Electrify Everything – Is That Really a Good Idea?

Electrify Everything - Is That Really a Good Idea?

If We “Electrify Everything,” Is That Really Zero Emissions?

The saying “Electrify Everything” may sound cool, especially since the concept is marketed as being zero-emission, but is it really zero-emissions? New California regulations are focused on everything being electric, even trucks and trains. While the use of electric cars may result in less greenhouse emissions at the plug, that doesn’t mean that the production of the electricity that is powering those cars does too. Propane power is actually considered cleaner than electric energy because it produces fewer greenhouse gas emissions during production and consumption. The overall environmental impact of each energy source depends on factors such as the source of electricity generation and the way propane is extracted and transported. Electric cars and renewable energy sources like wind turbines and solar panels are often touted as the solution to our pollution problems. However, the reality is that clean electric energy is not completely free of pollution. In fact, the process of collecting electric energy can create a significant amount of pollution.

Wind Turbines

One of the main sources of clean electric energy is wind turbines. While wind turbines don’t produce any emissions when generating electricity, the manufacturing process can be quite polluting. The production of 8,000 different components of a typical wind turbine, such as the steel, concrete, and other materials required to build a wind turbine can generate a significant amount of greenhouse gas emissions.  According to Institute for Energy Research, magnets are one of the components, which are made from rare earth minerals mined virtually exclusively in China, neodymium and dysprosium. The villagers in China near these mines and factories are seeing high rates of cancer, skin and respiratory diseases, their teeth falling out and more, caused by the “toxic lake” as a result of the mining and production of these minerals, like something out of the Erin Brakovich movie. Additionally, the transportation of the materials to the construction site can also result in emissions. There’s also an estimated 720,000+ tons of wind turbine blades that will have to be disposed of over the next 20 years. Plus, we would need a substantial amount of land to be able to produce enough wind energy for one third of the country’s projected 2050 electricity demand, with an astounding 25,000 square miles roughly needed.

Solar Panels

Another source of clean electric energy is solar panels. Solar panels are made up of a variety of materials, including silicon, silver, copper, tellurian and lithium. The production of these materials can create pollution, particularly if the manufacturing process is energy-intensive. The most common type of solar panel is the silicon crystalline panel, which has significant emissions as the silicon has to be melted at extremely high temperatures in an electric furnace before being added to the panel. Doing so uses a large amount of energy from fossil fuels, mainly coal. Additionally, the transportation of the materials to the manufacturing facility can result in emissions. The raw materials used in the creation of the solar panels is often mined very far away from where the panels are manufactured. If we try to power 50% of the estimated U.S. electricity demand by 2050 with solar energy, that would require around 4,000 square miles of land.

Hydroelectric Power

Hydroelectric power is another source of clean electric energy. While hydroelectric power doesn’t produce any emissions during use, the creation of it does. The construction of a dam and reservoir can have a significant impact on the environment. The construction process can result in the displacement of wildlife and the destruction of habitats. The Guardian states that a study done by Washington State University found “that methane, which is at least 34 times more potent than another greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide, makes up 80% of the emissions from water storage reservoirs created by dams.” These greenhouse gases from methane emissions caused by the world’s hydroelectric dams are equivalent to the amount of methane emissions caused by Canada as a whole.

Nuclear Power

Nuclear power is often considered a clean energy source, but the production of nuclear fuel can be polluting. The mining of uranium can result in the release of greenhouse gases, particularly if the mining process is energy-intensive. According to Science Daily, a study “found that the mining and milling of uranium contributes about a gram of greenhouse gases (as CO2 equivalents) per kilowatt-hour of power that comes from that uranium.” Additionally, the transportation of the uranium to the processing facility can result in emissions. Along with harmful emissions created in the process of creating the nuclear power, there also isn’t a feasible method for the permanent disposal of extremely dangerous radioactive materials that are generated during every phase of a nuclear power plant’s lifespan. These materials include those produced during uranium mining and enrichment, plant operation, and spent fuel. As of 2020, the U.S. alone had about 90,000 tons of high-level nuclear waste waiting to be permanently disposed of, but the problem is that there is still “no scientifically proven way” to dispose of it, according one nuclear expert.

Electric Cars

Electric cars are often touted as a clean alternative to gasoline-powered cars. While electric cars don’t produce any emissions during operation, the production of the car and the batteries can be quite polluting. The vehicles themselves cut greenhouse emissions more than 30% compared to gasoline-powered vehicles, but does that make up for the emissions caused by their creation? The production of the lithium-ion batteries for these electric vehicles requires a significant amount of energy, which can result in emissions. Like the production of solar panels and other “clean energy” sources, a lot of the energy used to obtain the minerals to create the batteries comes from CO2-emitting fossil fuels, as well as a lot of chemicals and exorbitant amounts of water. Additionally, the mining of the materials required for the batteries can be polluting, much like the case of wind turbines.

Propane and Autogas

Propane primarily originates from two domestic sources: as a by-product of natural gas processing and from the crude oil refining process. Autogas, also known as liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), is a great clean energy fuel source for vehicles instead of switching to all electric cars.  More than 99% of autogas is manufactured within the United States, bolstering energy security by diminishing the nation’s reliance on foreign oil and reducing transportation emissions. By using propane as a fuel source for vehicles (autogas), as well as in homes and other uses, we are effectively utilizing a resource that would otherwise go to waste or require separate disposal methods. While there are still emissions created during the building of plants, extraction and transportation of propane, the aspect of it being a by-product reduces the overall environmental impact associated with the extraction and processing.

In addition to the low emissions for the creation of propane, it is also a clean burning fuel that has a low carbon footprint associated with its consumption. Propane exhibits non-toxic and non-caustic characteristics, posing no significant environmental threat when introduced as a liquid or vapor into water or soil.

Propane, both in liquid and vapor forms, maintains environmental friendliness and safety prior to combustion, not exerting adverse effects. Its presence does not compromise freshwater or saltwater ecosystems, and does not harm underwater flora or marine organisms. Unlike the “toxic lake” created by the mining of materials of wind turbines, propane does not inflict damage on soil or endanger drinking water supplies, even if spilled on the ground. Propane vapor does not contribute to air pollution, and accidental inhalation by birds, animals, or humans does not carry harmful consequences.

Cost comparison for Propane Autogas vs Clean Diesel vs Electric
Source: Propane Autogas

While clean electric energy is certainly cleaner than traditional energy sources like coal and oil, it is not completely free of pollution. The process of collecting electric energy can result in emissions, particularly during the manufacturing and transportation of the materials required for renewable energy sources. It is important to look at the energy source emissions as a whole, including production and transportation, rather than only focusing on the emissions caused by the use of the energy source.


Additional Sources:

Unfurling the Waste Problem Caused By Wind Energy

What Is the Carbon Footprint of a Solar Panel?

Electrify Everything, California Says – Including Trucks and Trains

What Is the Carbon Footprint of Propane? A Life-Cycle Assessment

The State of Nuclear Energy Today — and What Lies Ahead