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Wind, solar energy push ignores questions of supply, waste

The California Independent System Operator (CAISO), which manages our electric grid, rejected an oversupply of wind and solar energy last year that was equal to the annual volume of wind and solar energy from MCE (formerly Marin Clean Energy).

The oversupply pace is worse this year and points to growing issues California cannot outrun.

Wind and solar constitute the majority of our renewable energy supply. Because these sources are intermittent, meaning this power arrives when it wants and not necessarily when California needs it, much of it cannot be used. The oversupply situation is getting worse as MCE and other energy companies attempt to pour more wind and solar onto an electric grid that is incapable of absorbing it.

The solution, everyone says, is battery storage. It is not.

Lithium-ion batteries can only discharge energy for about five hours, assuming there are enough in service. The largest in the U.S. is a monster-sized 409-megawatt battery in Florida that, in a blackout, could run that state for about two minutes.

Should we manufacture more batteries? According to the Manhattan Institute, it would take Tesla’s giga-factory outside Reno, the largest lithium-ion battery production site in the country, 500 years to produce enough batteries to power the U.S. for one day.

Batteries last for about 15 years. Recycling grid-scale batteries and their captive toxins is in a nascent state. Further, several tons of earth must be mined for just a single lithium-ion battery. The Republic of Congo, the world’s largest supplier of the needed element cobalt, is ground zero for human rights abuses where, according to CNN and CBS, children dig for it with their bare hands.

Even if new battery technologies overcome existing technical and human rights issues, the question everyone must ask is: Where would new wind and solar farms be located?

San Luis Obispo County’s Diablo Canyon nuclear plant closes in 2025. Replacing its carbon-free energy will require a wind farm that is upwards of 500,000 acres, plus two or more similar-sized farms dedicated to battery charging to account for the wind’s seasonal variability. The Diablo Canyon nuclear facility occupies 900 acres. As California drives toward its 100% carbon-free mandate it will require more 500,000-acre wind farms.

California wants to place wind-farm “bird Cuisinarts” off the Pacific Coast. What about the environmental damage caused when the ocean floor is excavated for multi-thousand ton concrete footings for each windmill? What about shipping traffic? Hundreds of windmills and fog will make a perfect storm, especially if oil tankers are involved.

Solar panels have their own acreage and waste issues. Similar to windmills’ 140-foot fiberglass fan blades that need to be replaced after 15 years (and do not decompose after they are buried in landfills), the International Renewable Energy Agency estimates the world will have in excess of 170 billion pounds of solar panel waste by 2050. In addition, we can expect 13 billion pounds of new solar e-waste annually as solar panels wear out.

No one has perfected recycling of plastic solar panels and their toxic metals. California has no recycling protocol. As solar panels reach their end of life, we will have a pile of e-waste taller than Mount Tamalpais.

Outsourcing our pollution is likely. A possible destination for California’s clean energy byproduct is a poor country that will take our trash. But what about the tons of front-end pollution and toxins involved in the manufacturing of windmills, solar panels and batteries?

California’s clean energy narrative is out of sync with a reality it cannot outrun. “Renewable energy” contradictions are everywhere. Clean energy providers are considering adding more wood-burning biomass to their energy portfolios. Ironically, this non-intermittent clean energy source is literally a controlled wildfire that, according to MCE’s own documents, “can emit as much, if not more, air pollution than burning fossil fuels.”

Meanwhile, California continues full-speed ahead, pouring more tax-incentivized wind and solar onto its electric grid as CAISO engineers pay to stop the needless flow of useless energy in a vicious and wasteful cycle that threatens our once reliable flow of electricity and promises more blackouts.

Such is California’s clean energy future, built on outsourced and ignored problems we cannot outrun.

Jim Phelps, of Novato, is a retired power contractor.