By Don “Doc” Sanders
The good old U.S. of A. is blessed with lots of alternative options for energy. However, I believe that these opportunities must be developed slowly and thoughtfully like the steady forward progress of the tortoise, as opposed to the undisciplined pace of the hare, in Aesop’s fable.
Currently, our government is playing its political cards on energy utilization like the speedy, erratic hare, not the methodical tortoise. If you remember Aesop’s tale, you know that the tortoise won the race. And the impulsive hare got waylaid by distractions.
Let’s take a look at what’s being bandied about regarding traditional and alternative energy sources.
Coal is problematic. An estimated 470 years of coal resources are available. While lots of coal is available, true clean-burning coal technology isn’t. The coal industry and coal-fired generating plants are behind the energy power curve with regards to reducing their carbon footprint and environmental impact. In my opinion this likely would be a solvable problem, if we were to put the effort into coal that is being put into electric cars, trucks and tractors.
Fuel oil reserves are estimated to be at about 51 years. But although fuel oil is available, like coal, its carbon footprint leaves a lot to be desired.
Natural gas is readily available, with an estimated 53-year supply in the U.S. It has a much lower carbon footprint than coal, so it would be, as its name implies, a natural choice to keep U.S. energy needs covered while “green” energy is being developed.
Government sources (https://.ela.gov>faqs>faq) suggest that the U.S. has an estimated 98-year reserve of natural gas. And technology is available to help mitigate natural gas’s effect on the environment, unlike coal.
Now, let’s look at alternative energy sources.
In areas were the wind continuously blows, it’s possible wind power could be a long-term player on the U.S. energy map. But currently (pun intended), wind-powered turbines supply about 7% of electricity in the U.S. Obviously, that’s a long way from meeting America’s energy needs.
There is also a huge downside to wind-generated electricity. The turbines are mounted on 200- to 300-foot-tall towers. Each tower requires one and a half acres of space. That means a wind farm with 150 turbines requires 225 acres of land. I wonder what farmer, with a 24-row planter, would dare attempt to plant corn around these behemoths.
To power a city the size of New York City, you’d need 57,000 acres of clear space for wind turbines. Think about that! Timber buyers might be excited, but consider the effects of cutting down that many trees to benefit just one large city. Trees are a huge carbon sink for storing carbon dioxide from human, plant and animal activities.
And as my dad would say, there’s another fly in the ointment. Each wind turbine has three blades with a span of 120 to 200 feet. These blades generally last 20 years before they must be replaced.
So where do you put all that waste? There is no efficient protocol for reclaiming these gigantic fiber composite blades. Bulldozers are used to bury them at approved sites. But it will not take long to run out of room in these special landfills, which must meet environmental requirements. That works against wind power’s aim to reduce pollution.
Solar power and electric vehicles
You may have observed solar panel farms being installed out in the country side — that’s the next wave of green energy. And it’s hard to avoid talk about Elon Musk, his electric car company, Tesla, and the many other companies that are not far behind in development of electric vehicles. A major factor for electric-powered cars is the development and manufacture of light-weight lithium batteries.
Worldwide, there is not a shortage of lithium, but mining and processing it is difficult and slow. Lithium is mined in China, Mexico, Russia, Argentina, soon in northern Nevada and a few more remote places. Lithium prices jumped from about $4,500 per ton in 2012 to about $78,000 per ton in 2022.
As a shortage of mined lithium has stymied production of his electric Tesla cars, Musk wants to enter the mining business. With all the companies now planning to build electric cars, trucks and tractors, there isn’t enough processed lithium to go around. More mining and processing facilities are needed desperately.
In northern Nevada, some entrepreneurs have options on large sections of land where there is an abundance of lithium available for extraction. Many in our society claim to be concerned about protecting the environment by developing “green” energy, but you might question their sincerity if you’ve ever seen photos of the miles-wide holes dug by miners in the Mesabi Iron Range in northeastern Minnesota or the Norlisk Nickel mine in northern Siberia. The same goes for lithium mining operations. There’s nothing environmentally friendly-looking about mining for essential minerals. Perhaps it’s a matter of “out of sight, out of mind.”
Plus, lithium solar panels also eventually wear out at 25 to 30 years. So, the same question arises that is a major concern of wind turbines. Where and how are solar panels disposed when these panels are worn out? Are we just going to bury them?
Besides being used to produce batteries for electric vehicles, lithium has a long-term effective medical use — as therapy for depression, bipolar disorders and other mental illness. Maybe we should use lithium to calm down and encourage development of green energy in a more logical and effective fashion. Like the tortoise that beat the hare.