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Earth-Friendly Elements, Mined Destructively

Keith Bradsher, The New York Times
Some of the greenest technologies of the age, from electric cars to efficient light bulbs to very large wind turbines, are made possible by an unusual group of elements called rare earths. The world’s dependence on these substances is rising fast.

This abandoned mine in Guyun Village in China exhausted the local deposit of heavy rare-earth elements in three years.

Just one problem: These elements come almost entirely from China, from some of the most environmentally damaging mines in the country, in an industry dominated by criminal gangs.

Western capitals have suddenly grown worried over China’s near monopoly, which gives it a potential stranglehold on technologies of the future.

In Washington, Congress is fretting about the United States military’s dependence on Chinese rare earths, and has just ordered a study of potential alternatives.

Here in Guyun Village, a small community in southeastern China fringed by lush bamboo groves and banana trees, the environmental damage can be seen in the red-brown scars of barren clay that run down narrow valleys and the dead lands below, where emerald rice fields once grew…
(25 Dec 2009)

Loans to Boost Nuclear Industry Seen Coming Soon

The Obama administration is poised to announce loan guarantees to help kick-start the country’s nuclear power industry, which hasn’t built a new plant in more than three decades.

Congress authorized $18.5 billion for nuclear loan guarantees in 2005, hoping to revive development of the carbon-free source of energy. Investments in nuclear power have dried up on soaring costs following the 1979 accident at Three Mile Island.

But earlier this year, the U.S. Energy Department signaled it was keen to aid the industry and narrowed the list of those likely to receive loan guarantees to four…
(28 Dec 2009)

Wood Heating and Energy Literacy

JG, the woodpile
If you pay attention to discussions of energy issues, you could hardly avoid the conclusion that there are no forms of energy that are any good. This is despite the fact that Canadian and US citizens still have a big appetite for energy of all types. The same people who, by any reasonable measure are excessive consumers of energy, fight strenuously to stop energy developments where they live. Apparently the only acceptable forms of energy are ones produced out of sight and out of mind.

Here is a list of the main energy sources and the perfectly valid reasons why they shouldn’t be used.

We can’t keep burning the fossil fuels like oil, gas and coal because they cause smog, global warming and are getting scarce and expensive.
We don’t want nuclear reactors because they cost too much and are scary now and deadly forever.
We don’t like wind farms because big turbines make noise, kill birds and spoil beautiful views.
No hydroelectric because dams kill fish and destroy river valleys.
Say no to biofuels like ethanol and bio-diesel because they divert land from food crops and make little net energy.
Solar electric is not a good source because it is too expensive and the manufacture of photovoltaic panels is toxic and consumes about the same amount of energy they produce in their useful life.
We must not encourage industrial wood energy because it will decimate the forests.
Residential wood heating should be discouraged because it smells bad, pollutes the air and makes people sick.

Hardly anyone agrees with every one of those statements, but various interest groups lobby against nearly all of them so loudly that they affect public policy. It seems most people have their own favourite energy boogeyman.

In reality, all the energy we use, with the possible exception of some forms of solar energy, have an impact on the environment. Considering the array of energy and environmental problems we face, a desirable source must have at least these three characteristics: low carbon emissions, a high energy return on energy invested and should be renewable. Wait, that sounds like an accurate description of firewood…
(12 Jan 2010)