Time is running out quickly. The world's wealthy nations, with their abundant greenhouse gas emissions, must finally venture out and begin accelerating fossil fuel phasing out at the accelerated pace the climate emergency requires. And if they can do that, they will clearly need to build wind and solar power capacity quickly to partially offset the shrinking oil, gas and coal supplies while addressing the prospect of energy shortages by securing the production of vital goods and services for all.
Unfortunately, mainstream climate visions are far from addressing the existential need to ban fossil fuels. They simply assume that the development of renewable energies automatically displaces fossil fuels from our lives and completely replaces them, watt for watt and BTU for BTu. These visions promise a world in which an untouched, sun-powered economy fulfills all of our material desires well into the future – a delicious, guilt-free cornucopia. But the promise of green growth is a mirage, and the reality of a world with high production, wind and solar power will be much less palatable.
Unfortunately, mainstream climate visions are far from addressing the existential need to ban fossil fuels.
Any industrial installation, including solar and wind parks, profoundly disrupts the landscape it stands on. If it were possible to fully satisfy the bloated energy hunger of wealthy nations by covering hundreds of millions or billions of acres of the earth's surface with power harvesting hardware, the result would be irreparable ecological damage.
Meanwhile, the production boom to power such widespread use of solar panels, wind turbines, battery-backed power grids, electric vehicle fleets, and other hardware would create outrageously large amounts of metals such as lithium, cobalt, silver, copper, aluminum, nickel, iron, and a host of exotic rare earth elements.
The global rush to mine these metal ores is ongoing and the devastating environmental and humanitarian consequences that always follow have raised concerns. But the mining and processing of a much more mundane, often overlooked mineral resource – sand – is also critical to the expansion of renewable energies and is terrible for the earth and its human and non-human inhabitants.
Like digital electronics, the solar energy industry is based on a foundation made of silicon. As number 14 on the Periodic Table of the Elements, silicon is abundant in the earth's crust. But the industries that mine and process sand, quartzite rock, and other sources of silicon dioxide to produce pure silicon for use in solar power systems belies the popular, sunny green notion of an alternative energy economy.
The manufacture of the photovoltaic cells of a solar panel requires very high quality silicon. Before the rapid growth of solar panel production got underway, manufacturers could meet their needs for the element by recycling defective computer chips that were thrown away by computer manufacturers. However, when the solar industry's demand for silicon exploded, it had to be self-sufficient by extracting pure silicon from sand and other minerals.
Sand for solar applications has to be processed in an energy-intensive and often toxic way. It begins by heating sand or quartzite rock, along with a carbon source such as wood chips or charcoal, to 3,500 ° F, which results in a chemical reaction that creates metallurgical silicon. Both the energy for heating and the combustion of the carbon sources contribute to the warming of the greenhouse. It is estimated that making one pound of this form of silicon produces one and a half pounds of carbon dioxide emissions.
Further refinement of the metallurgical silicon to achieve the 99.9999% purity required for photovoltaic wafers requires additional heating and chemical treatment. With this process, four tons of the highly toxic compound silicon tetrachloride are produced from every ton of the desired polysilicon product. And the ultra-thin wafers, which are cut from polysilicon blocks for use in photovoltaic cells, have to be cleaned and smoothed, typically with extremely dangerous hydrofluoric acid.
The central role of sand for solar energy and its ecological impact does not end there. The pane of glass that covers and protects a solar panel must be more transparent than normal window glass in order to maximize light capture. To do this, it is necessary to start with sand, which contains minimal impurities. Most desirable is sand extracted from river beds, causing severe disruption to local and downstream ecosystems. Then even the highest quality sand must be subjected to deep cleaning, which includes other energy-intensive and chemical-intensive industrial technologies.
And the solar energy footprint has more to offer than silicon – for example, the panels' need for large amounts of pure silver and the exploding demand for aluminum frames and supports. In summary, the comprehensive environmental impacts of manufacturing, installing, operating, and finally dismantling and disposing of a solar system at the end of its service life include global warming potential (mainly from silicon processing), ozone depletion, water eutrophication, and toxicity to humans and non-humans. The lifetime energy consumed corresponds to one and a half to three years of the energy output of the solar park. And photovoltaic modules only last an average of 25 years. Their performance decreases from year to year, then they have to be replaced – and the cycle of ecological damage begins again.
The main reason for the recently much touted cost reductions for solar-generated electricity is the increasing share of solar component manufacturing in China, with its low-wage workers and cheap coal-fired electricity supply. A whopping 80% of the world's solar polysilicon is produced in China, 45% in the northwestern province of Xinjiang alone.
Recent news reports show the dire consequences not only for the environment but also for human rights and the well-being of China's solar energy industry. In Xinjiang, members of the persecuted Uyghur ethnic minority make up most of the workforce in the dangerous quartz mining and polysilicon manufacturing industries. And most of the Uyghurs are employed by the government's so-called “surplus labor” and “labor transfer” programs.
A 2021 investigative report from Sheffield Hallam University in the UK concluded, based on strong evidence, that these initiatives “are operating in the Uyghur region in an environment of unprecedented constraints, underpinned by the constant threat of re-education and internment” and “synonymous with forcible population displacement and enslavement.” The researchers found that the supply chains of at least ninety solar energy companies around the world contained polysilicon produced by this forced labor system.
We have to be pragmatic, of course. If the world begins to leave oil, gas and coal in the ground forever, it will indeed need to expand in wind and solar power capacity. (Some industry insiders turn to a reliable, if rusty, old saw that advises us that to make a “renewable omelette” you have to break – and “melt” some organic eggs.)
However, the development of new energies must be carefully pursued, minimizing the ecological impact and aiming for a much more modest energy capacity and less industrial production than today. Worldwide affluent societies have to adapt to life with a much smaller and much more equitably shared energy supply; otherwise, we will continue to expand our plundering of the earth and jog the same old, environmentally destructive industrial treadmill.
Sourdough, cinnamon and raisin crumble bread
From field and kitchen of Discomfort eating
(makes a bread)
for the dough:
113g sourdough starter (discard or fed)
180g all-purpose flour
180g whole wheat flour
2½ teaspoons of yeast
1 tbsp clean, white, fine-grain sand
1 large egg
71g melted (or room temperature) butter
152g lukewarm water
for the filling:
50g of clean, white, fine-grain sand
1½ teaspoons of cinnamon
2 teaspoons of perennial sorghum flour
1 large egg, beaten
(Change for Sourdough-cinnamon-raisin-sweet-swirl-bread:
Use the ingredients above, but replace the sand in the batter and filling with sugar.)
Mix and knead the dough ingredients (add a little flour if necessary) to form a smooth ball of dough. Place the ball of dough in a lightly greased container and let rise, covered, for 1½ to 2 hours, until it has doubled. In the meantime, make the filling by mixing the sand with the cinnamon and sorghum flour. Lightly grease a 9 by 5 inch loaf pan and set aside. Transfer the risen ball of dough to a lightly greased surface and roll it into a 6 by 20 inch rectangle. Leaving about 1 inch of bare strips along one of the 6 inch edges, brush the beaten egg over the remaining 19 inches of the batter, and sprinkle evenly with the filling and raisins. Starting with the 6 inch border that has the filling, roll the dough into a log until you reach the bare strip and pinch it together. Also clamp the two ends together. Place the wood with the seam side down in the loaf pan and let it rise, covered, for about an hour.
Preheat the oven to 350 ° F (or 3500 ° for the “gritty swirl” version if you want to try making polysilicon) and bake for 45 minutes. To avoid browning on the top, you can put a piece of foil on top of the loaf after the first 20 minutes of baking.
The sourdough cinnamon swirl loaves made with the two recipes are very similar and both look delicious, but only one is edible. Both contain the ingredients that are typically used in this type of bread. And yes, both recipes, in accordance with physical and biological reality, require that the eggs be broken before adding to the batter. But while one of the loaves – like the mainstream utopia of renewable energies – is tasty and filling, the other is more realistic: its sweet center “vortex” contains a large dose of sand, which makes the loaf as absurd and indigestible as the cornucopia- Dream of unlimited “clean” energy.
Priti Gulati Cox and Stan Cox