Think of energy sources as part of an ecosystem

Tales of our time

By JOHN BARTLIT
Citizens of New Mexico
for clean air and water

The choice of energy sources currently consumes a lot of energy.

The current list of energy sources is long, with new terms to learn. The reasons given for some energy sources and for rejecting others include nuances of grand politics.

I do not claim any special knowledge of energy sources. Yet the environment itself has ways to help us.

Energy sources that often make the headlines are wind and solar. A group of yesteryear includes hydro, geothermal and nuclear. All of these choices contribute to reducing greenhouse gases. Natural gas, oil and coal are still present in the economic picture of some regions. Biomass covers a wide and varied group of both old and new sources.

While strong contrasts are drawn between energy sources, little is said about the system as a whole. The thought that must be expressed is the concept of species in an ecosystem. How are the parts of the whole related? What attributes of the various parts build a healthier system? Why do farmers keep cats to rid the farm ecosystem of many insects and rodents?

Look at the differences between the energy sources. Different energy sources use different resources and afflict us with different forms of waste or pollution. Different energy sources are plagued by different problems. Problems can be physical and/or political. A greater variety of energy sources opens up more avenues to handle any problem that arises.

What kind of problems lie ahead – where to start?

Wind, solar and all electric cars on the road need certain rare earth elements to perform essential parts of their job. Rare earths are 17 chemical elements that have properties as strange as their names. Typical doozies are “dysprosium” (used in wind turbine magnets) and “neodymium” (used in electric motors in electric cars). Their strange properties explain major advances in renewable energy, energy efficiency, social media devices and national defense technologies.

The history of rare earths begins with the discovery of rare earth ore deposits. Next comes mining and crushing, which extracts the raw ore. Refining and purification gives us the rare earths. The last step is to take care of the waste, which includes radioactive waste. Rare earth deposits really aren’t that rare, but they are expensive to mine and clean up.

In recent years, China has taken a place in the rare earth market. In 2021, China held 60% of global production and the United States was second with 15%, all from the Mountain Pass mine in the California desert. The United States has other deposits, but none are yet developed. The Mountain Pass mine has been closed and reopened several times over the past decades. Last year was good for the mine.

Comparable factors appear if you look at the main sources of energy at any time. A general pattern emerges. This old pattern shows many traits that occur in a lowland ecosystem. For example: Typically, mobs of entities at one location convert resources into energy and produce “waste” for processing. This waste “pollutes” different places, each in its own way. Wherever the dirtiest step for a power source takes place, better medicine will be needed there.

A “remedy” is an action taken to reduce a problem. Think about how different the impacts imposed by wind turbines, river dams, nuclear power, mining, wells, natural gas and biomass are. The different impacts will also occur in different places, so they don’t just add up. Dams on rivers reduce other impacts that we would have if all the energy was nuclear, and so on. Think “ecosystem”.

These system dynamics extend much further. Varied power sources use different resources found in different locations, with owners in different blocks, in disparate regions or countries. These factors are elements of geopolitics and the monopolistic powers of certain owners and workers. To thwart nature’s turf wars, ecosystems expand their mix of parts.

Our country wants a robust energy policy. More diverse sources offer more ways to deal with unknowns and setbacks. Consider the benefits that flow from the extent of ecosystems.

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