Both wind and solar generation require massive amounts of elements like lithium, cobalt, and neodymium that are difficult and environmentally hazardous to mine. Going all-renewable would require a 200% to 2,000% increase in mining for these elements, often in countries with abysmal environmental and labor standards. The tales of rare earth mines leaving behind lakes of toxic sludge in China and children as young as four mining cobalt in the Congo are chilling.
Finally, once the prodigious buildout of turbines, panels, transmission lines, and storage was completed, the United States would come across another insurmountable hurdle: landfill space. Unfortunately, most wind turbines and solar panels are expected to last only 20 to 30 years, and recycling them is still prohibitively expensive. A recent study estimates a whopping 8 million tons of solar panels will be sent to landfills by 2030, ballooning to 80 million tons by 2050. If renewable energy use grows at the projected scale, solar panels alone will represent 10% of global electronic waste — potentially leaching toxic chemicals all the while.
Wind turbines are even harder to decommission. Their massive blades are difficult (to put it lightly) to remove, cut down, and transport and extremely slow to break down. “The wind turbine blade will be there, ultimately, forever,” said one waste management executive.