path. We support neither fossil fuels or renewable tech.
Even this bullet analogy isn’t completely accurate, since renewable technologies, in some cases, have a worse environmental impact than fossil fuels.
More renewables doesn’t mean less fossil fuel power, or less carbon emissions. The amount of energy generated by renewables has been increasing, but so has the amount generated by fossil fuels. No coal or gas plants have been taken offline as a result of renewables.
Only about 25% of global energy use is in the form of electricity that flows through wires or batteries. The rest is oil, gas, and other fossil fuel derivatives. Even if all the world’s electricity could be produced without carbon emissions, it would only reduce total emissions by about 25%. And even that would have little meaning, as the amount of energy being used is increasing rapidly.
It’s debatable whether some “renewables” even produce net energy. The amount of energy used in the mining, manufacturing, research and development, transport, installation, maintenance, grid connection, and disposal of wind turbines and solar panels may be more than they ever produce; claims to the contrary often do not take all the energy inputs into account. Renewables have been described as a laundering scheme: dirty energy goes in, clean energy comes out.
Biofuels, another example of “green tech”, have been shown to be a net energy loss in almost every case. Those biofuels that do produce net energy produce an exceedingly small amount. These fuels are often created by clearing natural ecosystems such as tropical rain forests or prairies for agricultural production, a process which releases even more greenhouse gases, reduces biodiversity, and reduces local food availability. Biofuel production is considered a major factor in rising food prices around the world in recent years. These rising food prices have led to widespread starvation, unrest, and violence.
Some people like to promote hydroelectric energy as a source of “green power”. This is false. Dams have enormous environmental impacts on rivers, beaches, and estuaries. Beyond these impacts, many dams are a large source of methane gas due to decomposing organic matter at the bottom of the reservoir. Methane from hydroelectric dams may be responsible for 4% or more of global warming.
What are the fundamental differences between fossil fuels and green technologies?
Extraction Require large-scale unsustainable extraction of metals and other resources. Require large-scale unsustainable extraction of metals and other resources. Production Globalized industrial production process requiring energy-intensive technologies. Globalized industrial production process requiring energy-intensive technologies. Pollution Extreme pollution released from initial exploration through extraction and consumption. Pollution often visible at site of consumption. Extreme pollution released from initial exploration through extraction and disposal. Pollution often invisible at site of consumption. Human Rights Contribute to resource conflicts, exploitation of labor, and human rights violations worldwide. Contribute to resource conflicts, exploitation of labor, and human rights violations worldwide. Democracy Technologies largely controlled by multinational corporations. Massive capital required. Community implementation largely impossible. Technologies largely controlled by multinational corporations. Massive capital required. Community implementation largely impossible.
What about solar power?
Solar panel factory
Solar panel production is now among the leading sources of hexafluoroethane, nitrogen triflouride, and sulfur hexaflouride, three extremely potent greenhouse gases which are used for cleaning plasma production equipment. As a greenhouse gas, hexaflouroethane is 12,000 times more potent than CO2, is 100% manufactured by humans, and survives 10,000 years once released into the atmosphere. Nitrogen Triflouride is 17,000 times more virulent than CO2, and Sulfur Hexaflouride is 25,000 times more powerful than CO2. Concentrations of nitrogen triflouride in the atmosphere are rising 11% per year.
From a report by the Silicon Valley Toxics coalition:
As the solar industry expands, little attention is being paid to the potential environmental and health costs of that rapid expansion. The most widely used solar PV panels have the potential to create a huge new source of electronic waste at the end of their useful lives, which is estimated to be 20 to 25 years. New solar PV technologies are increasing efficiency and lowering costs, but many of these use extremely toxic materials or materials with unknown health and environmental risks (including new nano materials and processes).
What about wind power?
Assembling wind turbines
One of the most common wind turbines in the world is a 1.5 megawatt design produced by General Electric. The nacelle weighs 56 tons, the tower 71 tons, and the blades 36 tons. A single such turbine requires over 100 tons of steel.
This model is a smaller design by modern standards. The latest industrial turbines stand over 600 feet tall and require about eight times as much steel, copper, and aluminum.
This material comes from somewhere, and that somewhere is always someone’s home, someone’s sacred site, someone’s source of food and water and air. We just don’t hear about them, because if they are humans, they are usually poor and brown. This is where racism, colonialism, environmentalism, and extractive economics come together.
The largest producer of wind turbines in the world is Vestas, a $15 billion corporation. The largest U.S. producer of turbines is General Electric, which has assets of more than $700 billion and is the fourth-largest producer of air pollution.Can anyone really think - after Fukushima, Hanford, Bhopal - that these massive corporations are concerned about justice or sustainability? Profit is their bottom line, and life will always remain secondary to that.
What about hybrid and electric vehicles?
The production of electric cars requires energy from fossil fuels for most aspects of their production and distribution. This requirement is perhaps even more extreme with electric cars as there is a need to manufacture them to be as lightweight as possible, due to the weight of the battery packs. Many lightweight materials utilized are extremely energy intensive to produce, such as aluminum and carbon composites. This is why you will probably never see an electric truck – they are just too heavy. And of course, trucks are required for extraction, and fossil fuels drive all trucks. Electric/hybrid cars are also charged by energy that, for the most part, comes from power plants using natural gas, coal or nuclear fuels.
A recent study by the National Academies, which analyzed the effects of vehicle construction, fuel extraction, refining, emissions, and other factors, has shown that the lifetime health and environmental impacts of electric vehicles are actually greater than those of gasoline-powered cars.
Should we focus on dense urbanization and public transit?
In some cases, dense urban development is preferable to suburban sprawl. It can reduce the impact on local wild places significantly. However, the focus on dense urban communities and public transit that is found in the modern environmental movement is problematic in several ways.
The main problem with this approach is that it takes for granted the existence of cities. Cities are unsustainable, because they require the routine importation of resources — food, timber, minerals, and fuels — from the surrounding land, and give nothing back. The land that the city is on cannot supply the citizens with enough food, shelter, fuel and other material goods.
This is in contrast to villages, camps, and other small settlements, which throughout history have served as a sustainable model for human communities.
Cities are always drawing resources from their surrounding region, and in the modern world, from the entire globe. Densely populated cities may reduce the impact of so-called “development” on their immediate area, but they do not address the fundamental impacts of cities, or of the modern globalized city.
For example, while some neighborhoods in New York City are extremely dense and use relatively low amounts of energy, this is a limited point of view. Rainforests are falling and mountains are being mined away to supply these dense cities with resources. Any serious attempt at environmentalism must take into account the impact of producing and transporting materials into the city, and must address the fundamental issues of resource extraction and the expansion of global industrial civilization.
At best, dense urban growth and public transportation are mildly effective “harm reduction” strategies. At worst, these approaches to environmentalism provide a green veneer to corporatized, profit-driven, and extraction-dependent cities. They obscure the problem, and thus contribute to it.
But we need electricity, don’t we?
Ivanpah solar plant
Humans, like other animals, get our energy mainly by eating other plants and animals. Plants gather energy from the sun. No species needs electricity for survival. Only the industrial system needs electricity to survive.
Right now, food and habitat for living beings are being sacrificed to feed electricity. The infrastructure, mines, processing, and waste dumping required for electrical generation is destroying forests and other natural places around the world. Ensuring energy security for industry requires undermining life security for living beings (that’s us).
What is your alternative?
Electricity has only been in common use since the 1920s (or later in large parts of the world). Many people in the majority world have no electricity at home, even now. There are plenty of ways of meeting our needs that are not dependent on electricity.
Generation of electricity is unsustainable, if by “sustainable” we mean something that we can keep doing forever without causing any lasting or major harm to the planet. Small-scale, localized electrical generation systems using the scraps of civilization may continue for some time after collapse of centralized power grids, but global industrial production of “green” products will kill the planet just as surely as the status quo.
We are skeptical even of using industrial “green” technology to facilitate a transition to a completely non-industrial way of life. Dependence on industrial technology can easily become a cult of progress, and can lead people away from traditional, sustainable ways of living.
The only truly “green” sources of power come from the earth and don’t require destruction. By that, we are talking about photosynthesis and muscle power. Permaculture, as well as other traditional subsistence methods such as hunting, animal husbandry, fishing, and gathering, must be the foundations of any future sustainable culture; otherwise any claims to being “green” will be falsehoods. Perennial polycultures, both cultivated and wild, can also supply the other basics necessities of life: clean water, clean air, material for clothing and shelter, and spiritual nourishment.
Deep Green Resistance stands in opposition to industrial technologies that are labeled as “green” or “renewable”. Instead, we stand in solidarity with the natural world and communities that are impacted by industrial extraction all around the world.
Further Reading / Viewing
- The False Solutions of Green Energy (one hour video)
- Ozzie Zehner – Green Illusions (one hour video)
- Myths of Biofuels (one and a half hour video)
- Resistance Radio interview with Annette Smith (forty minute audio podcast)
- "A Problem with Wind Power" by Eric Rosenbloom.
- "Energy Balance of the Global Photovoltaic (PC) Industry – Is the Industry a Net Electricity Producer?" by Michael Date and Sally M. Benson.
- Green Illusions: The Dirty Secrets of Clean Energy and the Future of Environmentalism by Ozzie Zehner. University of Nebraska Press, 2012.
- Deep Green Resistance: Strategy to Save the Planet by Lierre Keith, Derrick Jensen, and Aric McBay. Seven Stories Press, 2011.
- Imperial San Francisco: Urban Power and Earthly Ruin by Gray Brechin. University of California Press, 2006.
- "Reservoir Emissions" by International Rivers. Accessed October 31st, 2014.
- "Solar industry grapples with hazardous wastes" by Jason Dearen, Associated Press. February 10th, 2013.
- "Ten Reasons Intermittent Renewables (Wind and Solar PV) are a Problem" by Gail Tverbeg. January 2014.