From chapter "Earth-Hating Madness"
Unfortunately for the real world, there are costs associated with solar photovoltaics. Solar panels, no matter how groovy, require mines. In addition to copper and other metals, the panels require rare earths minerals (used also in cell phones, batteries, wind turbines, and a host of other high-tech devices). Nearly all of these rare earths are mined in China. Nearly half of all rare earths in China are mined near the city of Baotou (the name means, sadly, “the place of deer,” but I guess it was named a long time ago), and most of this is from one open pit mine more than a half mile deep and covering (or rather uncovering, or rather killing) more than eighteen square miles. The costs don’t stop there. Rare earths are found in extremely low concentrations, and must be separated from the rest of the ore. The separation processes require the use of sulfates, ammonia, and hydrochloric acid, and produce 2,000 tons of toxic waste for every ton of rare earths. The mines and smelters and factories of Baotou alone produce ten million tons of wastewater per year. This “water” is pumped into tailings ponds, including one that covers almost four square miles and about which The Guardian has written, “From the air it looks like a huge lake, fed by many tributaries, but on the ground it turns out to be a murky expanse of water, in which no fish or algae can survive. The shore is coated with a black crust, so thick you can walk on it.” The Guardian also wrote, “The foul waters of the tailings pond contain all sorts of toxic chemicals, but also radioactive elements such as thorium which, if ingested, cause cancers of the pancreas and lungs, and leukemia. ‘Before the factories were built, there were just fields here as far as the eye can see. In the place of this radioactive sludge, there were watermelons, aubergines and tomatoes,’ says Li Guirong with a sigh.” The soil and water are so polluted that the local residents can no longer grow vegetables there. Many have fled. Many have been forcibly relocated. Many have died, and those who remain are suffering a host of diseases caused by this mining.
I’m glad there are no costs, only benefits.
And did I mention the slave labor? As Max Wilbert states, “A substantial portion of the Chinese workforce, especially for the dirty jobs like this that are likely to result in cancer, lung disease, or asthma, comes from Tibet, where communities are forcibly disbanded by the Chinese military and sent hundreds of miles from their homes and traditions to work in the coal, uranium, and rare earth mines. A full fifth of Tibet’s population has been killed since China’s occupation began, with a substantial portion of those worked to death in forced labor camps. At this point that’s one point two million people and counting.”
There are plenty of other consequences (by all means we should never call them costs), but let’s mention only two.
One is that the production of solar panels is a leading source of the potent greenhouse gases hexafluoroethane, nitrogen triflouride, and sulfur hexafluoride; with hexaflouroethane being 12,000 times more potent as a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide and lasting 10,000 years in the atmosphere (and it does not exist in nature, which I guess means humans really are superior since they made this pollutant); nitrogen trifluoride being 17,000 times stronger than CO2(with concentrations rising in the atmosphere at more than 10 percent per year); and sulfur hexafluoride being 25,000 times more powerful than CO2.
The other certainly-not-a-cost I want to mention is discussed in a report by the Silicon Valley Toxics Coalition: “As the solar industry expands, little attention is being paid to the potential environmental and health costs of that rapid expansion. The most widely used solar PV panels have the potential to create a huge new source of electronic waste at the end of their useful lives, which is estimated to be 20 to 25 years. New solar PV technologies are increasing efficiency and lowering costs, but many of these use extremely toxic materials or materials with unknown health and environmental risks (including new nano materials and processes).”