In our struggles against the coal industry it is easy to cling onto the promises of renewable energy as an easy alternative. Solar, wind, and thermal as ‘clean’ alternatives to dirty coal – these promises are propagated all around us: by NGOs, governments, business leaders, and innovators. Criticising renewables can make you unpopular even in radical ecological spaces.
The need to ‘reduce energy consumption’ and ‘increase efficiency’ tend to be added, almost as disclaimer, when one challenges renewables. Rarely do we talk about the massive social and ecological costs of industrial-scale renewable energy systems.
Yet, some would argue, the slow but accelerating institutional turn towards renewable energy systems in the last 30 years is not necessarily a ‘good’ thing. Certainly, in its present articulation, it is not a solution to ecological and climate crises. In fact, large-scale renewable energy systems might even pose a more insidious set of problems; disguising ecological destruction and renewing the operations of industrial capitalism under the banner of ‘green growth’ or the ‘green economy’. This raises a number of issues to consider.
First, where do the raw materials for renewable energy systems come from? Industrial-scale wind, solar, and hydro power projects all derive their raw materials from the earth, continuing to require extractivism and the creation of large-scale mines akin to the hard coal mines in Russia or Colombia. All renewable energy systems necessitate various quantities of steel, copper, rare earth minerals, plastics, oil, and concrete. A single two-megawatt wind turbine uses roughly 150 tonnes of steel for reinforced concrete foundations, 250 tonnes for the rotor hubs and nacelles, and 500 tonnes for the tower. Their blades are made of fiberglass, polyester, or steel.
Currently, industrial steel production is impossible without coal for smelting and coking – a lot of coal (see chapter 9.3). More than a half-tonne of coal is required to produce just one tonne of steel. Coal is also used to produce the large amounts of reinforced concrete needed for commercial wind turbine foundations. On average, the foundations of wind turbines are 16-21 meters in diameter and sunk 6.5-14 meters into the earth, but they vary in size depending on location and can exceed these averages in mountainous terrain and lagoons. We also must consider above- and below-ground electrical infrastructure, oil to lubricate blades (that frequently leak), and plastic components.
Rare earth minerals are used to make the strong magnets in generators, and are important for manufacturing across technology, ‘green’ energy, and military sectors. Many of the rare earth minerals required for the operation of the turbines, such as dysprosium, praseodymium neodymium, and terbium, are mined in extremely hazardous ways for workers, nearby communities, and ecosystems. Between the late 1980s and 2015 some 85-98 percent of rare earth minerals used in wind turbines, electric cars, smart phones, and other technologies were produced in Baotou, Inner Mongolia, and Ganzhou, China. The BBC has called the Baotou mining and processing area “hell on Earth”, a terrifying, dystopian industrial environment filled with pollution and cluttered with factories, pipelines, high-tension wires, and artificial lakes oozing “black, barely-liquid, toxic sludge… tested at around three times background radiation”.
Solar and hydro power are similar: they require steel, copper wiring, rare earth minerals, and lubricants; electrical infrastructure systems require steel frames and, importantly, large environmental interventions to alter landscapes and sometimes domesticate rivers. All industrial-scale projects, renewable or otherwise, necessitate large tracts of land, clearing local habitats, and impact water tables as well as animal populations.
Second, what level of violence is necessary to implement these projects? Growth in the renewables sector is built on the same corporate infrastructure and violent practices as the traditional fossil fuel-extractive industries. This means that unequal benefit-sharing, corporate profit-models, and the military-police-paramilitary complex influence the creation and life of these projects, especially when rolled out on a global scale.
While industrial-scale renewable energy projects are often marketed to the public as part of a ‘win-win’ for people and the environment, these projects entail land grabbing, dispossession, and political violence. Indigenous communities in the Global South have been on the forefront of resisting these projects, which are often imposed on them without consultation or fair compensation for local hardships and losses. These very communities can thus be forced to pay the highest price for “green energy”, including loss of land and livelihoods, increased risk of violence and exploitation by security forces, and increased exposure to hazardous chemicals that pollute land and water.
Third, what is the energy from these renewable systems used for? Industrial-scale, corporate-controlled renewables are not powering your eco-utopian future, they are renewing neo-colonial capitalism and powering the expansion of large corporations, industrial construction companies, mining firms, military bases, police stations, and more. Do we really want the US Navy to become sustainable with their ‘Great Green Fleet’? Or do we want to end their ravaging colonial enterprise once and for all?
The system which renewable energy is feeding is based on the idea of infinite growth on a finite planet. Renewable energy is trying to solve an unsolvable problem.