Tales Of Our Times: Think Of Energy Sources As Parts Of An Ecosystem

Tales of our Times

New Mexico Citizens
for Clean Air & Water

Choosing energy sources currently takes up a lot of energy.

Today’s list of energy sources is long, with new terms to be learned. Reasons given for some energy sources and rejecting others include shades of big politics.

I claim no special knowledge of energy sources. Yet, the environment itself has ways to help us out.

Energy sources that loom often in the news are wind and solar. A group from yesteryear includes hydropower, geothermal, and nuclear. All these choices help reduce greenhouse gases. Still in the economic picture are natural gas, petroleum, and coal in some regions. Biomass covers a large and varied group of sources that are both old and new.

While strong contrasts are being drawn among energy sources, little is said about the system as a whole. The thought that has to toot its own horn is the concept of species in an ecosystem. How do parts of the whole interrelate? What attributes of diverse parts build a healthier system? Why do farmers keep cats to rid the farm’s ecosystem of many a bug and rodent?

Look at the differences among energy sources. Different energy sources use different resources and plague us with different forms of waste or pollution. Different energy sources are prey to different problems. Problems can be physical and/or political. More variety in energy sources opens up more routes to handle any problem that comes.

What sorts of problems await—where do we start?

Wind, solar, and all the electric cars on the road need certain rare-earth elements to do key parts of their jobs. Rare-earth elements are 17 chemical elements that have properties as odd as their names. Typical doozies are “dysprosium” (used in magnets for wind turbines) and “neodymium” (used in electric motors of electric cars). Their odd properties account for major advances in renewable energy, energy efficiency, social media devices, and national defense technologies.

The rare-earth story begins with finding deposits of rare-earth ores. Next comes mining and crushing that extracts the crude ore. Refining and purifying give us the rare earths. The final step is taking care of the wastes, which include radioactive wastes. Rare-earth deposits are really not so rare, but they are expensive to run and to clean up.

In recent years, China has had a corner on the market for rare earths In 2021, China had 60 percent of the world production and the U.S. was second with 15 percent, all of it from Mountain Pass Mine in the California desert. The U.S. has other deposits, but none is yet developed. Mountain Pass Mine has been shut down and reopened several times in recent decades. Last year was a good one for the mine.

Comparable factors crop up if you look at major energy sources in any era. An overall pattern emerges. That old pattern shows many traits that occur in a plain ecosystem. For example: as a rule, crowds of entities in some place convert resources into energy and make “wastes” to be dealt with. These wastes “pollute” different places, each in its own way. Anywhere the grungiest step for some energy source takes place, a better remedy will be needed there.

A “remedy” is an action taken to reduce a problem. Think how different are the impacts imposed by windmills, dams on rivers, nuclear power, mines, wells, natural gas, and biomass. The different impacts also will occur in different places, so they do not simply add together. Dams on rivers reduce other impacts we would have if all power were nuclear, and so forth. Think “ecosystem.”

These system dynamics extend much further. Varied energy sources use different resources found in different places, with owners in different blocs, in disparate regions or countries. Such factors are the elements of geopolitics and of monopolistic powers for certain owners and certain workers alike. To thwart nature’s turf wars, ecosystems widen their mix of parts.

Our country wants a robust energy policy. More diverse sources afford more ways to deal with unknowns and setbacks. Consider the benefits that come from breadth in ecosystems.


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