Part I- Exposing the Staggering Corruption and Hidden Costs of “Sustainable” Wind Energy
This article is part one of a three-part exposé detailing the staggering corruption and hidden costs embedded in “sustainable” wind energy including economic, human, social, and environmental impacts. This article focuses on defining the problem and highlighting China’s dominance over rare-earth metals, and the environmental impact of these wind and solar energy systems.
Many who care about the future of this planet are searching for alternatives to our current fossil fuel energy dependency. Bold new approaches have been proposed by the Biden administration, including accelerating offshore wind energy development at a massive scale to create new jobs using so-called “Green Technology.”
However, there has been an incredible failure of the media and those in positions of power to illustrate the true costs and deep corruption embedded in the use of wind and solar energy, specifically wind turbines. These costs range from unthinkable economic losses, immoral human labor usage, and an actual carbon footprint that far surpasses any potential “sustainable” wind energy impact. From dependency on China’s rare earth metals to reliance on forced labor, the wind energy industry is unjust and deeply unsustainable.
Other energy alternatives are feasible and available, but the public must understand the interrelated web of corruption that lies behind “clean” wind turbines. There are social, industrial, technological, human, cultural, economic, and political factors at play that make this issue complex and interwoven. When looking at the pieces out of context, it doesn’t look like there is a problem. No one is connecting the dots.
What is Wind Energy?
Wind energy generates electricity using large wind turbines. The giant blades of a wind turbine will catch the wind’s kinetic energy and rotate. These blades are attached to a shaft and gearbox that spins a generator producing electricity. Wind turbines usually have a service life of 20 years. Wind Turbines are one of the least effective energy generators for a number of reasons. They are massive and take up a large landmass; onshore wind farms need 250,000 acres of land to produce 26 Trillion Watt-hour of electricity per year (26 billion kWh annually, or 2.97 GW continuous, for a year. Actually, not much power at all when considering 30GW is being proposed just for offshore in the coming years.) It would also take a huge amount of working hours and resources to assemble and transport different components, including millions of pounds of concrete and hundreds of miles of steel reinforcing bar.
The materials used for making the turbine blades and other components are not recyclable. Therefore, when they get disposed of, they produce a large number of carbon emissions in addition to the huge carbon footprint created in deploying, let alone developing specialized materials. They are subject to wear, tear, and lightning strikes and need replacement regularly, and are already piling up in landfills with no means of decomposing. They can only produce electricity in the range of 15–45 miles per hour wind speed, so most turbines only have an average 40% rate in producing electricity. In other words, they have a low-efficiency rate since they produce little or no power around 60% of the time.
As the Manhattan Institute reports, “To completely replace hydrocarbons over the next 20 years, global renewable energy production would have to increase by at least 90-fold. For context: it took a half-century for global oil and gas production to expand by 10-fold.”
Or as the documentary Planet of the Humans summarizes, solar and wind energy are not feasible replacements for fossil fuels because they’re intermittent energy sources that need to be supplemented by nonrenewable sources, and because the manufacture of solar panels and windmills is environmentally destructive. In addition, the best places to site wind farms and solar arrays tend not to be real close to where all the people live and work and use electricity.
Not only is energy production on a mass scale using wind energy simply implausible due to the limited energy output, land usage, and waste creation, but there are a number of other factors at play that bring the level of global harm up to an inconceivable level.
Rare Earth Scarcity and China’s Domination
As the LA Times reports in their article “The Hidden Costs of China’s Rare Earth Supply Chain,” “Rare earth is a group of 17 elements, sometimes found in minerals containing uranium, that are critical to high-tech products including smartphones, wind turbines, electric cars and military equipment such as missile systems.” These energy-intensive raw materials are key critical components to our technology and communications sector, military defense, medical, biomedical, and life support functions, especially in the United States. They are called “rare” not because they are necessarily hard to find, but because the extraction process is expensive and toxic. Rare earth elements are considered “strategic resources” because they interact directly with business and governments’ policy interventions (Science Direct).
30 years ago, America’s position in rare earth materials was unrivaled as the world leader in rare earth production. At this same time in history, a bold statement and plan and strategic movement was openly stated by Deng Xiaoping in 1992, stating “The Middle East has its oil, China has rare earth,” and in the same speech stating “it is of extremely important strategic significance; we must be sure to handle the rare earth issue properly and make the fullest use of our country’s advantage in rare earth resources.” (Business Insider). Thirty years later, China accounted for about 71% of the world’s rare-earth output in 2019, and supplied 80% of U.S. rare-earth imports from 2014 to 2017, according to the U.S. Geological Survey. Experts believe illegal mines in China are providing more through the black market.
In the last two decades, China has come to dominate global rare-earth production by investing in mining and processing without enforcing adequate environmental safeguards.
In fact, China is in charge of a larger percentage of rare-earths than noted above if we include that the majority of other countries with rare earth assets have sold over their mineral rights to China. These largely impoverished countries in Africa and South America often have no other choice but to take part in contracts that will not likely benefit their larger population.
The Guardian reports, Over the last decade and a half, China has also moved to obtain exclusive mining rights in African countries in return for building big-ticket infrastructure projects. Deals have been sealed in the Democratic Republic of Congo and in Kenya where China has agreed to provide $666 million for a data center and highway. China is also advancing its mining interests in Greenland and other countries.
There is now a total dependency on China’s supply chain in that raw materials are not made available, buyers must buy the physical component (batteries, magnets, etc.) that has already been processed in China. “Few other countries are willing to copy China’s low-cost, high-pollution version of rare-earth processing,” reports LA Times.
There is an enormous danger in China being the sole supplier of materials that are key to our economies. We face an existential threat if our life support chain to these hardware components and technologies were cut off — those that supply the materials and magnets needed for our cars, batteries, electric grid, life support in hospitals, military-industrial complex, the list goes on. There is simply no secondary source, these components are not available unless we buy them from China.
This dependency opens up a massive national security problem, in that the U.S. and China are not considered allies, with relations deteriorating in recent years. If the United States were to enter into a military or economic conflict with China, the U.S. would be totally dependent on China to purchase the materials needed for all military capacity.
Unchecked Environmental Pollution and Degradation
When considering the environmental impact of wind and solar energy, we must look at the full scope of pollution and degradation caused from start to finish within these supply chains. It is easy to forget all that went into a picturesque wind turbine arriving onto a serene landscape. However, there are many adverse impacts that must be considered that contribute to the creation of wind turbines and solar panels.
Many do not realize that building a wind turbine is resource extensive, especially in using rare-earth that are used to manufacture magnets. A typical 5-megawatt direct-drive wind turbine with a permanent-magnet generator will need three metric tons of permanent magnets.
In the offshore versions, every wind turbine is around 10MW to 14MW each. That is 1430 lbs of rare-earth per M.W. of rated power, so a 10 M.W. needs 14,300 lbs of magnet materials. A “typical” wind farm is 1 G.W. that will need 100 turbines and would need a total of 1,430,000 pounds or 715 metric tons of the magnet material. Take that amount times nine offshore fields, and that would mean 6,435 metric tons of magnet materials. To put it plainly, the greediest fat cat on the planet for the consumption of rare earths is a wind turbine, with solar panels following closely behind.
The dirty ore processing required to create magnets at such a magnitude is unthinkable. The process creates an incredible amount of planetary pollution and toxic waste, which is the collateral damage of refining raw earth ores. It kills ecological landscapes like the Congo and other precious natural reserves, under the guise of offering clean energy.
As the LA Times reports, “In mineral-rich regions of China, poisoned water and soil have caused abnormal disease rates in “cancer villages” from which impoverished residents cannot afford to move. Crops and animals have died around a crusty lake of radioactive black sludge formed from mining waste near a major mining site in Baotou, Inner Mongolia. It’s so large that it is visible by satellite. Chinese state media sent signals that China could restrict rare-earth exports to pressure American companies, warning in editorials that “if anyone wants to use imported rare earths against China, the Chinese people will not agree.”
These processing systems could potentially be salvageable if they were managed with discretion and moderation judiciously, and used only when most needed for devices like MRI machines, or cell phones. However, the scale of wind energy currently being proposed would eat up all of the magnets available in the market, leaving no room for our other essential technologies that are also in need of these rare earth parts.
At the bottom line, there is a massive environmental price being paid by the entire planet for the mining, refinement, and shipment of rare earth metals and parts. The carbon footprint of a single wind turbine factors out to be 300–500x the life of the cleanliness of it, polluting the planet at multiples of carbon debt beyond which it will ever be able to get out of.
Additionally, as Bloomberg notes, wind turbines can’t be recycled. Tens of thousands of aging blades are piling up in landfills. Many environmentalists and activists on all sides of the political spectrum are becoming aware of the “extensive damage done to nature’s bio-systems when vast regions are converted into wind and solar power plants,” as is detailed in Michael Moore’s documentary Planet of the Humans. The film “shows open-pit mines gouged deep into the Earth to extract iron, aluminum, copper, and other minerals needed for these plants. Hundreds of tons of cement are required to anchor the base of the 300–500-foot-high industrial wind turbines which slaughter millions of birds and bats every year. And then there are untold tons of earth and rocks blasted with thousands of pounds of dynamite to extract relatively small amounts of rare earth metals, often produced with few environmental controls in China.”
The actual CO2 footprint just to get raw materials out of a place like the Congo, ship them to China to process with inhumane labor conditions (more on that later), using diesel factories with the dirtiest diesel polluting at the highest possible rate, to create a pretty machine coming off the docks that is somehow called “clean” is a woefully extraordinary irony.
Next week we will continue our exposé with a spotlight on the inhumane labor conditions required of these supply chains, as well as details on the deep corruption of subsidies and debt to China that reinforce these systems. We will finally offer a viable alternative to these harmful systems in our third installment.
Read Part II