Debunking Clean Energy Disinformation
By now we are quite familiar with climate science denial and the devastating effect it has had on delaying the rapid action we have needed to slow and stop global warming, and to galvanize public action towards a clean energy future. This denial and its well-funded disinformation were brilliantly documented in Merchants of Doubt by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway as well as in Dark Money by Jane Mayer. We also know that the large oil companies themselves knew the climate science was accurate but chose to protect their profits over saving the planet, and that they were abetted by the right-wing media and Republican politicians at all levels of government.
But despite this well-orchestrated climate change denial, the public has begun to see through this multi-decade fog of doubt and disinformation due to the rapid rise of climate-driven disasters across the globe. In 2020 the Pew Research Center showed that over the prior decade Americans were starting to see the effects of climate change and had significantly increased their perspective that the government needed to do more. By the summer of 2022, President Biden and Congress passed a number of new laws that will make the largest U.S. Government investment in climate change mitigation and clean energy transition in the history of this country.
However, we should not now rest assured that the tide has successfully turned in favor of climate action despite this progress. The same masters of disinformation have simply retreated from their prior position that climate change is not real and are now undermining clean energy technologies and progress towards the energy transition in nefarious new ways. Mark Twain once said “It is easier to fool people than to convince them that they have been fooled”, but we must try to counter the disinformation that is poisoning our democracy and climate solutions. Here are some of the most common ones in circulation today and the facts that debunk them. We should note that disinformation preys on our existing biases and instincts. There are now so many examples of clean energy disinformation circulating that it is difficult to list them all so instead here are some of the most common ones.
First and old one: Yes, “birds are killed by wind turbines”, but this needs to be put into context to see it is an attempt to mislead and to create negative sentiment about wind energy. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service notes that “Natural and human-caused mortality impacts are exacerbated by the landscape alterations resulting from a changing climate” and beyond climate, the USFS documented the following causes of bird deaths annually as of 2017: Cats – 2.4 billion deaths; Building Glass – 599 million deaths; Poison – 72 million deaths; Electrical lines – 25.5 million deaths; Communication towers – 6.6 million deaths; Electrocutions – 5.5 million deaths; Oil pits – 750,000 deaths; Land-based wind turbines – 234,000 deaths. Of course, work should be done to reduce the collision of birds with wind turbines, but it does show that the relative impact is orders of magnitude smaller than other human causes, and unless we stop climate change, birds will face far more losses due to heat, fire, flood, and the destruction of food sources than from wind energy.
Second, “Heat pumps don’t work in the cold” is another widespread trope meant to slow adoption of this clean energy solution. Newer models of heat pumps are designed to operate efficiently at very cold temperatures. In fact, in the very recent cold weather in New England in February of 2023, heat pumps performed quite well. Heat pumps are now proving in Maine to be a preferred and cost-saving alternative to oil heat.
Third, the refrain that the recycling of EV batteries, solar panels, and wind turbine blades is going to be a huge problem and we need to do something about it now – it calls into question just how much better these solutions are than fossil fuels. Yes, everything we make and dispose of needs to be reduced, reused and recycled, but it turns out that there is actually a market solution for all of this clean energy technology. There is no question that Lithium-ion batteries, solar panels, and wind turbines often rely on the mining and extraction of rare materials, and we need to minimize those impacts, but compared to the most extractive and polluting industries, such as oil and gas, these are drops in the bucket. But even with that said, the news is very exciting related to how these technologies are so much better for the environment overall.
In the case of EV batteries, it is clear that once these batteries can no longer propel a vehicle for long distances after a typical ten to fifteen years, they still have 70% of their capacity, and they can last for many more years in a reuse scenario where they provide back-up power to the grid. Even then, the good news does not end. EV battery recycling is an economically viable solution because the rare metals in batteries are catalysts and not used up over the years in the battery’s life. This means those same materials can be recovered and recycled to make new batteries all over again. In fact, one of the founders of Tesla has started a large lithium-ion battery recycling company in Nevada that just received $2 billion in federal loans to build this capability at scale. As for the blades from wind turbines, until recently, there was a great deal of concern that broken and discarded turbine blades would be a disposal nightmare, but here again, the market has found a solution. The same is now true for solar panels as well.
Finally, here are a few others on off-shore wind power. The risk to Right Whales from the development of offshore wind-farms in the Atlantic Ocean is a legitimate concern that is being addressed by the Biden Administration, environmental organizations, and industry. But this topic has been exploited by opponents for purposes of disinformation. There are lots of other threads of disinformation on wind power that have been circulating as well.
The point of all of this is that we all must be quicker to ask what the sources of any claims against clean energy technologies are and do what we can to provide fact-checking and debunking. People we know will make decisions on whether to switch to solar, heat pumps, or electric vehicles in the next ten years based on what they heard and understand. Many will be dissuaded by false assertions and will be deprived of saving money and helping slow climate change. We all must help to set the record straight and tout the advantages of electrifying everything.
Stephen Lewis is our Greater Hartford Group Chair and serves on the Legislative and CTFA committees of Sierra Club Connecticut.