Spokane Journal of Business

Guest Commentary: Renewable energy also has impacts to consider


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Before our country hastily dives totally into renewable energy, we must carefully evaluate its impacts. Specifically, by concentrating on eliminating fossil fuels to combat climate change, we ignore the effects of other forms of pollution generated by making renewable energy components.

Under the Green New Deal, the U.S. would become 100 percent reliant on renewable energy in a decade and eliminate carbon dioxide-producing fuels at a cost of up to $93 trillion over 10 years.

While further reducing greenhouse gases is vital, we can’t ignore the fact that last year only 18 percent of the nation’s energy consumption came from renewables.

Before the Green New Deal was proposed, demand for copper globally was set to jump 22 percent within five years because of increased use of the metal in electric vehicles, solar, and wind power sectors, Bloomberg reported.

As China upgrades its industry to “smart factories,” annual demand for copper is set to grow by an additional 232,000 tons by 2025.

Copper mining and processing creates acidic and heavy metal laden wastewater, which commonly is stored in tailing ponds. 

In Colorado, the Gold King Mine pond blowout in 2015 coated the Animas River bed with a layer of toxic orange muck. 

State officials found 230 other old mines leaking heavy metals-laced sludge into headwaters of its rivers. The EPA calculates that 40 percent of river headwaters in the West have acid mine drainage.

Lithium is toxic on water supplies as well. In 2016, in the eastern Tibetan city of Tagong, the Liqi River was contaminated by lithium mining operations owned by China’s BYD, the world’s largest supplier of lithium-ion batteries.

According to Cairn Energy Research, the lithium-ion industry is expected to grow eightfold by 2027. 

Much of that growth is in Salar de Atacama salt flat, in Chile, where mining activities consume 65 percent of the region’s water, and farmers and residents are forced to truck in fresh water.

Wired.com reports that lithium might not be the most problematic ingredient in modern rechargeable batteries. Cobalt and nickel mining and processing creates big environmental problems as well.

Finally, lithium-ion battery disposal is another headache. Today, only a small portion is recycled. The average lifespan of a lithium iron phosphate battery, the dominant type in China’s electric vehicles, is around five years.

According to Quartz.com, in 2020, nearly 250,000 metric tons of batteries are set to be retired—nearly 20 times those depleted in 2016. But recycling these batteries isn’t easy, due to the chemical procedures involved. If it’s not done properly, the heavy metals contained in the batteries can contaminate soil and water if disposed in landfills.

Hopefully, our political leaders will evaluate carefully the entire spectrum of impacts of all energy sources before establishing sweeping government mandates for our nation.


Don C. Brunell is a business analyst, writer, and retired president of the Association of Washington Business, the state’s oldest and largest business organization. He now lives in Vancouver, Wash. and can be contacted 

at theBrunells@msn.com.

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