Left-leaning politicians, celebrities, and big corporations are clamoring for the country to convert to renewable energy. But getting rid of fossil fuels isn’t as easy as flipping a switch and, despite wind and solar energy’s green reputation, they come with some serious but little-known environmental consequences.
Wind and solar are what experts call “diffuse.” This means it takes a lot of wind turbines and solar panels to produce a given amount of energy. Fossil fuels, on the other hand, are very energy dense. It would take 9 times the land to replace a single natural gas power plant with the equivalent amount of electric generation from solar panels, and 38 times as much land for wind.
To put this in perspective, powering the entire nation with wind and solar would require over 42 million acres — 18 times the size of Yellowstone National Park! This is at least 10 times the land footprint of our current energy system. The environmental destruction this effort would cause cannot be overstated.
How did we come by this number? In a recent study, Life:Powered used publicly available wind and solar production data to calculate how much land would be required to take Texas 100% renewable by 2030, assuming that feat would even be possible. The answer is about 6 million acres. Texas consumes about a seventh of the nation’s electricity, meaning the entire nation would take at least 42 million acres — but likely more because Texas’ landscape and weather is better suited to wind and solar than most other states.
Just imagine what clearing 18 Yellowstones worth of land would mean for our ecosystems — wildlife habitat destroyed, species threatened, and our natural beauty scarred by turbines, mirrored panels, and untold miles of unsightly transmission lines.
Fossil fuels produce a much larger amount of affordable, reliable energy with much smaller physical footprint on the land — something environmental activists should know about.
But wait, there’s more! Both wind and solar generation also require massive amounts of elements like lithium, cobalt, and neodymium that are difficult and environmentally hazardous to mine. Going all-renewable would require a 200% to 2,000% increase in mining for these elements, often in countries with abysmal environmental and labor standards. The tales of rare earth mines leaving behind lakes of toxic sludge in China and children as young as four mining cobalt in the Congo are chilling.
Finally, once the prodigious buildout of turbines, panels, transmission lines, and storage was completed, the United States would come across another insurmountable hurdle: landfill space. Unfortunately, most wind turbines and solar panels are expected to last only 20 to 30 years, and recycling them is still prohibitively expensive. A recent study estimates a whopping 8 million tons of solar panels will be sent to landfills by 2030, ballooning to 80 million tons by 2050. If renewable energy use grows at the projected scale, solar panels alone will represent 10% of global electronic waste — potentially leaching toxic chemicals all the while.
Wind turbines are even harder to decommission. Their massive blades are difficult (to put it lightly) to remove, cut down, and transport and extremely slow to break down. “The wind turbine blade will be there, ultimately, forever,” said one waste management executive.
Fossil fuel power plants and refineries, meanwhile, typically last three to four times longer and are constructed primarily of recyclable materials.
Fossil fuels are our country’s main source of affordable, reliable energy — the power we rely on not just to survive, but to create, innovate, and reach new heights of human flourishing. If we want to maintain the comfort, health, and prosperity of modern life and preserve our natural environment, renewable energy is not the way to go.