Opposition to clean energy technologies that attack viable solutions on the grounds of the environmental impacts associated with the processes that manufacture them lacks a historical understanding of energy transitions.
These arguments often cry erroneous claims like highlighting the dirty electricity that sometimes powers electric vehicles, the manufacturing of steel tubes that support wind turbines, and the mining operations of lithium for batteries. These claims force all walks of environmentalists and climate deniers to question the impacts of upstream manufacturing processes when such processes are in fact necessary to transition to a clean energy ecosystem. History shows, however, that energy transitions are achievable only with the aid of the preceding energy ecosystem.
The truth of the matter is currently that, yes, electricity for EVs will often have some mix of non-renewable electricity*, the creation of steel for wind turbines is an emissions-heavy process, and the mining of lithium strips the earth of valuable minerals and pollutes the air in the process. Whether the environmental pros of clean technologies currently outweigh the cons of their upstream manufacturing processes is not the discussion to be had (although, evidence significantly favors the pros).
The real understanding that must be appreciated is that history shows one energy ecosystem must be leveraged in order to create another. Human and animal power was a major catalyst during the transition from a foodstuff-based energy ecosystem to one based on the steam engine and the water turbine. Humans (often women and children) and horses would dig coal 24 hours a day to produce the new world’s fuel. Trees were cut and transported in mass throughout Europe by human and animal power to construct superior water turbines, roads, and factories. This continued for decades until new technologies enabled steam power to take over many of these processes.
Steam engines and water turbines were then critical to the initial proliferation of oil wells and pipelines during the transition to an oil- and gas-based energy ecosystem. After all, Edwin Drake used a steam engine in 1859 to create the world’s first drilled oil well (Smil 2017). Other examples include the need for coal to manufacture oil pipelines, coal’s early use in the steam cracking of hydrocarbons, and waterpower’s propagation of textiles for boiler insulation and automotive parts. The reliance on steam engines and water turbines continued until the oil and gas ecosystem could live on its own, creating its own machines (diesel powered drills), processes (steam cracking with oil/gas), and products (synthetic fabrics).
There is a clear trend throughout history that shows how one energy ecosystem transforms into another. It does not follow a punctuated equilibrium model, rather a slow growth where the preceding system lays way to the creation of the next until it can fully support itself.
This has never been so true as it is today. In order to transition to a new clean energy ecosystem, a dependence on using fossil fuels to create wind turbines, batteries, solar cells, electric vehicles, and other technologies must be endured. Such a dependence will continue until this new clean energy ecosystem begins to support itself. This could look like an electric truck charging from 100% renewable power that practices advanced mining techniques with minimal environmental impact. Such a scenario is what the clean energy ecosystem must achieve to reach its full potential, but it’s not an overnight process.
For now, the best thing that can be done to accelerate the growth of a clean energy ecosystem and ween its dependence off fossil fuels is to invest money, time, and effort into products that are less and less carbon intensive. The ball must get rolling before it can gain enough momentum to support itself.
I’m not saying we should ignore upstream environmental hazards, rather acknowledge that they currently do exist, mitigate any unreasonable burdens, and understand that they will persist only until a clean energy ecosystem can support itself.
Therefore, I remind you again that attacks on viable clean energy solutions based on their upstream environmental impacts not only ignores historical trends, but also stalls the growth of the new clean energy ecosystem. Those involved in political decision making must keep an eye on the goal and block out the majority of these criticisms as they push forward with clean energy legislation. Complete energy transitions often take decades of hard work and the leveraging of past energy ecosystems. Until then, we must understand traditional upstream processes must be leaned on in order to create a fully supportive clean energy ecosystem.
*In addition, a simple understanding of thermodynamics explains that, in general, processes on a smaller scale yield lower efficiencies. Producing electricity in a large thermal burner will be more efficient than burning gas in a small combustion chamber. A full life cycle analysis shows that even if a grid is powered by only 13% renewable electricity, an EV has less emissions than an internal combustion engine car that gets 60 mpg (including production emissions). Data also shows that most EVs charge on renewable energy or natural gas.
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