Solar, wind, and hydroelectric are the energies of tomorrow. Or at least, they’re being widely installed to the point of a world energy transition. But are we sure they’re clean?

10,000 mirrors. 640 feet high. The look of a colossal peacock on display, but also the promise of a more responsible tomorrow in terms of energy pollution. Sunk right in the burning sands that blanket the Nevada desert, the solar center Crescent Dunes so represents the imaginative future of American energy that it’s reproduced as far as the eye can see in the opening of Blade Runner 2049[RL1] . It’s also the pride of its father, Kevin Smith, who doesn’t hold back when discussing the merits of his creation. “This is the first utility-scale facility in the world with this technology. Our technology can truly replace conventional generation,” says the ambitious CEO of Solar Reserve, who adds that his monument could power 75,000 homes.

When Smith says “conventional generation,” he’s referring to fossil fuels (coal and others) that today are public enemy number one in the environmental movement. By “truly replace,” he’s bragging about Crescent Dunes’ unique capacity, thanks to its arsenal of mirrors, to deliver massive amounts of energy to the tall tower growing out of its center. When clouds come, no problem—the energy harvested from sunny days has been carefully conserved in the tower. In that light, one understands the Obama administration’s fascination with the innovation. It didn’t hesitate to open its wallet and slap a check for at least $5 million on the project and its eventual emulators. In fact, photovoltaics—solar—is currently our most promising energy. And an investment like Crescent Dunes is the definitive proof of that.

But are we sure it’s actually inherently clean?

Crédits : SolarReserve

Das Energiewende

April 26, 1899. The agricultural park of Achères, outside Paris. The crowd mills about La Jamais Contente, a curious racecar with an electric dual Postel-Vinay engine, an improved model from the motor invented by Thomas Davenport in 1834. It was about to become the first road vehicle in history to break 100 kilometers per hour (62 mph). Booming and thundering, the electric car was a freak of nature, made to be sensational. No one cared about any environmental assets. The goal was simply to find a more effective means of burning rubber. And the gasoline-powered car was perfectly adequate for that. Still, in 1900 in the US, out of 4,192 vehicles manufactured, 1,575 of them were electric, and only 936 gasoline. But still, eventually, the electric was passed by, considered by many to be an unsustainable industry.

That is, until the 21st century and the rise in gasoline prices. Now the conversation has changed. However, the renewed interest in electric has been, in a way, primarily a financial one.

Albert Einstein

For solar, everything started in 1839, when the French physician Edmond Becquerel made a discovery. Exposed to the sun for an extended period of time, some materials started to quiver without being touched. Captivated by the finding, he called it the photoelectric effect. He didn’t know it then, but what he’d just discovered would become the key to nuclear energy.

One Albert Einstein grasped the magnitude of the discovery. In 1905, 14 years after Becquerel’s death, the German visionary set himself to studying the subject. From that work, he published a clear and concise explanation in which he stated, in layman’s terms, that when particles of light (photons) are absorbed into a material, it produces energy—an explanation that earned him the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1921.

Then there was the American William Coblentz who, in 1913, filed for the first patent for a solar cell. And then the American Robert Millikan who, in 1916, succeeded in producing energy with this cell. And then 40 years of nothing.

The public believed the research wasn’t worth it, that solar cells took a lot of work for little result. That is, until in 1954, the year Bell Labs manufactured the first solar panel, designed to provide continuous energy to orbiting satellites. It seemed logical: the sun always shines somewhere on the planet, an inexhaustible source of energy. Given this, there remained one huge obstacle: why try to harness the sun when we already have oil, which was perfectly adequate? The natural tendency to take the easier path would come back to haunt us nearly 30 years later.

In 1980, the West German soccer team defeated the Belgian Red Devils to win the Euro championship. As the rest of the country celebrated, the scientists in the German Öko-Institut did not. They were seeing a new future. A gray, suffocating, apocalyptic future. The culprit? Humanity’s disastrous influence on the planet, which was deteriorating little by little, like a soccer pitch little by little trampled by cleats. Luckily, we were only at halftime. To escape impending ecological disaster, they released a white book titled Energiewende (Energy Transition) in order to sound the alarm among environmental specialists. Its overarching conclusion: completely abandon our dependence on oil.

Energy Transition

“Habit kills imagination. Only new objects awaken it,” said Rousseau. This new object is the electric car, and it’s becoming increasingly fine-tuned. On paper, the transition is taking off. In 2016, there were 2 million electric cars in circulation, according to a report released by the International Energy Agency. A good start, for sure, but the industry will have to hurry. The transition must be completed by 2040, or at least that’s what the UK and France have promised. Some governments are joining in to help make gasoline-powered vehicles uncomfortable—both morally and financially.

Norway, for example, with it blooming trees and fresh air, is full of confidence. And it should be, with the assurance that its own fossil fuel divorce, planned for 2025, is on its way. In fact, a range of benefits is offered to anyone who chooses non-fossil fuel powered vehicles, like the cancellation of registration tax. This measure inspired the climate plan of Nicolas Hulot, minister of ecological and solidarity transition in France. The French plan provides for an increase in the conversion premium paid to drivers wishing to invest in a hybrid or electric vehicle, combined with an increase in tax for vehicles that pollute too much, whose penalty has been lowered by six grams of CO2 per kilometer.

And yet, in this fight, the all-time champion is a heavyweight with a sword of Damocles threatening to drop at any moment: China. In its big cities, the sky is low and the air is poison. Opportunistic vendors sell cans of fresh air, riding the wave of fear following deaths linked to atmospheric pollution. In 2016, it killed more than 1.6 million Chinese, or 4,000 per day. There’s only one solution: a progressive suppression of thermal cars. A world first.

Credits : Mark Wong

However, the effort of the individual won’t matter unless combined with the whole. “We’re going to have to find a solution,” warns Thibault Laconde, in charge of “Climate transition for the engineer” at CentraleSupélec. “In France, for example, the power plants are out of breath. They were built in the 1980s with a lifespan of 30 or 40 years. In the decades to come, we’re going to lose them. We’ll need to move on.” We may be on our way. Today, energy transition is deeply anchored in morality.

But despite all the good will of various actors in extremis, it could be that it’s not enough. Several studies have demonstrated that we’re not as clean as we thought.

For Better and For Worse

“There is no clean energy without some impact on the environment. There are only energies ‘less bad’ than those that we’re producing in large scale currently,” Thibault Laconde says. “Infinite energy, that’s the measure of a change in state. So if you have energy somewhere, there will always be a consequence somewhere else.”

2016. Researchers at the University of Washington have just dropped a bomb. Hydroelectric dams, which exploit the force of water currents to produce electricity, are highly polluting. A shame, because unlike solar (which generally does not produce energy at night) and wind (useless when there’s no wind), water moves day and night, no matter the weather. But alas, large dams produce 1.3% of world greenhouse gas emissions, producing a billion tons of CO2 per year. This waste is due to biological activity. Organic materials stagnate at the bottom of these gigantic reservoirs and end up fermenting. That creates gasses like methane, responsible for 80% of hydroelectric dam emissions—and 34 times more noxious than CO2.

Moreover, dams represent a grave danger to biodiversity. Despite that, the construction of 450 hydroelectric dams is planned in the Amazon, the Mekong, and the Congo, three rivers that make up about a third of freshwater fish species on the planet. But the chain of cause-and-effect does not stop there.

Take the fish from fishermen, and they’ll become farmers. That seems logical, and it seriously worries the World Wildlife Federation, which jumped to make dire predictions. The NGO foresees that by 2030, the 88 dam projects along the Thai strip of the Mekong will result in an increase of 19% to 63% in agricultural zone, to the detriment of coastal forests. Not enough to stop the huge projects of investors, who will invest their millions however they must. The environmental impact of hydroelectric is, therefore, potentially disastrous.

On to solar and its famous panels. What are these panels made of anyway? Of 36 to 72 solar cells (depending on the size) linked by electricity. Each cell, composed of silicon, is inserted between an EVA (ethylene-vinyl acetate) waterproof polymer plate and another tempered glass plate. All that is covered in aluminum, necessary for protection and for the fixings. To make the energy compatible with our devices, it must be modified by an inverter, from which it comes out as an alternating current with a frequency of 50 Hz and a tension of 220 V. It’s the mode of construction of these panels where the problem lies.

Besides its desire to abolish the thermal vehicle, China is also the foremost world producer of solar panels—and still the leader, with 77.4 GW installed at present, with 34.24 GW in 2016 alone. And this important chain of production hurts the country. The insidious component necessary to solar panel production: silicon, which is none other than the second most abundant molecule on the planet and present in 60.6% of the earth’s crust.

In China, a floating solar farm
Credits : World Economic Forum

But the silicon that we use does not exist naturally. It must be modified and purified. The silica initially collected is melted at a temperature between 1 500°C et 2 000°C in an arc oven. To produce one ton of it, here’s what you need: 6,400 pounds of quartz, 3,500 pounds of wood shavings, 1,600 pounds of petroleum coke, and 330 pounds of bituminous coal. To produce an equal amount of cast iron, 11,000 kWh is required, with 5,000 m3 of carbon monoxide released. Not the most eco-friendly.

Wind energy is not spared. Denmark is the best example. In 2016, while the country prides itself (as it should) of having a head start on the race to zero carbon emissions, a strange truck hits the road. At a roundabout, it struggles. The problem with its cargo: its transporting a 240-foot windmill mast. It’ll soon be followed by a convoy of other trucks carrying the other parts of the colossal object. It’s a good bet that none of these vehicles are electric.

In fact, totally clean (on paper), wind energy harnesses the kinetic power of wind. It takes no fossil energy or any other pollutant to function. One wouldn’t suspect a thing, at first sight. And yet. The fact that it’s completely useless when there’s no wind—windmills make up just 0.1% of total renewable energy in the world, and about 0.02% of world’s energy supply—makes it indirectly polluting, since when it isn’t working, it must be replaced with traditional, more polluting energies.

Like solar, everything happens at the time that it’s made. If some materials can come from recycling, like fiberglass, which is produced from recycled glass and plastic materials, the manufacturing of a wind turbine requires a certain number of primary materials, such as aluminum, whose usage emits CO2. Moreover, a windmill is a rather imposing object…

So what to do, if there is no “totally” clean energy? The idea for the moment is to move toward a less risky solution for the environment. “The difference between classic sources of energy and the 100% renewables is measured in the risks they contain,” Thibault Laconde says. “The environmental effects of solar panels, wind turbines, or hydroelectric dams are nothing compared to what would happen in a nuclear accident or the collapse of an electrical center.” And the world doesn’t need another Chernobyl or Fukushima.