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October 23, 2013

Big Wind’s Dirty Little Secret: Toxic Lakes and Radioactive Waste

October 23, 2013
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The wind industry promotes itself as better for the environment than traditional energy sources such as coal and natural gas. For example, the industry claims that wind energy reduces carbon dioxide emissions that contribute to global warming.

But there are many ways to skin a cat. As IER pointed out last week, even if wind curbs CO2 emissions, wind installations injure, maim, and kill hundreds of thousands of birds each year in clear violation of federal law. Any marginal reduction in emissions comes at the expense of protected bird species, including bald and golden eagles. The truth is, all energy sources impact the natural environment in some way, and life is full of necessary trade-offs. The further truth is that affordable, abundant energy has made life for billions of people much better than it ever was.

Another environmental trade-off concerns the materials necessary to construct wind turbines. Modern wind turbines depend on rare earth minerals mined primarily from China. Unfortunately, given federal regulations in the U.S. that restrict rare earth mineral development and China’s poor record of environmental stewardship, the process of extracting these minerals imposes wretched environmental and public health impacts on local communities. It’s a story Big Wind doesn’t want you to hear.

Rare Earth Horrors

Manufacturing wind turbines is a resource-intensive process. A typical wind turbine contains more than 8,000 different components, many of which are made from steel, cast iron, and concrete. One such component are magnets made from neodymium and dysprosium, rare earth minerals mined almost exclusively in China, which controls 95 percent of the world’s supply of rare earth minerals.

Simon Parry from the Daily Mail traveled to Baotou, China, to see the mines, factories, and dumping grounds associated with China’s rare-earths industry. What he found was truly haunting:

As more factories sprang up, the banks grew higher, the lake grew larger and the stench and fumes grew more overwhelming.

‘It turned into a mountain that towered over us,’ says Mr Su. ‘Anything we planted just withered, then our animals started to sicken and die.’

People too began to suffer. Dalahai villagers say their teeth began to fall out, their hair turned white at unusually young ages, and they suffered from severe skin and respiratory diseases. Children were born with soft bones and cancer rates rocketed.

Official studies carried out five years ago in Dalahai village confirmed there were unusually high rates of cancer along with high rates of osteoporosis and skin and respiratory diseases. The lake’s radiation levels are ten times higher than in the surrounding countryside, the studies found.

As the wind industry grows, these horrors will likely only get worse. Growth in the wind industry could raise demand for neodymium by as much as 700 percent over the next 25 years, while demand for dysprosium could increase by 2,600 percent, according to a recent MIT study. The more wind turbines pop up in America, the more people in China are likely to suffer due to China’s policies. Or as the Daily Mail put it, every turbine we erect contributes to “a vast man-made lake of poison in northern China.”

Big Wind’s Dependence on China’s “Toxic Lakes”

The wind industry requires an astounding amount of rare earth minerals, primarily neodymium and dysprosium, which are key components of the magnets used in modern wind turbines. Developed by GE in 1982, neodymium magnets are manufactured in many shapes and sizes for numerous purposes. One of their most common uses is in the generators of wind turbines.

Estimates of the exact amount of rare earth minerals in wind turbines vary, but in any case the numbers are staggering. According to the Bulletin of Atomic Sciences, a 2 megawatt (MW) wind turbine contains about 800 pounds of neodymium and 130 pounds of dysprosium. The MIT study cited above estimates that a 2 MW wind turbine contains about 752 pounds of rare earth minerals.

To quantify this in terms of environmental damages, consider that mining one ton of rare earth minerals produces about one ton of radioactive waste, according to the Institute for the Analysis of Global Security. In 2012, the U.S. added a record 13,131 MW of wind generating capacity. That means that between 4.9 million pounds (using MIT’s estimate) and 6.1 million pounds (using the Bulletin of Atomic Science’s estimate) of rare earths were used in wind turbines installed in 2012. It also means that between 4.9 million and 6.1 million pounds of radioactive waste were created to make these wind turbines.

For perspective, America’s nuclear industry produces between 4.4 million and 5 million pounds of spent nuclear fuel each year. That means the U.S. wind industry may well have created more radioactive waste last year than our entire nuclear industry produced in spent fuel. In this sense, the nuclear industry seems to be doing more with less: nuclear energy comprised about one-fifth of America’s electrical generation in 2012, while wind accounted for just 3.5 percent of all electricity generated in the United States.

While nuclear storage remains an important issue for many U.S. environmentalists, few are paying attention to the wind industry’s less efficient and less transparent use of radioactive material via rare earth mineral excavation in China. The U.S. nuclear industry employs numerous safeguards to ensure that spent nuclear fuel is stored safely. In 2010, the Obama administration withdrew funding for Yucca Mountain, the only permanent storage site for the country’s nuclear waste authorized by federal law. Lacking a permanent solution, nuclear energy companies have used specially designed pools at individual reactor sites. On the other hand, China has cut mining permits and imposed export quotas, but is only now beginning to draft rules to prevent illegal mining and reduce pollution. America may not have a perfect solution to nuclear storage, but it sure beats disposing of radioactive material in toxic lakes like near Baotou, China.

Not only do rare earths create radioactive waste residue, but according to the Chinese Society for Rare Earths, “one ton of calcined rare earth ore generates 9,600 to 12,000 cubic meters (339,021 to 423,776 cubic feet) of waste gas containing dust concentrate, hydrofluoric acid, sulfur dioxide, and sulfuric acid, [and] approximately 75 cubic meters (2,649 cubic feet) of acidic wastewater.”

Conclusion

Wind energy is not nearly as “clean” and “good for the environment” as the wind lobbyists want you to believe. The wind industry is dependent on rare earth minerals imported from China, the procurement of which results in staggering environmental damages. As one environmentalist told the Daily Mail, “There’s not one step of the rare earth mining process that is not disastrous for the environment.” That the destruction is mostly unseen and far-flung does not make it any less damaging.

All forms of energy production have some environmental impact. However, it is disingenuous for wind lobbyists to hide the impacts of their industry while highlighting the impacts of others. From illegal bird deaths to radioactive waste, wind energy poses serious environmental risks that the wind lobby would prefer you never know about. This makes it easier for them when arguing for more subsidies, tax credits, mandates and government supports.

IER Policy Associates Travis Fisher and Alex Fitzsimmons authored this post. 


View Comments
  • michaelgoggin

    Nice try, but the vast majority of wind turbines installed in the U.S. today do not use any rare earth metals. Nearly all wind turbine generators being installed in the U.S. today use an electromagnet and not rare earth magnets to produce electricity. Regardless, even those turbine designs that use rare earth magnets now have a domestic supply option.

    Michael Goggin,
    American Wind Energy Association

    • Kevon Martis

      From Vestas:

      Rare Earth Elements from a Life Cycle Assessments perspective

      Rare earths elements are naturally-occurring elements that, once mined and processed, can be used in a variety of industrial applications, for example, permanent magnets are used in wind turbines, hybrid car motors, components for military hardware and other high-tech applications.

      In Vestas, rare earth elements are used in the magnets found in the tower and in the permanent-magnet generators in some of the newer models – the V112-3.0 MW and 2.0 MW GridStreamer™ platform. The rare earths elements are used to improve the performance of turbines by making the generators more efficient and more grid-compatible. This allows Vestas to reduce the size of the generator and therefore use fewer other resources (steel, composite structural materials, etc.) and create a smaller carbon footprint.

      Vestas uses approximately 68kg of neodymium in the permanent-magnet generator for a V112- 3.0 MW wind turbine. In addition an amount of around 14kg of neodymium is used in the tower magnet, bringing it to a total of 82kg neodymium used for one V112- 3.0 MW, as well as 7kg dysprosium.

      The use of 14kg rare earths elements in the V112-3.0 MW tower magnets (of 84m height) results in a saving of around 10 tonnes steel in the tower per wind turbine. This equates to a saving of around 8.0 tonnes of CO2 equivalents over the entire life cycle – i.e. accounting for the potential environmental impacts of the magnets and steel production, use and end-of-life recycling and disposal.

      It is important to understand the difference between different types of turbine designs and how each design uses rare earths elements. There are two types of turbine drive train concepts using rare earth elements: conventional geared drive train and direct-drive (without a gearbox). The amount of rare earths elements used in direct-drive turbines is substantially higher – up to 10 times as much as a generator in a conventional drive train. Today, all Vestas turbines are based on conventional drive trains.”

      The contribution of rare earth elements (such as neodymium and dysprosium) used in the turbine generator magnets, and also in the magnets used in the tower, make a negligible contribution to total resource depletion, contributing below 0.1% of total life cycle impacts.”

      So it appears to me that as turbines progress toward direct drive technology an higher efficiency the consumption of rare earths will jump significantly.

      So true to form, Mr. Gollum, er, Goggin, continues his campaign of misinformation and half-truths.

      There is a reason that at my alma mater we referred to Harvard as the Michigan of the east. But most “Michigan Men” place a much higher premium on “Veritas”

      • michaelgoggin

        Please read what you cut and pasted. I think you’ll find it doesn’t support your argument at all.

        “rare earth elements are used in the magnets found in the tower and in
        the permanent-magnet generators in some of the newer models”

        Yes, some generator designs use rare earths, while most do not or use negligible quantities. While obviously no one knows which turbine designs will be used in the future, most expect non-direct drive turbines to be a large part of the industry going forward, and many direct drive turbine designs can be built with little to no use of rare earths.

        I’m not as familiar with Vestas’s tower design that apparently uses very small amount of rare earths, but I don’t believe that to be uniform across the industry.

        • Kevon Martis

          From 2011- http://www.renewablesinternational.net/neodymium-a-bone-of-contention-in-wind-turbines/150/435/31015/

          “At the end of last week, portfolio managers at Murphy&Spitz announced that they had removed manufacturers of direct-drive wind turbines containing neodymium from their environmental fund. China is responsible for roughly 97 percent of global production, and the fund managers say that the rare-earth metal, which only occurs in chemical bonds with other metals and minerals and therefore has to be extracted from them, has a great environmental impact. The firm’s environmental analyst Nicole Vormann says that entire areas have been contaminated and groundwater made unusable for human consumption.

          Siemens and Xinjiang Goldwind are the two wind turbine manufacturers affected, but Enercon – the German manufacturer that made direct-drive turbines famous – does not use neodymium and is therefore still in the fund. A month ago, Enercon published a press release explaining that the design of its direct-drive turbines is based on magnetic fields brought about electrically, so that permanent magnets are not needed. The press release was a response to two reports on the German television just days before the press release, showing what the environmental impact in China is.

          The Chinese dominance in rare-earths production recently made headlines when China announced it would be limiting exports of the materials, some of which are used in the wind sector (Renewables Internationalreported).

          Direct-drive turbines, which do not require gearboxes, are considered to require less maintenance and are generally lighter than conventional wind turbines. There has long been a debate about whether gearboxes or direct drives are the better option, but in recent years the general consensus has shifted towards direct drives, which are to be used increasingly in offshore wind farms (Renewables International reported) – ironically, where Enercon has yet to become deeply involved.

          How can rare earths be a bone of contention on 2011 if almost no one uses them in their turbines?

          • michaelgoggin

            You should read before cutting and pasting, as you keep making my points for me: “Enercon published a press release explaining that the design of its
            direct-drive turbines is based on magnetic fields brought about
            electrically, so that permanent magnets are not needed.”

            As I’ve already explained, some wind turbine generators use rare earths, but most don’t. Therefore IER’s numbers are very far off because they assume that all turbines use large amounts of rare earths.

          • Thomas Stacy

            Michael, how much longer do you intend to maintain a career in a dying industry – one that is collapsing from too much unethical over-statement of benefits, camouflaging its arguments in the complexities of the electricity system and markets, and deriving its revenues from unwitting taxpayers and oblivious rate payers instead of the old fashioned way – by beating your competition out of its market share through high value and low cost products and services? To me the way AWEA markets wind energy is nothing short of fraudulent. You may have once been among the smartest guys in the room, but I think that gig is up. Time to dust off your resume and sell yourself to a free market winning industry.

          • William Rodgers

            The AWEA and Mr. Groggin are hanging on by their fingernails so they are going to fight as hard as they can even if that means slanting the truth. Millions of tax subsidies are at stake. So the fight will continue for sometime costing us taxpayers and ratepayers more of our hard earned money on a pipe dream.

            Every windmill that is commissioned just means more need of less efficient natural gas turbines to maintain a secure grid. Mr. Groggin and NREL keep trying to hide that fact. However reality is beginning to hit Germany where the ratepayers are now paying some of highest rates in the world. Part of their rate structure is to pay for capacity payments for fossil fuel plants to maintain grid security – something wind and solar can’t do.

            That subsidy money to pay your salary to continue your lobbying efforts has to come from somewhere, Mr. Groggin. It just doesn’t grow on trees.

        • Kevon Martis

          From Siemens:

          “Green products are gaining ground so quickly that materials scientists are sounding the alarm. Permanent magnets for wind turbines are a case in point because they require rare-earth metals, including neodymium, praseodymium, and dysprosium. When these materials are optimally combined, their energy density — the unit of storable magnetic energy — exceeds 400 kilojoules per cubic meter (kJ/m3). That value is so high that magnetic systems, compared to conventional magnetic materials, can be made substantially smaller or significantly more powerful.”

          Again, if wind turbines use as few rare earths as you suggest, why is Siemens talking about scarcity being driven wind turbine development?

        • Kevon Martis

          And GE refers to wind turbines as being “rare earth hungry” and thus contributing to a shortage of those elements.

          http://www.slideshare.net/RareEarthsRareMetals/rare-earth-element-briefing-paper

          Maybe you need to straighten them out?

  • lonestar81

    Harvard must have a whole degree plan for blogging.

    • michaelgoggin

      Well, I did take the motto of “Veritas” to heart. If only IER did the same…

  • energyexpert

    The problem with Mr. Goggin’s “rebuttal” is that it is just marketing fluff. The AWEA has gone to GREAT lengths to make essentially ALL aspects of industrial wind energy manufacturing and production, proprietary. Therefore he well knows that he can say anything — and often does — without independent evidence to support his sales pitches.

    The evidence from independent sources is that the IER numbers are an understatement of the Rare Earth situation with industrial wind.

    For example this site <> (doing an interview with MineWeb) concludes that “To make the most efficient, lightest weight, lowest service wind turbine generator of electricity takes one ton of the rare earth metal, neodymium, per megawatt of generating capacity.” That amount is MORE than this IER report shows.

    For example, the NorthWest Mining Association (NWMA), an independent source of mining information, says that a 3 MW Industrial wind turbine uses “2 Tons of Rare Earths”. See <>. Again, that amount is MORE than this IER report shows.

    The NWMA report also disputes Mr. Goggin’s second assertion, saying that “100% of the rare earths used by industrial wind energy are imported” (from China).

    Furthermore, his unsupported claim that they have a domestic supply is typical sleight of hand. Even if Mr. Goggin is correct that they have sources for rare earths other than China, that does not change by one iota the main thrust of this piece: producing rare earths anywhere is an environmentally horrific process.

    • michaelgoggin

      The large majority of wind turbines installed in the U.S. are doubly-fed induction generators that do not require permanent magnets. Only one type of wind turbine generator design requires rare earths, which explains why you were able to find sources saying that a turbine of that type requires x amount of rare earths. However, nearly all wind turbines being installed today are not of that type, so the numbers IER used are incorrect. Here’s more information on the main type of turbine being installed today – as you can see an electromagnet is used instead of rare earths.

      http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Doubly_fed_electric_machine#Double_fed_induction_generator

      Here is more information about the emerging domestic supply of rare earths.
      http://www.bizjournals.com/denver/blog/earth_to_power/2013/10/molycorps-only-rare-earth-mine-in-the.html?page=all

      • energyexpert

        Wikipedia is a user-supplied source of information, which has essentially been co-opted by lobbyists like AWEA to provide sales information to the public. Try again.

        Yes, Molycorp used to supply rare earth materials, but it was closed down by environmentalist organizations — due to the horrific environmental impact of its processing. Whether the source of rare earths is the US or China, the environmental impact is extraordinarily bad.

        • michaelgoggin

          Here’s another source. As you can see, permanent magnet generators are used only for Type IV turbines (the strong majority of wind turbines in the U.S. are Type III), and even with Type IV turbines there are many design options that do not use permanent magnets.

          http://power.eecs.utk.edu/pubs/Fangxing_li_ieeepes2009_3.pdf

          • energyexpert

            That is certainly a more credible source.

            In any case it appears that if we go forward with this foolishness, there will be more “Type 4″ turbines — which you acknowledge have significantly more rare earth dependence.

            Since you seem to have your finger on all sorts of reports, please cite some AWEA sponsored/supported studies that publicize the horrifically adverse consequences of turbines use of rare earths.

            Please also cite some reports where your environmental partners in this perpetuation (Sierra Club, Audubon, etc) have acknowledged these environmental consequences.

    • SilenceIsConsent
      • disqus_tObYqppPWg

        They are paid to promote wind….get a grip!

        • SilenceIsConsent

          The author of the article? Sure they are. WTGs are the worst solution possible for creating reliable energy. I can see at least 150 outside my door. Here in Tehachapi, CA the winds have been anemic for almost 3 years, coinciding with the drought conditions in California and more specifically in our location.

          If the wind farm operators weren’t receiving guaranteed payments even if zero energy is generated, they would all be out of business right now.

  • Thomas Stacy

    Interesting, Michael. But doesn’t that just mean that the new “low cut-in speed” models which employ permanent magnets instead of gear boxes and which are touted to make wind more viable in marginal wind areas aren’t really being deployed despite claims of soaring CFs for future wind projects in nearly windless states like Michigan and Ohio?

    Electromagnet generators require a high rotational speed in the generator to be effective. That entails an RPM increaser gear box because the main shaft of a wind turbine is only turning at 15 to 20 RPM max. Permanent magnet generators can be efficient convertors at low RPM, so turbines with permanent magnet systems do not require a gear box at all.

    The problem is that traditional gear boxes impose many orders of magnitude of FRICTION, especially as units wear, compared with permanent magnet design turbines. Increased friction increases cut-in speed (the speed at which the blades can turn and the device starts
    producing electricity) as well as reducing output efficiency across the wind speed and RPM range.

    Now there ARE electromagnet turbines that actually use the generator as a
    motor to overcome static inertia (blades standing still) in marginal
    winds, hoping the marginal winds will keep the device spinning once
    electrically driven to get them going long enough to “pay back” the
    electricity used to put them in motion. Such systems have another purpose also – to keep the main shaft bearings from “taking a set” or getting egg-shaped from the rotor not turning for a period of time. The rotor is very heavy so if the bearings that support
    the shaft and rotor assembly sit still for a while they begin to flatten out. That’s a
    major problem – adding more heat and friction and noise.

    The bottom line: Permanent magnet turbines overcome some noise, wear, mechanical
    design, productivity and efficiency problems inherent in gear box designs, but the permanent magnet machines are far more expensive than their gear box predecessors. Justifying more expensive turbines for marginal wind projects is problematic for investors and develops.

    • jmdesp

      Thomas, I’ve heard already this story of turbines consuming electricity to overcome inertia in low wind, as well as bearings that require the turbine to always spin, however it’s clearly not the case of all electromagnet turbines. So do you have more specific info about which turbines are concerned by this ?

      Because until no, I’ve only seen more rumors about that rather than demonstrated facts, and pro-wind deny such turbines have ever existed.

  • tooz125

    I’m surprised that this article was published, especially with such glaring sensationalism.
    The writers compare the radioactive waste from rare earth mining to the spent fuel waste from nuclear power plants. They cite radiation levels “ten times higher than in the surrounding countryside”. Radiation levels from spent fuel, if piled up on the ground like the mining waste, would have radiation levels tens of millions of times higher than that of the surrounding countryside!
    This kind of misrepresentation make the writers and the IER sound like a psuedo-technical version of the National Enquirer.

  • SilenceIsConsent

    tooz125. You must work at a mine or a dirty wind farm. What did you do, sleep through science class that you neither grasp or understand basic science that the earth has radium in the ground???

    The only misrepresentation is your total ignorance and “willful blindness” of facts. You’re one of the reasons companies are contaminating our planet and cause massive amounts of cancerous air pollution. I think you should go live in China, then take pictures of your cancer and post it here.

  • stevek9

    Wind also consumes large amounts of steel and concrete. Very roughly about 10X what would be used for an equivalent nuclear power plant. Although they are not really equivalent since nuclear power is available steadily, 24/7. The electricity generation technology that has the smallest effect on the environment is nuclear, and that includes Chernobyl and Fukushima.

  • http://www.duurzamebrabanders.nl/blog Henk Daalder Windparken Wiki

    Wind turbine delver the most cheap and clean electricty
    Some types use neodynium, others don’t
    However. most neodynium in the world is used in green wine bottles. Also toys and phones use it.
    Here is some explanation

    http://stormglas.wordpress.com/2013/11/19/an-inconvenient-truth-about-windmills-and-teslas/

  • http://appropedia.org/ Chris Watkins

    “Modern wind turbines depend on rare earth minerals…” Not exactly true. At least one major producer uses a design without permanent magnets, and thus without rare earth metals.

    • Metamech

      Really? then produce some evidence. Why would wind energy companies want the attached stigma of wind energy waste if there was a better way?

      As expensive as rare earth metals are, why aren’t we ditching the old design in favor of a REM-less one?

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